When George Michael returned to the stage for 25 Live, the console of choice was the DiGiCo D5 Live. Now, as George travels Europe with Symphonica: The Orchestra Tour! DiGiCo consoles are still an integral part of the audio production, but this time four of the British manufacturer’s flagship SD7 digital mixing consoles have been chosen to handle the demands of this phenomenal production, forming what is currently the biggest SD7 rig on a single optical loop on any touring production.
Symphonica, as Andy ‘Baggy’ Robinson, George’s monitor engineer and head of sound for the tour, explained, is “tunes you know and covers you don’t, all re-arranged.”
The combination of George’s voice, which has a richness and clarity that has only improved over the years, and the orchestral backing provides a new dimension to his performance. “It’s the first time George has toured with an orchestra,” Baggy added. “Everything came together very quickly and it sounds amazing.”
Three of the SD7s sit in monitor world – one operated by Baggy specifically for George, with the remaining two for Simon Hall, who performs monitor duties for the band and orchestra; the final SD7 is for Gary Bradshaw, who takes up the Front of House position.
The tour takes in a variety of venues, from stunning settings such as the State Opera House in Prague, Arena di Verona in Italy, London’s Royal Albert Hall and Royal Opera House, and arenas such as Rotterdam’s Ahoy and Manchester’s MEN.
“In some of the opera house gigs that we’re doing, the orchestra [which would normally be on stage] goes into the pit,” said Baggy. “So we remote the orchestra stage rack and the amps that do their headphone mixes in the pit and extend the Optocore loop, picking up local power and only run fibre to the pit. This means that the orchestra can actually be up to 150m from the stage with a single run of fibre.”
This is a big production in every way, but in audio terms it has pushed even the huge capacity of the SD7 to its limits.
“We can’t quite get all the necessary inputs onto one desk,” Baggy explained. “But the only thing missing for me and Gary are the first violins, second violins, violas and cellos, which we both take as a sub mix from Simon, otherwise every required input is taken separately.”
“I’ve got a lot of mixes going on,” added Simon. “For the majority of the tour, our own symphony orchestra travels with us. This is made up of around 11 musicians from the UK with the rest from the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. However, due to logistics and special guest appearances, we change out orchestras at various points, whilst always keeping the UK 11 for consistency! To account for this, the orchestra receives mixes per section: we give a mix to the lead, plus a mix per section.
“The band and backing vocalists all have their own mixes. As Baggy mentioned, I also do all the sub mixes for the strings to go to him and Gary, plus sub mixes between my two SD7s, because the band sub mixes to the orchestra desk and vice versa. We couldn’t fit everything on one console because when you start adding the outputs, although you have 256 channels that you can use, we’ve got so many mixes that none of the desks can fit it all on in one go. That’s why I have two...”
In fact, Simon handles 60 plus mixes, which include conductors, pick up mixes, the band and sub mixes, plus all the technicians.
“I have 35 on the orchestra desk and 30 or so on the band desk, which is a lot to go wrong,” he said. “I have my two SD7s set up in an L-shape with an additional screen sitting between the two for the orchestra desk so that I can easily pick up if one of the violin mics, or an orchestra mic, starts failing, so that we can instantly stop the bangs that you get from the phantom power.”
At Front of House, meanwhile, Gary professes to have a reasonably straightforward set up in comparison to his colleagues.
“I’ve found the SD7 a real step up from the D5,” he said. “It’s a similar operating system, so I find it very easy to get around, it has a good sound and the information you get on the display is great. I use snapshots for everything. The FX are MIDI controlled so there are faders, mutes, compressors… Two of the channels have got guitars on, which have got main and alt, I use snapshots for them just to make the layout easier. I love it.”
A direct signal from the show is also recorded each night direct from Gary’s SD7, so that elements can be used for George’s new album which is being produced by Phil Ramone, who has also had a big input into the overall sound of the show.
The move from DiGiCo’s DSP technology-based D Range consoles to the SD Range, which utilises Stealth Digital Processing, has resulted in immediately noticeable improvements for the team, particularly in audio quality.
Baggy concluded: “The SD7 has more functionality than previous consoles. It has additions such as dynamic compression and dynamic EQ. The desk surface, although it’s not much bigger than that of the D5, feels bigger and there’s more capacity. We can also share racks more easily: we can have four desks on one Optocore loop and we can all be allocated output cards; we all want the inputs, but the band and orchestra desks need the outputs and that means we can share racks.
“And, as Gary says, it just sounds better…!”