DiGiCo S21 Digital Console

by Vince Lepore
in Road Tests

DiGiCo S21Representing a significant departure from what the company has done over the past 10 years is the S21 — the latest offering from DiGiCo. In an effort to reach a new set of customers that can’t afford its higher-end desks, DiGiCo went back to the drawing board to create a console that they hope will redefine the industry’s expectations of what a sub-$10,000 console is capable of. My demo system consisted of an S21 surface in a custom road case, as well as a D-Rack for remote I/O and a Cat-5 snake for connecting the two together. In the time I spent with the S21, it was clear that DiGiCo has something new and special that isn’t just another digital console.

The Surface

The S21 surface is a tightly integrated package that’s surprisingly compact and light weight. It’s also amazingly robust and roadworthy console, and the design really does feel like a DiGiCo. Many of the physical elements on the surface take design cues from the SD series, from the polycarbonate surface to the HTL (Hidden Til Lit) rotary controls. In fact, a number of the key worksurface controls are straight off of other high-end DiGiCo products. For example, the 21 touch-sensitive faders are the same as those used on the SD10, and the local mic/line inputs boast identical preamps to those found in DiGiCo’s D-Rack.

There are a few distinguishing features on the S21 surface, the most obvious of which are the dual multi-touch screens. When operating the S21, the benefits of dual touch screens are immediately apparent due to the degree of flexibility they provide. For example, a FOH engineer could have input channels under the left screen, and control groups under the right screen; while a monitor engineer might have inputs on the left and aux masters on the right. Below these screens are HTL rotary controls that, until now, could only be found on the flagship SD7 and SD5 consoles. The rotaries aren’t quite the caliber as those used in higher-end models, yet provide the same functionality.

HTL technology uses colored backlighting around the outside of each knob to indicate a particular function. When a control is not in use, it grays out to allow the operator to focus on other active controls. A powerful feature of consoles like the SD7, it’s nice that HTL is now available at a more attractive price point. The far right of the surface has the master fader, headphone level control and a pair of high-resolution meters used for metering the master bus or any soloed input or output.

The Software

From a GUI perspective, the S21’s software interface is completely new for DiGiCo. The interface feels like a modern iteration of the SD series software. The interface elements are more “flat,” and the dark background colors with splashes of color in the foreground are reminiscent of software I use daily from companies like Adobe. To be honest, the S21 software makes the SD software seem slightly dated, and I hope some of this new design aesthetic trickles up the chain to the larger consoles. Like all DiGiCo models, the layout of channels and buses on the surface is completely flexible, allowing inputs strips to be placed next to outputs in any conceivable arrangement.

Processing Power

Regular DiGiCo users know that the company has a long track record of releasing consoles with untapped processing power. The SD series has benefitted from powerful upgrades that unlock new features and tap into a vast reservoir of additional processing power. I suspect that the S21 will be no exception, and although the console is well appointed at launch, I expect much more in future updates.

Currently, the S21 starts off as a 96kHz standard desk, with 40 “flexi channels,” 16 “flexi buses,” a stereo master, two stereo solo buses and a 10 x 8 matrix mixer. For those unfamiliar with DiGiCo terminology, the term “flexi” refers to an input channel or output bus that can be made either mono or stereo without reducing the overall channel count, so 40 flexi channels equates to 80 processing channels total. In addition to the channel and bus count, each input and bus has a compressor and a gate (switchable to a ducker or compressor with side chaining). Additionally, there are 16 graphic EQs that are assignable anywhere on the system, eight effects engines, four DigiTubes (DiGiCo’s tube emulators) and four multiband compressors.

The rear panel combines a decent complement of local I/O as well as dual I/O expansion slots.I/O — Any Way You Want It

One of the S21’s most interesting and compelling aspects is the diverse range of I/O available for the system. The surface boasts a generous 24 analog inputs, 12 analog outputs, AES/EBU input and output, word clock in/out, GPIO, dual network ports, three USB ports and a DVI connector for an external overview screen. The local I/O alone is enough to run a modest-sized show.

What really sets the S21’s I/O capabilities apart from the competition are DiGiCo’s new DMI interface card slots (DMI stands for “DiGiCo Multichannel Interface”). The rear of the S21 has two DMI slots that can each be occupied by a different DMI card. The two DMI slots give the S21 capabilities that I wish the SD series had since its inception (have a look at DiGiCo’s Orange Box product to see how DMI cards are bringing new capability to the SD range as well).

Dante interfacing is among the ten I/O expansion options.The 10 DMI cards available for the S21 (and also useable in DiGiCo’s Orange Box) include a 64x64 Dante Interface, Calrec Hydra2 connectivity, coaxial MADI, Cat-5 MADI, DiGiCo Optocore, Aviom A-Net output, 16 ch. analog mic/line inputs, 16 ch. AES inputs, 16 ch. analog outputs and a Waves Soundgrid Interface.

Last but certainly not least, the S21 has a Type-B USB connector that acts as a built-in, 48-channel, 48kHz recording interface. If the console is running at 96K, the USB recording output downsamples the audio to 48K so as not to sacrifice the recording channel count. Similarly, if 48K material is played back into the console for virtual sound check, that audio is upsampled to 96K. That’s a very handy and powerful set of recording features for users in this price range.

The Sound

As a long-time DiGiCo user, I am keenly aware of the DiGiCo sound, and I was interested to see how the S21 stacked up against its larger siblings. I am pleased to report that the console did not disappoint, and I found the sound of the S21 to be almost indistinguishable from the SD9 and SD10 that I use regularly. My demo system shipped with a D-Rack, which is the same I/O rack often used with the SD9. As it turns out, the 24 local mic/line inputs on the back of the S21 surface use the same preamps as the D-Rack, so if you bought a package consisting of an S21 and a D-Rack for remote I/O, the sound of the two would be identical.

I’ve always found DiGiCo consoles to have an incredibly transparent sound, and the signal processing — such as equalization and dynamics — are musical and very responsive. The S21 was no exception, and the effects sounded as good as the SD series, which is no small feat at this price.

Conclusion

Prior to the S21, DiGiCo simply had a hard time competing with other manufacturers in this price range. Potential customers looking to spend $7,500 to $15,000 on a digital console assumed that a DiGiCo was out of their reach. The S21 brings the DiGiCo features and sound that we know and love within reach of an entirely new set of users, broadening the DiGiCo user base and strengthening its position as a top-tier digital console manufacturer.

At a Glance

The DiGiCo for the Rest of Us

With the S21, DiGiCo has assembled a road tough package that combines I/O flexibility, fast touch screen operations, useful DSP and a great sound in an affordable, powerful system.

 

DiGiCo S21 Digital Console

PROS

• Robust, roadworthy surface

• DiGiCo sound

• Versatile I/O options

• Logical, fast GUI

• DiGiCo’s track record of future expansion and software upgrades

CONS

• No offline editor or iPad app currently available

• Only one frame size available

STATS

Max Sampling Rate: 96 kHz

Footprint: 30 x 23 inches

Weight: 42 pounds

Pricing: S21 Surface: $6,995; S21 Surface with 32 x 8 D-Rack: $11,995;

S21 Surface with flight case and 32 x 8 D-Rack: $13,300

Manufacturer: DiGiCo

More Info: www.digico.biz