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The Yamaha LS9 Digital Console: One Man’s Army

April, 2009

By Jon Bullock.

I am one of the fortunate few sound guys that is also a musician and earns a living doing both. I am also one of even fewer who get the honor to travel overseas entertaining our troops that I have been doing since 2001. These tours have taken me, multiple times, to Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Germany, Belgium, Japan, Korea, Italy, a few of the '-stan' countries, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In countries like Germany or Japan, there really isn't a worry about the amount of gear we carry or reliability as we usually get backline and PA locally and can fairly easily get a replacement if something breaks or doesn't work. However, in Iraq and Afghanistan, weight, reliability, and amount of gear IS a major issue.

My most recent tour was about four weeks long and took me to Kuwait, Iraq, Italy, and Germany, in that order. On this tour, I was the talent with my five-piece band along with a tour manager and soundman. We have been to the Middle East before and know about the severe heat, sand, and the routine with loading, weight and space issues as we usually transport via helicopters once we are downrange. Sound like fun so far?

THE HEAT: Kuwait was cooling down this time of year at a cozy 120–125 degrees during the day and around 110 in the evening. I have also been there when it was 135 degrees and yes, you do feel the difference! Oh, did I mention that some of our shows are outdoors?

THE SAND: It's like brown baby powder, it's everywhere, and gets into everything! If there's a breeze, and there usually is, then you have the combination that equates to a hairdryer and baby powder in a cage match!

WEIGHT and SPACE: Since we tend to do shows at FOB's (Forward Operating Bases), we normally transport in helicopters with weight limitations of around 5,000 lbs. that must be able to fit into two Blackhawk helicopters and also includes our personal luggage, the flight crew, and us. Needless to say, I have become a master at tetris! And, in addition, we tend to do 'hot loads' (and no that's not toilet humor). A hot load is when we, along with the flight crew, load all the gear while the helo's are still running, blades still spinning, and heat of the engines still blowing even more hot air at you, all while there's a possibility of being shot at by snipers, mortar's, or RPG's. So time is of the essence. Think of the phrase 'sitting duck.' Still with me?

I have had issues with the gear crapping out in the past be it from the heat, sand, or just the rigors of touring 'military style', so I was desperate to find a way to have some of the basics for a decent sound system and still have it within the parameters, but with the durability that a tour such as this calls for.

ENTER THE YAMAHA LS9 DIGITAL CONSOLE: I had the privilege of getting my hands on one for this tour and though I was very worried whether it could handle the rigors of this particular tour knowing that if it failed we would be in a 'world of hurt' (thank you Jesse the Body Ventura). I was very excited about the amount of gear the LS9 would replace and the amount of space and weight it would save. I opted for a 16–channel version, again, to save space and weight.

Protected inside an ATA flight case with two casters and a retractable handle that made it even easier to transport, the Yamaha LS9 weighed in just under the free baggage weight limit for Lufthansa with the flight case weighing more than the console itself! Another bonus on the size was that it was small enough to ride down the carousels and not end up in the oversize luggage area and cause us to have to wait longer at baggage claim upon arrival.

Just because I chose the 16–channel version doesn’t mean I was limited to 16 channels. Just like the Yamaha PM5D and M7CL digital consoles, the LS9 has the beautiful feature of adding inputs, outputs, or inserts, via a mini YGDAI slot card. I opted for the four XLR input card, enough for my band and an iPod for pre- and post–show music. (That, too, could have been eliminated which I will get to later.)

Our soundman who had never been on a digital board picked it up really quickly and was happy to have all the bells and whistles he needed for front of house and monitor duty like Graphic EQ’s, Parametric EQ’s, Gates, Comps, Reverbs, etc. The band was happy to each have a mix to their liking, and our female lead singer was delighted to have her own reverb (that she can’t live without) in her monitor. I had an in–ear monitor mix and backup wedge mix. It was so nice to be able to cut our sound checks down by having the recalled scenes and mixes, and actually saved us a huge headache on a show that we didn’t make on time in order to have a sound check.

SHOWTIME: Once we landed in Kuwait, we became ’PROPERTY OF THE U.S. MILITARY.’ Kuwait is the jumping off point into Iraq and is like living inside your kitchen oven! The actual air temperature this time was only 120–122 Fahrenheit. Since most of the shows are outdoors, setup and sound check is in the middle of the afternoon. I had band members needing IV’s to replenish their fluids, the glue in speaker cabinets give out, and cymbals so hot you could probably cook breakfast on them. The Yamaha LS9, however, never failed in physical appearance, structure, or performance.

Now I don’t know how things work in the military stateside but ’Downrange’ everything happens really fast or is a ’hurry up and wait’ situation. So, transportation is either ’hurry up’ and slam the gear on a steel pallet just so it can sit in the blazing sun and bake on the flight line for hours before our cargo plane arrives, or it’s slam the gear on the back of a five ton or what have you available vehicle in order to get it to the ’LZ’ and bounce it down the spinal–compressing, asthma–inducing, dirt roads and slam then it into a Blackhawk or Chinook as tightly as possible. Again, the Yamaha console took every bit of the abuse and never even blinked a fader.

After setting up one show in Baghdad and having one of our best sound checks, thanks in part due to the temperature only registering 112 degrees, we went to eat and relax when one of my guitarists came in and said that I might want to come outside and take a look as it was getting pretty windy. Well, by the time we went outside, a sandstorm had blown in, so we started scrambling to get our escort and shuttle bus to take us back to the stage as quickly as possible.

By the time we arrived at the stage, everything was covered in sand and things had blown over or were scattered all over the stage. As we scrambled to turn speakers face down and drop the remaining mic stands and cymbals, an escort detail left to find anything that could cover the gear. The sand was blowing so hard that I, to this day, have little pockmarks in my glasses. The Yamaha LS9? It slept through the whole thing and was not fazed (pun intended).

Through our two and a half weeks in Iraq which took us to Baghdad, Fallujah, and other places, even though the LS9 took a lot of above–normal abuse including fluctuating power it never put the tour in jeopardy. After Kuwait and Iraq, we finished our tour in Italy and Germany, still using the same Yamaha LS9. And even though it looked like it had been buried with weapons of mass destruction, it was actually a true testament to Yamaha’s performance record.

The only complaint I had was that the display panel was almost completely unreadable in the extreme sunlight without really cupping it or building a makeshift sun visor for it. I would guess, though, that this problem would happen to any product with an LCD screen. I’ve seen keyboard players have this problem and actually the screen turns black until it cools down. Hopefully someone can design a new type of display screen so this will no longer be an issue.

I mentioned at the beginning about using my iPod for pre–show music. Well, the coolest feature of the LS9 is the USB port on the side of the display panel. It can be used as a stereo playback and a 2–channel recorder right into your basic USB card and provides multiple choices of popular formats. We used it exclusively to record our shows and used the extra inputs for the iPod just to keep it simple. The recordings were great for the band’s website and MySpace page. I was also able to burn CD’s from the USB card for friends and family.

The Yamaha LS9 is a great little all–in–one console, and I highly recommend it to anyone waging a sound war under no false pretenses, excuses, or needing a stimulus plan to pay for it.

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