Opinion: FOH engineer John Delf on digital summing

Veteran Front Of House professional John Delf delves into the world of digital summing to share his opinion about his favourite digital desks to work on in a live environment.
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John Delf is the owner of Edge Recording Studios in Cheshire, UK and also a live FOH engineer who has mixed for many acts including James Arthur, Lily Allen, The Script, Plan B and 5 Seconds of Summer.

John Delf is the owner of Edge Recording Studios in Cheshire, UK and also a live FOH engineer who has mixed for many acts including James Arthur, Lily Allen, The Script, Plan B and 5 Seconds of Summer.

I recently mixed sound for X Factor Winner James Arthur at three separate European festivals. Due to logistics and local availability, I had to use three very different desks. As social media rules everything these days I mentioned that fact in a post on Facebook and an engineer I highly respect asked me: “Which desk is the best for digital summing in your opinion?” 

I thought, that’s a really good question as all these new desks do a pre y damn good job and all have incredible features, but not everybody gets the opportunity to try them all in anger, in a small space of time so that an opportunity for an A/B comparison can arise. If you are touring a desk for any length of time you get to know that one inside out, but sticking to one desk you may miss out on new developments by other manufacturers. 

There are plenty of engineers who always demand their favourite desk, and for good reason, but what happens when you turn up to a festival and can’t use your console of choice? 

Being able to set up your file quickly on a new desk is a very important issue for the engineer but there are a few desks out there where this isn’t such an easy task, as their walk-up ability can be quite problematic. Comparisons of their ease of use and layout is another article that could stretch many pages so getting back to the question about summing. Essentially they all sound very different from one another in a similar way that a Fender guitar sounds different from a Gibson or a Rickenbacker. But which is best can be down to the taste of the operator. In the space of three days I had to use a DiGiCo SD12, a Soundcraft Vi6 and an Avid S6L.

Digico SD12 

I really like this desk, it sounds very clean, you have to work at it to warm it up a bit but is very easy to get around and the mix can sound very pro and poppy though a little bit two dimensional at times. The internal Multi Comp is a game changer and is the final piece in the mix jigsaw to make the vocals sit right. They’ve got the layout right too. I don’t have as much fun on some of the others in the SD range due to the single screen. It’s great if you like a clean pop sound. 

Soundcraft Vi6 

After coming back to the Soundcraft after a year using DiGiCo and analogue setups, I’m happy to be hearing this great desk again. It is the most punchy sounding desk. It rocks. I think it’s still the nearest to an analogue sound that you can get from a digital board, but if you push it a bit too hard it can get a bit crunchy. The mix always rocks out of this one and is great if you are a er a powerful punchy sound. 

Avid S6L 

It seems to be the most musical with really nice presence on the vocals in a full mix and and warm low end (but that could have been the lovely PA subs). This is the second time I have used this desk and it was just as good the first time. The stereo mix is very coherent and the audio depth is very good too. It seems to sit in between the previous two in that it can be punchy yet also very clean. 

And the rest? 

Outside of this weekend my thoughts on the other manufacturers: I think the Midas sounds nice and warm but the comps are too harsh and it is slow to get around. They miss a touch screen and need a so ware layout redesign to keep up. Pro X, 6 and 9 are all good, but the Pro2 and 1 are very hard to get around fast. Sound wise they are great though. I haven’t had much experience with the Allen & Heath D-Live but what I have had is good. There are people I highly respect that say the D-Live is by far the best sounding desk of them all. Hopefully I will get a chance to tour one at some point. The SSL Live is a very good sounding board and sums brilliantly and definitely has that “studio quality” sound with a high-end sparkle. When they rest came out the so ware layout was very confusing and not clear but they have really worked on it and now its so much be er to get around. 

It sounds great and I’m seeing more and more of them at festivals, which is a good thing. To summarise (excuse the pun), there are a lot of good desks out there and if you can’t make a good mix on one of these desks then you can’t mix. The choice I make all comes down to the desk you can get around the fastest, feel most comfortable with using and a preference for its overall sound. In fact the choice can come down to which desk makes this band sound best, in the same way you’d choose a type of a guitar for a certain sound. The latest range all do a great job at summing but the next thing to consider is the on-board compressors, but with my 800 words exceeded I’ll leave that one for another day.

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