This is a giant collection of all of my best tips, secret hacks, and step-by-step tutorials for the Digico SD5, which I used on tour as the head of sound for the Ringling Brothers’ Out of This World circus tour in 2016. I call it the Ultimate Guide to Creative Mixing because the Digico manual explains the functionality of every knob and dial of the SD5, but it won’t tell you how to use them to build an amazing show.
To read more about my experience on tour, listen to the Circus Touring with 21 Channels of Sim 3 Audio Analyzer episode of the Sound Design Live podcast.
Useful features of the Digico SD5 faders
Slip protection and the 0dB detent are my two favorite features of the Digico SD5’s faders. If I accidentally bump the faders with my arm, they don’t move. That is because of the special fader caps that disengage the fader motor until they are touched. Out Of This World required me to keep my head up more than any other show I’ve worked on, so the slip protection helped me avoid many an error.
How does it work?
On one side of the line there is a very low voltage signal in the finger slot on the fader. When your finger is inserted into the slot, the low voltage signal flows through your finger from one side to the other and makes a circuit that allows the fader to go into a movement parameter. All faders on all consoles that have a moving fader snapshot capability are designed like this. If you touch the tip of your nose to the fader cap or even your ?????, the fader will move. Haha. -Chris B.
The unity (0 dB) detent is a feature that you can enable by fader type under the options menu. It allows me to keep my head up for more of the show because of the haptic feedback I get from the fader. I came to rely on this during the big cats section to keep my eyes glued on the lion tamer, watching for his signals. I also used it on the big musical numbers to stay laser-focused on the Ringmaster rather than burying my head in the desk.
What do you put on the center screen?
There are a lot of windows that we would like to have open on the Digico SD5, but there is only so much screen real estate. In my case, I mixed most of the show with the DCAs, but besides volume and mute I didn’t need to make changes to their parameters. Instead, I used the center screen for my snapshot list, a solo buss meter, and occasionally the chat window. If I ever needed to take a look at my DCA meters, it was a Master Screen button push away.
You’ll also notice in the photo below that some of the channels are blank. The Digico SD5 is super flexible and one of my favorite things to do was to remove any unused channels. This did two things for me:
- It made it easier to see what bank I was in.
- When I needed to find something quickly, I didn’t waste any time scanning unused channels.
How do you organize the banks?
I already mentioned that I mixed most of the show with the DCAs in the center section. The left side of the board carried 48 channels of band inputs grouped by section (drums, bass/guitar, keyboards, horns). The right side of the SD5 was used for 24 channels of Ableton playback and wireless vocal microphones.
One great idea that I got from the Digico rep who came to train us, Taidus Vallandi, was to put the money channel in more than one place. It’s hard to see in the photo above, but I had the Ringmaster channel available in the center section as well as on the right side with the other wireless mics. That way, if I ever switched to a different bank on the right side, but needed to respond quickly with the Ringmaster channel, it would always be available.
You can see in the photo below that the monitor engineer also used his center screen for the snapshot list, but he added several other PFL channel meters to keep track of critical inputs.
Who should have control of the preamps?
During our training, Taidus recommended that the monitor engineer have exclusive control of the preamps since he was closest to the SD Rack backstage, but the monitor engineer gave various reasons why that hadn’t worked out on past tours. We settled on giving exclusive control to the FOH board, which was fine until the day that the FOH console session didn’t load correctly and made the SD Rack go haywire. It took us half an hour to figure out the problem, but the solution was simple: reload the session.
No matter who had control of the preamps, both consoles had gain tracking engaged. Gain tracking is a great feature on every input channel of the Digico SD5 that allows you to maintain channel settings despite preamp changes. So if the headset microphone is in a slightly different position today, I can turn up the preamp 2 dB and then gain tracking will attenuate the trim by 2 dB. And if I need to make a change at FOH to any of the preamps, the monitor engineer will be protected from a nasty surprise. Brilliant!
Use a Ducker to Get Your Kick and Vocal in the Pocket
Have you ever had to mix some really dense backing tracks that made it impossible to find a place for the vocal?
When I was working on building the mix for Out Of This World I ran into exactly this problem. Not only did I have a very mid-range dense arrangement, but there was an equally dense sweetener track mixed in at the same volume. That’s right, we took backing tracks of an already dense arrangement and layered them side by side.
My first strategy was to turn down the sweetener track until it was more manageable, but the musical director asked me to turn it up. With all of this going on, I was struggling to find a place for the main vocal. It was fighting to be heard.
The solution: a ducker.
This is the first time I relied so heavily on a ducker to make the mix work, but it was pretty simple to set up. All I had to do was insert the ducker on the channels that were giving me the most trouble and set their sidechains to the main vocal. I set the reduction to as much as 5 dB, which would have been too much with that channel soloed, but you could hardly tell in the context of the entire mix and it was just the amount of help I needed to make the whole thing work.
I used the same trick on the bass and with some of the low-end heavy synth patches to help with the kick as well. The procedure was the same: insert the ducker on the bass and synth channels and set their sidechains to the kick. The effect was obvious when soloed, but fast enough to work in the context of the entire mix. This wasn’t the end of the story with the kick, though, as you’ll see in the next section.
Stop Turning Up The Kick. Do This Instead.
I kept getting asked to turn the kick up, but it was never loud enough.
Eventually, it sounded like a kick drum solo with the rest of the band as backup.
I was struggling with how to make the mix work when I discovered the Audio Enhancer effect on the Digico SD5. Through experimentation, I found that if I inserted the Audio Enhancer on the SM52 Beta channel with a setting of 2.3kHz on the crossover and 1.45 on the drive level, I could mix the kick much lower. The kick could still be heard well, but with improved headroom in the mix.
After I published this video, Luca V. emailed me this:
I usually create a whole group for the entire drum kit and use the Enhancer as an insert. I find it very helpful if I need some extra punch, especially with small subs, and I quite like the effect of drive-boost in the High section to add some air. It gives me control over kick, snare and cymbals with the three sections and, at the same time, helps the whole kit to cut through in a fast and easy way. –Luca V.
And on Facebook, Steve Knots commented:
I’ve seen dudes put up +15 db at 2.5 kHz on a kick drum. I am way into high-passing my live sound kicks even up to 100 Hz sometimes. That sub thing is not yummy on certain PA systems that will remain nameless and sit in the corner until they learn how to behave. –Steve Knots
How to Update Snapshots on the SD5 in the Middle of a Show
One of the most important things you need to know how to do on the SD5 related to snapshots is how to update a snapshot in the middle of the show. There are many times, especially while building and refining a new show, when you’ll need to make a small edit. You need to continue mixing the show, though, so you don’t have time to create a new snapshot and type in a name for it or scroll back up to the correct snapshot and take care that you are updating the right elements.
The SD5 makes this easy, but it’s also dangerous! Here’s my process:
- Fire snapshot
- Press auto update.
- Rest your finger next to the button. This is critical!
- Change the necessary elements of the snapshot.
- Press auto update.
The key here is not to move your finger away until you have disengaged auto-update. Why? Because every change you make while it is engaged will get written into the snapshot. So if you forget, which I did only once, and keep firing snapshots and mixing the show, you will record all of those changes.
After I posted this video I got a great tip from Matt R. on FB:
As an alternative to Auto Update, you can just fire the snapshot, mix until you are happy, then press Update Selected – or have them all grouped and click Update Group. This is what I do and you have none of the dangers of Auto Update. I have Auto Update disabled, in fact. –Matt R.
How To Update One Parameter In Every Snapshot
What if I need to go back and change one thing in every snapshot?
This happened to me more than once: You change a microphone position or in another way affect the gain staging and all of a sudden 127 snapshots are wrong. Normally, you would have to go through and adjust these one-by-one or find a workaround, but the Update Group feature solves this pretty easily.
Here’s the process:
- Add all affected snapshots to a group. There cannot be a break in between them on the list. If there is, you’ll have to update the first part of the list, then the next part.
- Enable Relative Groups.
- Recall any snapshot from the group, which includes the element you want to change.
- Make the change.
- Click Update Group. It will take a second if you have a lot of snapshots.
- Remove all snapshots from the group.
The most time-consuming process here is adding the snapshots to the group. You might think, “Why don’t I just leave all of my snapshots in a group so that I can update them at any time?” Well, you could do that, but then you put yourself in a dangerous position if you accidentally hit the Update Group button. The undo button will not work in that scenario!
How to use Recall Time to mix your show for you.
In Out Of This World, the first three acts were executed with the same timing every night. It was stereo playback coming in on one channel with some fader movements that needed to happen at specific times, so I automated them using Recall Time. As long as I fired the first snapshot at the right time, the mix would be in sync with the show. And if for some reason that didn’t work out, I would simply skip the timed snapshots and mix it manually.
The main benefit here was that I could convert the energy from my pre-show jitters into useful work, like double checking plugin settings and refreshing my memory of upcoming cues and changes. Another less import benefit was that I could fire the snapshot to take us into intermission and immediately run to the bathroom since I had the next set to fire by Recall Time. This is important when you need to beat an arena full of 20,000 people who are also rushing to the bathroom.
Use Macros on the SD5 for Creative Problem Solving
In this video, I describe how I used macros to create efficient shortcuts in my mix on the Digico SD5. In it, I show you how I created macros to:
- Save the session.
- Control Qlab.
- Dim the lights and screen brightness.
- Open the chat window.
- Easily satisfy producer notes.
- Create an explosion of reverb.
- Mute hidden channels.
When I first heard about macros I ignored them because they seemed unnecessary. Why would I create a macro to save my session when I can just as easily click File > Save Session?
- The 500 times that you save 2 seconds by using a macro to save your session will reduce your stress level.
- There are other more important problems that macros can solve.
Problem #1: How do I control Qlab from the SD5?
Unless your Qlab keyboard is right next to you, which mine wasn’t, it’s a pain in the ass to move over to it every time you need to trigger a cue. And what if you make a mistake and you need to hit the panic button? You had better make sure it’s close by.
The SD5 has a midi out on the back and you can easily setup a macro to send the correct control message to Qlab.
There were several times in the show when I needed mute all vocal FX when the Ringmaster would switch from singing to talking in the middle of a song. The channels I needed were not on a visible layer and I didn’t want to create an extra snapshot, so I created a macro to mute and unmute those channels.
There are probably several other ways to solve this problem, but I found the macro to be an easy global fix.
Problem #3: How do I create an explosion of reverb?
Well, this isn’t a problem, per say, as much as an opportunity. The show included two long transitions between songs that I needed to punch up while people were clapping. I tried doing it manually a couple of times, but I was never fast enough to boost the lead vocal, backing tracks, reverb level, reverb time, reverb density, and then return them all to their previous settings in the space of 5 seconds. And again, I didn’t want to create an extra snapshot for this. I just wanted it to be a fun effect I could blast on at any time.
The way I built it was to create a new macro, hit record, make all of the operations one-by-one manually, then save. Try it!
Pro tip: Use a comma in the macro name to insert a line break. Yay!
Problem #4: How do I double-check that no one has changed anything?
When you work backstage in props, there is a very important part of the day called Presets. This is when you verify that everything is in the right place so that it will be ready when you need it during a split-second quick change. We do the same thing in audio, but when it comes to a digital mixing console like the Digico SD5, there are potentially thousands of details to check. We don’t have time to go through all of them manually.
When the A2 and I would hand off the console to each other, we would occasionally overlook details. I once started the show struggling to figure out why everything was so quiet and eventually discovered that an important insert had been disabled. To make sure that this never happened again, I started making a list of my presets on the first page of my score. As the list grew, so did the time it took me to verify everything.
Enter, the Reset macro.
This little guy saved me a lot of stress by automating the entire preset process. Every time I found a detail that I needed to preset at the top of the show, I just added it to the macro. This included:
- Enabling inserts.
- Resetting master buss levels.
- Mutting preshow microphones.
- Enabling unity fader detent.
- Opening the Waves Plugin screen to verify inserts.
Problem #5: How do I satisfy the producer?
In a production meeting, I once got the note that a certain song “had the wrong mix.” I made a special button to fix that. 😉
Use Waves Vocal Rider Plugin to Tame an Overly Dynamic Vocal
The biggest struggle in building the mix for Out of This World on the Digico SD5 was in figuring out how to get the Ringmaster’s vocal to cut through an already busy mix. The arrangement often included several instruments competing for the mid-range where I needed the vocal to sit: electric guitar, horns, drums, and any number of synth patches.
I initially thought the problem was that the microphone was moving around on the actor’s face, but the wireless tech assured me that it was stable and even started taping it to the actor’s face. I then experimented with some different EQ and FX settings on the Digico SD5 before I landed on the Waves Vocal Rider plugin.
I had to jump through a few hoops to get it set up properly, but it was worth it. Why? Because it follows the music to adapt its volume changes. I used a buss of the entire band as the side chain. That way if the music was quiet, it would scale back its effect—no need for heroics. Likewise, if the music was loud it would scale up. It was a big help with the challenging task of trying to combine a very dynamic lead vocal with a busy arrangement.
After posting this video Aleš suggested:
Try out the over and under threshold settings on the dynamic EQ on Digico. I think what you are trying to achieve is a job for the ‘over’ setting on the dynamic EQ band of the band bus. Also, try the MV2 plugin from Waves, that one has a low and high transient compression, which works great for compressing stuff while preserving a perception of dynamics.
Then Todd M. commented:
You know the trick you tried to pull all the instruments down—I’ve had success using Waves F6. Set a band to reduce, set the threshold really low (so any vocal in the external side chain triggers it), and set the gain reduction fairly low (like just a couple dB). This will pull down the music irrespective of how loud the vocal is. In a live setting that could be tricky if there’s a lot of bleed into the vocal signal, but I suggest giving it a try.
Thanks for the ideas, guys!
Emergency Digico SD5 Optocore Procedures
These emergency Optocore procedures could save your ass.
How did I learn all of this?
Right before the very first rehearsal, all of my outputs from the Digico SD5 stopped working, and I had 100 people waiting on me while I tried to fix it. I made it through that and several other minor emergencies, and now I know the entire Digico tech support department by name. Here are the fixes they taught me.
To be clear, the SD5 is an amazing console and the company provides excellent support. Most of these fixes can be done in a matter of seconds and I’m really happy about that.
If you lose output at FOH and are unable to regain control of the outputs:
- At FOH: Setup -> Audio IO -> Setup Optocore -> Optocore Details -> Clear all outputs
- At Mon: Setup -> Audio IO -> Setup Optocore -> Optocore Details -> Broadcast only my ID
- At FOH:
- Reassign outputs in Audio IO (in my case Nanorack ports).
- Reassign Group outputs like Master and monitros.
If you are getting Optocore errors due to Snd/Rcv Console issues:
- Check all output cards to confirm you have correct ✔ or X.
- Setup Optocore -> Optocore Details -> Broadcast all output IDs
Other Emergency Procedures
If your startup session gets corrupted:
- Quit to Windows.
- Right click on startup menu -> Explore
- D:\SD5 and delete startup.ses and startup.mrdb
- Relaunch SD5
(This procedure is also beneficial to run monthly.)
If you get an error about the sd5.exe file being corrupted:
- Try to load the SD5.exe in the d:\SD5\backup folder.
- If that works, move the backup SD5 folder to where the old one was and move the old one to backup.
If you loaded your session, but none of the Waves plugins loaded:
- Open Waves
- Click Session -> Import session
- Import the last known good *.mrdb file.
- Your plugins should load. Sometimes you’ll need to go through a few files until you find one that works.
If Waves will not load and you cannot save or load a session:
- Load Waves session manually.
- If you cannot open waves:
- Quit to Windows.
- Right click on startup menu -> Explore.
- D:\SD5 and delete startup.mrdb and Preferences folder.
- Relaunch SD5.
Important SD5 Notes
Here is a selection of some of the most important notes I have collected. Some you can find in the manual, but some I had to figure out on my own.
- Power up (or restart if already running).
- Load last known good session.
- Save session to internal and external drives.
- Shutdown from File menu.
- Power down both power supplies.
- Even-numbered Optocore IDs are for mirrored desks only.
- Use system diagnostics on the SD5 to see errors.
- Only one console can be in charge of an output module.
- If you hear ticks and pops, you may have a sync issue.
- On the D-Rack and Nano-rack display, the tiny triangle under the “o” means that it is receiving timecode.
- When one SD5 is loading a new session, the other will show a momentary Optocore error.
- Option-all breaks a gang.
- Option-all to turn everything up on a page. Hit channel LCD to exclude some.
- Digico button affects rotary resolution.
- If you keep all of your snapshots in a group, it can make updating all of them at once pretty easy:
- Make sure Relative Groups is enabled.
- Fire a snapshot that loads the setting that you want to change.
- Change that setting.
- Press Update Group.
- At this point, you may want to take all snapshots out of the group, because if you accidentally press Update Group in the future…you’re hosed.
- Input channel safe does not protect the input gain because that is a function of the rack.
- The Waves server wants to be networked to both the Waves port on the back of the SD5 and the network port. The Waves port is for audio processing. The network port handles the GUI. Careful with these CAT5 cables. They have a short life.
- If the Waves server is not appearing in the Waves inventory table: hard reset on the back of the unit.
- To recall safe a Waves rack: Right-click on the left of the rack and choose recall safe.
- To switch between Setup and Show modes, go to the Master view->System tab->Security and switch between Setup and Live.
Connect a computer
- Connect both devices to router.
- Wireless adapter settings: Make sure Wifi is first in the list. Also it seems to like it better when you set the IP manually. So try that if it doesn’t work.
- Under Network – select your computer.
- Send session.
- Mirror from console.
- Don’t send channels to an aux and also a group because they will be out of time.
- If your sessions are not saving with the correct time, you may have a mismatch between Windows and the SD5 software. To correct this: reset the time zone and time in Windows to GMT, then set the time in the SD5 software to your local time.
Suggestions or Corrections?
Do you have anything you’d like me to add? Did you see anything errors? Please contact me.