Using a tablet to control a mixing desk isn’t unheard of. Many digital console manufacturers have released iPad apps so engineers can walk around a venue while tuning the system (Yamaha’s StageMix and Allen & Heath’s MixPad immediately spring to mind). Chuck Knowledge, FOH engineer for dance duo Nero has taken this idea one step further: on their recent US and UK tours at the end of 2011, he ran the whole show using nothing but a tablet. No console. At all.
Instead, his pared-down live kit consists of a couple of racks of gear he can easily roll onto the stage - XTA DP548s for mixing, Sennheiser G3 wireless microphones and monitoring, and RME Fireface UFX interfaces – all controlled via tablets over Ethernet.
The unusual setup is certainly a lot more portable and a lot less expensive than using a console, and according to Chuck his system has worked “flawlessly” so far. The question remains: how does it sound?
“I have been using XTA my entire career and in my opinion they are the best signal processors. People talk about whether this mixing desk has got a sound or whether that mixing desk has got a sound, but the bottom line is that at 90% of the gigs you ever go to, the last thing that the mix is running through is an XTA, so no one can ever complain about the sound of an XTA.”
“In a digital console, I think that signal summing is one of the biggest factors in their characteristic sound, just as much as the EQ and dynamics or clocking. I’ve been using RME soundcards alongside every digital console out there, and I reckon that their digital summing sounds better.”
The ultra-portable setup has developed over time, beginning when Chuck was on tour with Dizzee Rascal. During the performance – which was being recorded – a fan threw a pint into the mixing desk, causing it to crash. Chuck’s solution was to plug the soundcard straight into the PA and continue mixing on the front panel controls of the XTAs. Chuck then realised that the XTA’s flexible I/O could be used to his advantage:
“The DP548 is a four-channel unit, but they are four in, eight out. It’s supposed to be a system processor, but the way I look at it is: I can insert each of these over four channels, but it’s not just that it’s four in, and then four out for FOH; we can have another four out for monitors, which are processed differently. So we have actually got a monitor and FOH set up and the best summing that I’ve ever heard, the best EQ and dynamics, with dynamic EQ, and all in a package that comes up to my waist, which means I can move it around by myself.”
With his setup still in its conceptual stage, the next phase was to figure out how the system could be controlled without a desk.
The solution combined XTA's iCore software and RME's TotalMix FX software, and takes advantage of the Ethernet jack on the Sennheiser G3’s to use the bundled Wireless Systems Manager software for remote control and RF spectrum scanning capabilities.
Apple's MainStage software enabled Chuck to provide Nero live with the same effect processing used on the album. Audinate’s Dante protocol took care of transporting the audio over the network, and MC2 breakout boxes provided analog outputs. In theory it would work, but finding a brave soul to take the unconventional setup on tour was another story.
Chuck found the support he needed from Dave Shepherd at South Coast supplier BCS Audio. “I talk to him a lot about the future of audio and he believes in this enough to help me put it together. We’ve taken it out on the road with Nero around the UK US, New Zealand and Australia and it has been flawless,” says Chuck. “Our production manager Andy Bain was concerned that we wouldn’t always be able to get the network infrastructure we need, but I got a bunch of Cisco fibre modules and we’ve run it over Cat lines, Optocore and even used the multi from a Vi6.”
Nero are no strangers to technology either, having recorded and mastered their debut album Welcome Reality themselves. The album debuted at number 1 on the UK album chart when it was released in August 2011. The pressure was on Chuck to make sure his experimental setup worked: “They know exactly what they are doing, which means I have to be extra careful because they’ll come over and ask me ‘Hmm, what are you doing?’. If they see a high-frequency dynamic EQ bouncing on screen, they wonder where that's happening to their audio, so I have to explain how the XTAs are controlling the top end on the truss mics for the ambience in their IEMs, or whatever.” Ready to test the new system, Chuck bought all the gear required just a few days before the Nero tour began. Half of his four-day production rehearsal was spent just unwrapping everything, racking it up, and plugging it in. A conventional desk was spec’d for backup just in case. Everything was ready to go for Nero’s first live gig at The Warehouse Project in Manchester:
“I was confident that the show would go well, because even though it’s basically a rave in an underground parking lot, (Manchester supplier) Audile take care of it. It’s a really good use of Funktion One. The legendary Stev was there, and he’s my number 1 tech for anything, so I only had to worry about my bit working. I actually set it up via an Airport Express that day to see if I could run it wirelessly; I was pretty pleased later on when I did! We weren’t on until three in the morning, so I thought: ‘Right I’m going to get some sleep,’ and went to the bus to my bunk.” Two hours before Nero’s performance, disaster struck.
“Jarvey Moss our tour manager came and woke me up and said, ‘Chuck, you’ve got to come inside right now. People have been throwing drinks at the stage and there has been some kind of technical problem.’” The monitor desk had been crippled by a pint thrown by an exuberant fan. Chuck’s backup system was no longer available.
“I had always planned to be able to handle this, but I didn’t want to test it the first night ever, when I didn’t even know about it at sound check. Credit has to go to our monitor engineer, Anna Dahlin, who had seen the system for the first time just a few days before and had no choice but to use it, so we went in with fingers crossed and came out with flying colours! Afterwards, we were all patting ourselves on the back, but it took a while for our heart rates to go down because we were like ‘Shit, we’re really doing it!’”
Later in the tour, there was a mix-up with the advance at Newcastle Academy. Chuck had neither a FOH or monitor desk.
“It caused an issue because I’d only designed this system for Nero, and how the hell were we going to handle the support acts? So I got on the phone to Rich Fleming (application and support manager at XTA). We talked it through and wired it up and we mixed the support acts on it as well. That was when everyone thought ‘we don’t have a FOH footprint, which means we can sell more tickets!’ So that’s the story so far. I’m really, really happy with everything.” Chuck hasn’t looked back since his trial-by-fire with Nero and is still developing his system to include lighting and video. He firmly believes his approach is the way forward:
“It was a headache putting it all together for the first time, but it’s going to get easier. It’s all about standards: OSC, AVB, OSA, ACN. There shouldn’t be anything stopping me from taking a DiGiCo stagebox, a Meyer Sound D-Mitri, and a couple of Smart AV Tango’s, plugging them into a Cisco switch and doing a show. I joke with people because, well, everybody knows I am a joker, but I am deadly serious about this stuff. I want to build the future. The components are all here now, we just need to put them together and make it work.”