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Road Test Gear Review: DiGiCo S21

Editor’s Note: This is one of those rare times when we are going to review a new product more than once. Over the past handful of years, we have seen the digital console world totally upended by the introduction of desks with more power than anyone could even imagine just a decade ago being available to bands and venues and smaller sound companies in the $3-4K price range. During that same period, DiGiCo has really cemented a reputation as the most used console on major tours but they have never dipped their toes into the sub-$8K market until now. And for that reason alone, the S-21 has the potential to be game-changing. This first review is in a small venue setting—casino lounge—and next up we’ll be looking at it from a regional sound company’s perspective as the crew at HAS Productions in Las Vegas puts it through its paces. Many thanks to Neil McVey for upending his normal work flow to get this into his room for more than a month.

By Neil McVey

Over the past month or so, I had the privilege of mixing on DiGiCo’s brand new console, the S21.

Quick back story, I’m the full time engineer inside Splash Lounge, located at the Aquarius Casino Resort in Laughlin, Nevada. We run a live band four nights a week, every week for four hours a night. With a schedule like that, I put in more than 100 hours on this board in a very short period of time, and I got to know it pretty well. When you spend more than 16 hours a week on a board, it tends to become an extension of yourself…. at least it does for me.

Let me start by saying this is most certainly not an entry level board, but that’s not a bad thing. The learning curve for me was quite a bit higher than it was when I went from the Avid SC48 to the Yamaha LS9 that I currently use. But let’s face it.. It’s an audio console, they all essentially do the same thing, you just have to figure out the right path to get where you want to go.

First of all, the footprint. It is surprisingly small. Bigger than the X32, smaller than the LS9 (width wise at least). It is sturdy!  It looks more “Pro” than any other sound board at this price point. You could easily put it next to some other more expensive desks of the same size, and this one would stand out above all of them.

It has 24 mic/line inputs with 12 analog outs. It can also be connected using the two DMI card slots to existing DiGiCo racks using MADI or Opticore. There are 10 DMI cards within the range, including Dante, among others.

You can also run at 96K without sacrificing inputs like you have to do with some other consoles at this price point. Speaking of cost… The S21 will set you back about half of what we paid for the LS9 not all that long ago.

Now, with some of the spec stuff out of the way, let’s shift gears to how I used it.

I work a 300 capacity casino night club, so I didn’t use this to its full, FULL potential, but I got more than I could have bargained for.

First and foremost, having never worked a DiGiCo desk before, gain tracking completely blew my mind and was GAME CHANGING for me, and basically should be for anyone who has to mix monitors and FOH on the same board.

I set up the first bank for house, second bank for monitors, and fed the inputs to both banks. Got a decent gain level during sound check, set the gain tracking to “on,” and I was able to adjust the gain to my hearts desire for FOH, which didn’t affect the monitor levels one bit. Something I’ve not been able to do since I used a split snake, and the SC48. Next, the FX..

Seriously some of the best onboard FX I’ve ever encountered. Completely blew away its competition on this level.

The dynamics are out of this world, compression, gates.. Fully customizable, and visually appealing. I’m one of those guys that likes to see the result of moving a fader, or twisting a knob, and the S21 certainly doesn’t lack in that regard.

I loved the option of a high pass filter, as well as a low pass filter for each channel. The parametric EQ screen was aesthetically pleasing as well, and very responsive.

The spill set was a welcome option, as I set up my groups, and FX to pop up at the press of a button, and go away when I needed them to.

The macros were fantastic. Think of it like your iPhone. You know how you can have any four apps lined up on the bottom of the screen no matter what page you’re viewing on the home screen?  Same thing here. You can fully customize it to your liking in the upper left hand screen. It’s where I placed my quick shortcuts to things like “sends on faders” “FX Rack” “Graphic EQ’s” and of course “mute all” for when that one guy decides to take off his shirt, jump on stage and grab a microphone. (Which actually happened…)

Another one of my favorite features was the ability to turn any channel to stereo.  It really saved me more space than I ever imagined. When you have two or three players on stage wanting to send you a stereo input, that can eat up board space really fast. With this option, it’s not an issue at all.

How does it sound, you ask?  It sounds fantastic, a bit on the bright side, but I came in assuming that from the start. I never once got that “digital” feeling when listening to it.

A few things that I thought could be better:

• There is no formal option for a mute group in the current software version. But, two notes there. 1) They are coming in v1.3 which should be out shortly after this review is published and 2) a standard Control Group Mute in the current version could be used as a Mute Group provided you leave the CG fader (which is a VCA) at 0dB.

• No option yet for iPad/tablet usage. The operative word here is “yet.” DiGiCo tells us that they have started working on it and hope to have it available later this year.

• The touch screen can be a tad unresponsive at times and the board seems to lag just slightly when you have lots going on in the mix, i.e. 30 channels running with 8 aux sends going, plus multiple compressors/gates, FX etc.

And, again, this is a “right now” thing. As noted above, software version 1.3 is imminent and the engineers at DiGiCo are focusing heavily on performance improvements for v1.4 which should be out later this year.

Bottom line is that this is still a really new desk and the few things we found to complain about are ALL being worked on already. Can’t fault these guys for being anything less than super responsive to the needs and wants of the user base.

Overall, this really is a fantastic board. And more than served its purpose for my application. It met my expectations, then exceeded them. To get a board with this much power, and options at this price point is absolutely astonishing, and in my opinion blows away the competition. Any club, or lounge with a competent sound engineer would love this board, and all it has to offer.

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Neil McVey

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