DiGiCo SD11 Hands On Review

We first saw it at NAB last spring, and ever since then I’ve been anxious to get my hands on one, but not for the reason that you might think. I really wondered if 12 faders would be enough to do show. You probably know I’m a huge fan of DiGiCo consoles, and I love how easily customizable they are. But mixing a full band on just 12 faders? I was skeptical. 

The scenario was this: Our worship leader, Mark Cullen, was releasing a new EP and was having a release party. It would be held in our community room (the one we recently intalled the EV LiveX speakers and Symetrix Jupiter processor), and feature some top-notch musicians. I didn’t want to mix it on the room’s Yamaha MG32, so I asked DiGiCo for an SD11 to evaluate. 

The band consisted of Mark on electric guitar and vocals, a second electric/acoustic, keys, bass, drums and 3 backing vocals. Since I’ve mixed all the musicians in our main room before, I was easily able to export my chanel presets from the SD8 and import them into the SD11 as starting points. That saved me some time in sound check.

To jump to the end, the concert sounded great! I had a ton of positive feedback from people in the audience as well as the band on how clean and good it sounded. My initial impressions were confirmed; the SD11 has the same great sound as the SD8. You simply have fewer faders, dedicated controls and channels available. So how did it work during the show? In a word, great.

It took me a little bit of time to figure out how to maximize the 12 faders, and I’ll do a full post on that process later this week. For this post, I want to look more closely at the SD11 itself, what it can and can’t do and how it functions. 

The SD11 is a 32 channel console, but 8 as of Nov. 11, all of those channels can be stereo, so it’s possible to get 40 64 physical inputs into the mix. You also have 12 of what DiGiCo calls Flexi-busses. Similar to the bus structure in the SD8, you can configure the busses as mono or stereo auxes or groups. So you could have 12 stereo auxes and no groups, or 6 stereo auxes, 3 mono auxes, 2 mono groups and 1 stereo group. The SD11 doesn’t care what the configuration is, as long as the total number of auxes and groups doesn’t exceed 12. I’ve gotten so spoiled with this flexibility I can’t imagine being stuck with fixed architecture. UPDATE: As part of the Nov. 11 firmware update, they have added additional Dynamic EQs, Multiband comps and the Tube Emulation from the SD7. END UPDATE

You also get an additional stereo or LCR bus for the master, and an 8x8 matrix. Matrix inputs can be just about anything; inputs, auxes or groups, making them very flexible for broadcast feeds or mix-minus sends. Also included are 12 insertable graphics and 4 FX chains using the good-sounding DiGiCo standard effects. 

The power supply is easily field swappable.

Physical connections include 16 mic pre’s on the surface, 8 line outs, two mono AES ins and outs, a MADI I/O, Word Clock I/O, a Cat5 connection for a D-Rack, plus connections for keyboard, mouse, monitor, network and USB. 

For my set up, I used a 32x8 D-Rack, which connects via Cat5. I dropped the D-Rack on the stage and had plenty of inputs for this set up. I also used the MADI output to feed our S-MADI Bridge which drove our M-48s for the musicians (the BGVs were on wedges). 

On the surface, you are presented with the aforementioned 12 faders, 12 encoders, and the 15” touchscreen, making up your channel strips. Unlike the SD8 where the encoders are freely assignable to dedicated functions, the encoders on the SD11 are multi-mode. The modes are selected by a series of red buttons to the left of the screen. Options are Gain, HPF, LPF, Comp, Gate, Aux and Pan. If there are multiple controls in a section (eg. Gain consists of Gain and Trim, or multiple auxes), using a set of up/down buttons will move you through the various virtual pots. It sounds harder than it is; in practice, it was very quick to navigate, and I quickly adapted to it. 

As on the rest of the SD series, there is a complete set of EQ controls, which applies to the currently selected channel. To tweak all the settings of a comp or gate, simply touch the comp of the channel you want to adjust, and it expands and maps the controls to the rotary encoders at the bottom of the screen (just like the SD8 or 10). 

Also following SD convention, there are 8 pages of faders available on two layers of four banks. Any fader can be anything on any bank; there are no restrictions. It’s easy to mix inputs, auxes, groups and matrixes as needed. I found this very helpful for working around stereo channel limitations (I’ll detail this more in the next post). 

At the top of the screen are dedicated controls for headphone level (and mute), talkback, Solo 1 and Solo 2 (yup, even at this size, they included two solo busses), and 8 assignable functions keys. I used these for firing off various macros that made my life easier. 

The SD11 also has the same snapshot system that the rest of the SD line has, which is to say it’s the best snapshot functionality out there. In addition to the incredible ease of use, it’s also insanely powerful, enabling you to automate just about every parameter on the console if you want (all at the same or different crossfade times, if you want). 

To save console space, the master fader is a rotary encoder at the bottom of the EQ controls. At first I found this odd, but during the show, it was never a problem. I realized I pretty much always leave my master at unity anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal. 

With an external monitor, you can select up to 12 channels for full metering.

Given the size of the SD11 (it fits in a 19” rack), it’s one heck of a console. It sounds fantastic, is super-fast to work on, and has plenty of capability to mix 5-6 piece bands. I was kind of wishing for one or two more effects, but I made it work. Unlike the SD8, you don’t get a full-length input meters on each fader, instead each fader sports a 7-segment LEDs. However, hook an external monitor up (as I did) and use the new large meter function and you choose up to 12 channels get nice, full motion meters. 

My only real complaint about the desk is the headphone amp. Just like the one in my SD8, it’s rather noisy. When the band is going, it’s not noticeable, but when they stop, there’s a good deal of hiss. I don't recall the list price off-hand (and DiGiCo hasn't yet responded to my inquiry) but I seem to recall you can get into an SD11 and a D-Rack for under $20K. The SD11 surface lists for $15,750 and you can get it with a D-Rack for $19,950 (these are list, your pricing should be better). An M7-CL 48 offers a few more channels and features for a similar price, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good, and the scenes suck. A Roland M-480 offers a few more channels, a digital snake, and a great price point, but again, the sound isn’t quite the same, and it’s not as portable. 

Whether the SD11 is the right console will depend on the application. If you are using an SD8, 10 or 7 in a big room and you need a small console for a student or ancillary room (and you value training people on one system), the SD11 is a great choice. It would be dead-simple to train someone on an SD11, then move them to any other SD console. Then again, I’m not sure I could justify the cost of the SD11 in my student room, as much as I personally like it. But I wouldn’t hesitate to mix another show on it, that much I can tell you for sure.