Interview with Fernando Díaz – Behind the console of Alejandro Sanz

After some years of interviewing musicians, sound engineers and lighting designers (amongst others), I have learned to pick up on particular details during communications with these professionals. From my first contact with Fernando, I felt that I was dealing with a true professional. Then, through the ongoing contact we had, this first impression was confirmed.

In this interview we speak about just a small sample of the experiences that Fernando has gathered since he began working with sound. He tells us how his work has changed before line array systems came to be, and how he works now, without hiding details. Amongst other things, he comments on his routine to prepare the mix of a show and provides details of the gear installed in the mega-concert “+ es +” by Alejandro Sanz.

I have no doubt that you will enjoy, in the same way that I did when reading them, each one of Fernando Díaz’s answers.

Imagen cedida por Fernando Díaz

 LightSoundJournal: You have worked with sound for many years and have gone through many different stages. Based on your experiences, what can you tell us about the SPL levels used in shows throughout your history as a sound engineer?

Fernando Díaz: I love this question, because I have been explaining this topic in my masterclasses all over the world. What I understand as the reason is:
In the 80s (when I started tours professionally), the audio systems were quite rudimentary, with many problems of alignment, phase, coverage, throw, etc. Even so, I remember perfectly that we had to work in the same stadiums as we do now. If we compare, we are maybe talking about a difference of 10: 1, that is, the sound reinforcement equipment we use now is probably 10 times less powerful (in Watts) with the same level of efficiency as back then. But yes, we covered sound for the same number of people back then as we do now.

The years passed, with the public in general now living in a world with a huge noise pollution issue. This is why in many countries there are already limitation laws measured in dBA that in many cases are excessive, with a lack of knowledge on the matter.

For a concert 30 years ago, 95-98 dB was enough, and even considered powerful. Nowadays they are demanding averages of between 105-110 dB, even more in some cases! At these levels, we are already close to hearing damage.

I have to admit that in recent years I try to work with more moderation: between 98-103 dB on average, with an Leq between 1 and 5 minutes. If the mix is adequate I can assure you that the sound will be more than effective in any circumstance at this level. Earlier, volume limits were abused, as if it were a competition “to see who sounds louder”. I can’t count the number of engineers that today suffer from common problems such as tinnitus or partial hearing loss in one or both ears.

 

LightSoundJournal: Following that line, what is the best contribution that Line array systems have brought compared to the systems that were used before? How do you think sound reinforcement could be improved?

Fernando Díaz: The change from traditional systems to the current line array systems has been definitive. Today, having equipment that guarantees a controlled coverage in both vertical and horizontal planes, as well as the distribution and separation by zones of sound pressure levels, allows us to have a much more accurate prediction for the design in advance, not to mention the quality of the components that are used today for the construction of the boxes; the performance of the loudspeakers; technology in the amplifiers etc. In short, there are many parameters that simply did not exist years ago; everything was more “analogue”, which required more intuition from the engineers.

When talking about this development, I must mention one of my last and most gratifying surprises when experimenting for the first time in Spain and probably around the world with a new technology in acoustic boxes manufactured by the German company FOHHN: https: //www.fohhn.com/

For the first time, we are seeing very light and compact cabinets used in line arrays. The most surprising feature here is that all the coverage and control of audio beams is done by software, avoiding the typical “banana” formations that must be mechanically designed and then hung for each show to ensure the correct dispersion. With the software control, we can simply concern ourselves with rigging to a single point and then working on a computer in a graphical and very simple way. I must admit that the equipment provided to us by distributors in Spain, Neotecnica and FOHHN itself from Germany, performed in the Jazz Festivals of Vitoria and San Sebastian very impressively. These systems see power and quality brought together at the highest level, for bands as diverse as Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool and the Gang, Brad Meldhau, Caetano Veloso, Gregory Porter (with symphony orchestra and band), Mingus Big Band, etc.

Imagen cedida por Fernando Díaz

LightSoundJournal: Usually we talk about “American Sound” and “English Sound”. In your opinion, does a “Spanish Sound” and “Latin American Sound” exist? If so, what are their characteristics?

Fernando Díaz: Well, something along these lines exists. I have always been a faithful and fanatical follower of the American sound of the 80s & 90s in the majority. Sound influences such as Steely Dan, Supertramp, Donald Fagen, etc. have been part of the concept with which I usually mix, both in the studio and live. I am always looking for the depth of the bass, with powerful drums that are well packed with the bass (if you get it, I guarantee you have 50% of the mix guaranteed), continuing with the cleaning of the harmonies using basic high-pass filters, and leaving freedom for the vocals to find a place in the whole spectrum, alongside flexibility in dynamics and headroom. When this is achieved (which is no a easy task), we should add “perfume” by adding certain effects but with a high level of discretion. The best thing to do would be to try to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the audio of each instrument as if it were a photo, and then retouch only in the parts that need it.

The English sound is also spectacular, but for me it is rougher and rawer. This can sometimes make English live sound more aggressive and therefore sometimes less pleasant. With this I do not mean that it is worse, but for my taste I stay with American sound, although it is true that nowadays productions are being made in other places like Sweden with incredible results.

Concerning Spanish or Latin sound there are also peculiarities. From my point of view I must say that there is more influence in Spain from our European neighbours, but with the common characteristics of our Latin brothers to have a different attitude. For example, we are more decisive, we improvise, we’re visceral and even daring, things that don’t happen in the USA. There, they are guided in general by very standard and regulated parameters. If something is not correct then they are likely to start saying “NO WAY”, while we, surely, and knowing that the show is going to be done anyway, try to solve the existing problems in any way possible.

Finally, I must admit that the new trend of Reggaeton, Trap Latino, etc. sound is very far from me, but I listen to productions with very good sound and that is a 100% Latin creation, which must be recognised.

 

LightSoundJournal: Surely, during your career you have worked for large audiences with small amounts of equipment. As the years have passed, and you find yourself in a situation where you have what you want, how do you take advantage of it, or in what way does your experience influence your use of the current equipment?

Fernando Díaz: I am immensely lucky to have arrived where I did because it makes things so much easier for me. When you work with World-class artists, or work in large-scale events, designing equipment specs is almost like a having access to a “free buffet”, where I have absolute freedom to choose the best brands and the best personnel available for my work. Obviously this was not always the case. I remember in the 1980s through to the mid-90s, that everything was difficult and the conditions were not favourable. Luckily, in my country there has been a huge evolution in terms of technology, specialised personnel in all branches, producers, companies, etc. Bear in mind that the main attraction and business is tourism, which means many festivals and tours happen  in summer, making the industry grow. However, this means there are periods were the industry is hugely competitive for resources. It’s worth mentioning that the big manufacturers of audio equipment, consoles, processors, etc., really do care about training and helping me and other engineers to get hands on with their products.

Imagen cedida por Fernando Díaz

LightSoundJournal: Do the artists you work with get involved in your work or do they rest on your abilities?

Fernando Díaz: It depends who I’m working with. There are artists who leave everything in my hands, and others who take time during the general rehearsals of a tour to give me guidelines, ideas or suggestions. These are always based on the fact that if they have hired you, it is because they like the way you work. With Alejandro Sanz, for example, it is very rewarding that he trusts me with his productions, but it is fantastic to work hand in hand during the pre-production stages, agreeing on ideas, searching for new sounds, testing and experimenting, even modifying certain arrangements so that everything sounds better. With this, I do not mean to say that others are less bothered.

 

LightSoundJournal: Do you use any kind of special processing for the voices? How do you compensate for the typical movements that the singers make with the microphone during their performances?

Fernando Díaz: That’s where my motto starts: “<=>” (less is more). The less you use, the better results you will get. I use a good a preview input like Millennia SST-1, Avalon 737 SP, or Manley Voxbox, and from there it leads to a good input channel of a good console. My favourite and faithful companion for many years now has been the DiGiCo SD7 or their little sisters. I leave equalisation practically flat and well filtered with high passes and leave REAL space with the rest of instruments so that it is the most present. The movements of the microphone are complex. For example, I have worked for several years with Julio Iglesias where there are times when he places the microphone more than half a meter from his mouth and with a reverb of more than 12 seconds! Then, he suddenly moves it to a distance of a few centimetres. I still use very little compression, but work smooth and fast and rely on good reflexes. On other occasions I have tried with with dynamic equalisation, with compression-expansion, an infinite number of of plugins. I nearly always come to the conclusion that the best tool is your hearing, your sight and your finger on the fader. All those experiences, with so many artists and so many differences in their performances, gives you the keys to know what to do

 

LightSoundJournal: What kind of processing do you use on the output bus? For what reason?

Fernando Díaz: Well, at the beginning, things like “this guy is crazy” were commented. From the arrival of the digital consoles (I come from the analogue world) I always missed a certain analogue “grain”, a certain warmth. So I started to insert nothing more and nothing less than an Avalon 747 in the Master output of the console. Now, it is carried by many people with similar equipment, or they use plugins that emulate this. If you observe, almost all these plugins have an “analog” button that does nothing more than try to imitate that sound.

 

LightSoundJournal: Could you mention how the PA system of the show “+ is +” was composed? Did you also work on the DVD recording/mixing?

Fernando Díaz: The PA of that mega-concert was based on a complete Adamson system of E-15 / E-12 / S10 / 219 units.
For the main system, it had 36 x E-15 in L & R and 24 x E-15 in the sides. This was completed with 32 x E-219 subs. For frontal coverage, 24 x S-10 were used. There were also 2 huge delay towers, with two clusters each, with a total of 24 x E-15 and 24 x E-12.
There were a total of 128 mix channels for two full bands (20 musicians) controlled by 2 x DiGiCo SD7 in FOH and 1 x SD7 and 1 x SD10 in monitors for band and guest artists: Juanes, Laura Pausini, Pablo Alboran, Juan Luis Guerra, Jesse & Joy, Miguel Bosé, David Bisbal, Miguel Poveda, Pablo López, Dani Martín, Malú, Niña Pastori, India Martínez, Vanesa Martín, Vicente Amigo, Antonio Orozco, Antonio Carmona, Manuel Carrasco, entre otros.
Apart from doing the direct mix, my company dedicated SONNANDO to the broadcast / studio mix. They made the recording of the event and then I was responsible for the post-production of audio, the mixing and mastering of the CD/DVD. This went on to have incredible international success to the point of becoming number 1 in more than 10 countries including USA, Spain and Latin America.

Imagen cedida por Fernando Díaz

LightSoundJournal: If we were in your FOH mixing place, what equipment would we see installed? Have you been working with them for a long time or are you updating them?

Fernando Díaz: You would see the following:
1 DiGiCo SD7 double motor console.
1 100 meters snake with 2 x optical fibers Optocore, 4 x coaxial bnc, 1 x 16 XLR in / out and 2 x 16 Amp network.
MINI SD Rack: 8 line in / 16 line out / 8 AES-1 out. 8 x BNC coaxials.
1 S.A.I.1 5KW.
1 Multitrack recording system: 128 tracks via MADI / RME-NUENDO LIVE @ MacBook PRO
1 24″ Apple Cinema monitor + 1 x Apple magic mouse + 1 x Wireless Apple keyboard.
1 Mac iMac I7 4 cores + 1 x Apple magic mouse + 1 x Wireless Apple keyboard.
1 Multirack Waves V.9 or higher with Mercury bundle pack plugins complete.
2 Interfaces DigiGrid MGB + for insert Multirack Waves / Nuendo Live recorder.
1 Genelec active monitor with volume control for SHOUT system.
2 Preamps MANLEY VOXBOX.
1 Preamp Avalon VT 737 SP
1 Stereo Comp / Eq Avalon VT 747 SP.
1 TC System 6000 (4 x AES / EBU engines).
1 MOTU 828 MK3 interface.
1 Tablet Toshiba TOUGH PC wifi; 1 router Wifi 300 Mbps wireless N access point.
2 Dolby Lake LM 26
1 Talkback microphone AKG DGN 99 / DGN 99 E.
2 Microphones Shure SM-58 with switch (shout / TB).
1 AKG K-181 DJ Headphones.
1 22″ VGA monitor for overview SD7 console.
1-4 X VGA video switcher.

Normally it is the base of what I use, and I make small variations according to the production. I also sometimes find that a smaller job will work better with a small console and a few good microphones, and I really enjoy it. Not everything needs to be expensive technology and, as always, less is more!

 

LightSoundJournal: Why do you prefer to work with DiGiCo consoles?

Fernando Díaz: I’ve been almost exclusively with DiGiCo  since its inception, in fact I think I became a Beta-Tester initially. The first consoles surprised me because of their sound quality, perhaps closer to my last and beloved MIDAS XL-4. Over the years, this company has done an incredible amount of work on improving the quality in processing and its components, which makes them, in my opinion, the most flexible and fastest consoles in the market, not to mention the compatibility of all its models. Of course, I have used AVID systems in all their variants, Yamaha, etc., and I have to admit that they are great machines, but I prefer the experience that I have with the DiGiCo, as well as the timbre, transparency and the quality in the AD conversion.

Imagen cedida por Fernando Díaz

LightSoundJournal: How do the signals arrive from the stage to your console? Where are AD/DA conversions performed?

Fernando Díaz: Normally through the Stage Racks that are on stage. I try to have the minimum lossage from the microphone to my mix in order to keep it as clean and pure as possible. There, the signal becomes digital, and with conversions up to 96/192 kHz where the sampling quality is impressive, it is hard to believe that it is digitally processed.

 

LightSoundJournal: What parts of your work do you consider to be fundamental in building good live sound?

Fernando Díaz: The main thing is to have a good previous design: think about the most suitable PA system, the microphones you know to be best and that reproduce the instruments in the most faithful way; use very good cables, microphone stands in perfect condition and have a lot of patience. Do not forget a good psychology with the musicians, teamwork, and the best and most fluid relation with the artist to understand their requirements. We, the engineers, must be the solution and not the problem. If any problems do arise, explain them simply and try to propose a solution as quick as possible.

I always try to use EQ minimally, adjusting it to my liking. Because of this, it is important to have equipment with a flat and accurate response. Heavy adjustments do not mean that the final sound is going to be more beautiful.

I always focus on the main instrument: THE VOICE. We must bear in mind that people will listen to the artist, understand the lyrics and recognise their voice. It is useless to have a spectacular sound in the band if you do not give space and prominence to the vocals. Once I have found the best colour for the voice, and also looked for my limits of feedback, I turn that microphone on in its stand, in the right position on the stage, and dedicate myself to the band. Why? Well, because that mic will always be on and the residue or contamination that comes through it will be present for the whole show, so it will be part of your mix.

After this, there would be an infinity of details to count, i.e. the way my console is programmed, the distribution of the outputs or PA buses, VCA groups, effects, etc. It would be very extensive, but in another interview, I would be happy to detail this!

 

Fabio Garcia

Light Sound Journal

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