The first thing that captures our attention when we step into a recording studio is certainly the mixing desk.
Maybe for its dimensions, or maybe because it makes the engineer look like some kind of magician that knows how to work his way through those hundreds of buttons and switches. Back in the “old days”, if you wanted to mix a 40-track song you needed a 40-track console, together with all the other analog outboards of course.
In the digital world, this is not an issue anymore: we can easily handle a 90-track session with twice as many analog gear plugins on it, without needing a huge mixing room that fits these huge and expensive pieces of equipment.
But don’t forget that some of the greatest records we grew up with (and are STILL growing up with) were made with some of these incredible machines that were able to deliver a unique and characteristic sound to the productions.
Of course, these consoles couldn’t mix records by themselves and that’s why their names have been associated with some great mixing engineers that look for that particular sound.
Let’s take a look at some of these amazing pieces of equipment.
EMI was a British conglomerate founded in 1931. This company provided different services to the music industry, building its own studios with certain “quality standards”, such as acoustic treatments, engineers and high-end recording equipment.
This allowed them to develop some incredible technologies for the time being.
Their the EMI Abbey Road Studios in London became a symbol of technical innovation during the late 60s just after The Beatles were recording St. Pepper. The iconic TG12345 MK II desk became part of the sound of many historic records at that time. It was EMI’s first solid-state mixing desk which introduced an innovative modular design.
Like many other later desks, it had a compressor/limiter on each channel, which had Fairchild and Altec units. This characteristic made every console sound unique and different from its predecessor, the EMI REDD.
In 1967 it was upgraded to 24 microphone inputs and 8 outputs that went straight into a 3M eight-track tape machine, which replaced the J37 four track.
This board had a much smoother and brighter sound than the previous models and you car hear this innovation in The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the only album they recorded with that board.
In 1972, Pink Floyd stepped into Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios to record Dark Side of the Moon and by that time, the TG console had reached version MK IV: It featured 40 channels with limiter/compressor on each, 4 echo returns and 16 monitors. Alan Parsons was the man behind the TG12345 who crafted Pink Floyd’s unique soundscape thanks to the collaboration between EMI and Abbey Road Studios.
This desk is now going to be sold by an auction house at the end of March 2017, so if you’re interested in buying one for your project-studio, make sure you make your bid! (sure thing, ah?!).
Neve 80 series
Rupert Neve built the first commercial transistor console for Philips Recording Studios back in 1964. It featured a unique hand-built circuit with high quality components and Class-A designs. The construction was discrete, which meant they had to assemble transistors and components rather than integrated circuits: this made the sound more transparent and less “colored” than other consoles.
The series that gave birth to the classic Neve sound is the “80 series” and it includes four model that were built between 1974 and 1978. Each desk was hand built and custom designed for the customer so every piece of equipment is assembled in a unique way. It’s difficult to find two stock Neve desks that are exactly the same: the Neve engineers would usually take some channel strip components from other modules.
One of the most iconic Neve consoles is certainly the “Sound City” 8028 desk. This mixer was custom built by Rupert Neve himself for Sound City Studios and made its way through 42 years of historic recordings. It was bought buy Dave Grohl and installed in his Studio 606.
It had 24 inputs, 16 bus and 24 monitor channels with 1073 channel strip equalizers.
The later 8048 had the 1081 mic preamps (a further development of the classic Neve 1073) and was used by a large number of high profile artists including Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Queen.
Through the years the company was able to develop some amazing technical innovations, like the “flying fader” technology, which allowed engineers to print automations on tape (similar to the VCA technology), but also to physically recall these automations on the faders.
SSL 4000 series
Founded in in 1969, Solid State Logic is a high-end mixing console and recording hardware manufacturer based in Begbroke, UK. It’s become known as one of the most iconic mixing consoles in the top audio production industry. The first models were part of the “A series”, which was released in 1976.
That same year saw the development of a new model, the “B series”: along with the preamp and eq section, each channel strip featured a whole new dynamic processing section with a compressor and a noise gate. The desk was also built in modules, so if a channel needed maintenance, it could simply be removed without touching the rest.
One of the most iconic sounds recorded through this desk was the drum part Phil Collins played on In The Air Tonight. Producer and engineer Hugh Padgham was in charge of the recording sessions for that album and was sitting in the control room in Townhouse Studio 2 in West London.
Phil was practicing some parts behind the kit in the live room with all the mic’s set up. The SSL had a built-in “listen mic”: it was basically a microphone hanging from the ceiling in the live room that was used by the musicians to communicate with the control room. It was plugged in to a dedicated circuit on the board that applied a huge compression to the signal, so the musician could be heard loud and clear.
When Hugh hit the “listen mic” button to talk to Phil, he heard this massive drum sound coming through the speakers. Unfortunately, this mic didn’t go into a channel so it couldn’t be recorded to tape. Hugh tried to replicate that sound through other compressors and noise gates, but it just wasn’t the same. The next day he got a maintenance engineer to modify the circuit and feed this mic to a separate channel so it could be recored and processed on the desk with a strong noise gate. That was “basically” what happened.
The big breakthrough of these consoles came with the introduction of the 4000 E Series in 1979, which quickly developed in the following G series in 1987 and G+ series in 1993. The three model have become a standard used by many engineers.
What made these console so unique was their very intuitive approach: each channel had all the processing tools an engineer would need and these tools could be placed on the signal chain in the desired order. Last of all, the stereo bus had a Master Bus Compressor built on it that gave a unique sound to the mix, gluing the different elements together in a very musical way.
A well-known owner of an SSL is mixing engineer Chris Lord Alge: his mixing setup involves a 1985 E series with tons of outboard analog gear which have allowed him to create his own “mixing sound”.
SSL company was bought by Peter Gabriel in 2005, who is also one of the most famous producers and engineers who has established a well-known SSL sound throughout his career.
API formed at the very end of the 1960s, in a period of time in which there was an enormous competition in the analogue console market. The following two decades introduced the transistor technology, which allowed to fit complex circuits into very small spaces.
With the rise of multichannel recordings during the 70s and the 80s, consoles became more compact and API's used an audio circuit design called “discrete operational amplifier” module, or “DOA". This simple but very particular gain stage worked with transistors and was known as the 2520, and it formed a basic building block for API's studio consoles.
Rak Studios in London is one of the few studios that has two vintage API consoles in its equipment list. The one in Studio 1 is 48-channel desk and the one in Studio 2 is a 24-channel desk with 550a EQs and a number of rare 954c modules.
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