For decades, Trident's Series 80 consoles have graced world-class recording facilities. The new Series 80B dual channel strip makes this classic sound available with a much smaller footprint — and cost.
Malcom Toft, the engineer behind the original Trident designs as well as the current crop of Trident preamps and processors, is one of those industry veterans who don't really need much introduction. Plenty has been written about his impressive track record as a recording and mixing engineer, with credits including David Bowie, James Taylor, T-Rex and the Beatles, and about how his company, Trident Audio Developments, hit the market with their first console, the legendary 'A'-range, in the early 1970s. A mere dozen of these impressive desks were built (many of which remain in use to this day), but they laid the foundations for other Trident consoles in the following decades, the Series 80 probably being the most popular. This console has played an important role in defining the sound of rock music over the past 30 years, and, along with those of other manufacturers including Neve and SSL, it helped to establish British recording and mixing consoles as among the finest in the world.
Trident Audio currently offer a number of products based on their earlier designs, and the dual-channel, 2U enclosure of the Series 80B houses two independent mic preamps and equalisers. Essentially, the 80B offers the entire input architecture of Malcom Toft's classic desk, minus the aux sends and bus-assignment switches. Each channel consists of a fully featured input section for mic and line signals, a four-band EQ and a rotary output fader. There are also some extras such as the insert path, which can be switched pre- and post-EQ.
The mic preamp offers 60dB of gain on a single potentiometer. Many other manufacturers employ rotary switches for coarse level setting and potentiometers with a smaller range for fine adjustments, and both methods have their own advantages. When a single pot is being used for the entire gain range, levels can be set faster and more intuitively. However, sometimes you have to deal with unexpectedly large level changes, especially at the higher end of the potentiometer's gain range. This is not the case with the Trident Series 80B: Malcolm Toft has made sure that gain adjustment is smooth over the entire range. A maximum gain of 60dB might not seem very much at first glance. However, the output fader offers up to 10dB of further gain, and this is plenty of 'juice' for virtually any application, including passive ribbon mics on fairly quiet sources.
Just like any serious mic preamp, the 80B offers phantom power and a phase switch. A pad switch to be engaged when recording extremely 'hot' sources is not necessary: this preamp is laid out in such a way that it accepts up to +15dBu at the input without any pad at all, and that should be plenty of headroom for even the most powerful of instruments. For line-level input signals, there's a centre-detented trim pot with a ±5dB range. This, again, does not seem much, but since the output fader gain ranges from full attenuation to +10dB, the 80B will undoubtedly handle all kinds of line signals without any problems at all.
The 80B rackmount unit also boasts the four-band EQ section that forms part of the original console. It's quite common for people to talk about a 'British EQ' when they want to explain certain qualities of an equaliser, such as the broad bands and the smooth, 'musical' behaviour. This description stems from a handful of different classic EQ designs, and the Trident EQ is certainly one of them. This EQ offers two shelving bands for bass and highs, as well as two peaking mid-range bands. A maximum range of ±15dB should be more than enough for even the most drastic of frequency adjustments. Generally, whenever possible, it's a good plan to tackle serious frequency issues at source, but in some cases — for instance, when mixing signals that have been recorded with poor quality — such extreme EQ settings can't be avoided, and it's reassuring to know that you can get very heavy-handed with the Trident EQ, should the need arise.
Each shelving band has two corner frequencies: 60 and 120 Hz for the bass, and eight and 12kHz for the highs. These corner frequencies are well chosen. The bass band allows sculpting of the fundamental frequency range at 60Hz, and when switched to 120Hz, the octave above will be affected as well. Similarly, the 12kHz setting on the high band controls only the 'air' frequencies, while the 8kHz setting also allows for adjustments of the upper mid-range. In addition, the overlapping mid-range bands range from 100Hz to 1.5kHz and 1-15 kHz. The EQ section also features a 50Hz low cut with a 12dB/octave slope. This frequency is high enough to effectively filter out rumble, but low enough not to interfere with the lowest register of a male voice.
Each channel's EQ section has a bypass switch, and these switches are the only ones with a status LED. There's no 'warning light' on the phantom-power switches and, while they may not have been present on the vintage desk, I would have liked to see them on a current-production outboard unit. The metering is a bit sparse, as well, as the Trident 80B features only a single clip/overload LED per channel. In the age of digital recording, the recording level should always be set monitoring the input-level peak meter of the DAW or the A-D converter, but a little more visual guidance on the preamp could come in handy in many situations. And while we're taking about the features I feel are missing on the 80B, there's no High-Z instrument input, either. Again, this might not have been part of the original console channel, but on a modern stand-alone channel strip I'd be almost inclined to consider this a mandatory feature.
There are, however, ample connection options on the rear panel. Audio inputs and outputs are present on XLRs and TRS jacks, and there are TRS connectors for the two inserts. All connections, including the inserts, are fully balanced. While there's a pre/post EQ switch for the inserts on the front panel, there's no bypass switch, which, unfortunately, means that the cables have to be removed from the jack sockets if you do not wish to use the insert path.
One rather nice feature I discovered isn't even documented in the manual: the direct signal is not interrupted until there is a cable plugged into the return jack. This, in turn, means, that the insert path can also be used as a line splitter to feed the preamp signal to multiple devices. Applications for this include latency-free monitoring in a digital recording setup.
A peek under the lid reveals that the Trident 80B rackmount unit closely follows the circuit layout of the original console. As on the vintage model, there are no discrete sections in the input channel. Virtually all active stages in the preamp, the EQ and the output stage are based on TL071 and TL072 op-amps, the same parts employed in the original design. The only exception is a high-quality BurrBrown OPA2134 op-amp in the microphone input stage. According to Malcolm Toft, this op-amp has a better drive capability and is much quieter that the one used in the vintage circuit, but it wasn't available when the original 80B was designed. So this is actually an improvement in the most critical stage of the entire channel strip!
The Bellclair mic-input transformer employed in the original console is not available any more, the manufacturer having gone out of business long ago. Instead, Toft opted for a high-quality Lundahl LL1538 transformer with the same 'turns ratio'.
The overall mechanical build quality of the 80B is very good. Apart from the power supply, there are virtually no cables inside the unit. All signals are fed through PCB traces (and very few ribbon cables), which is a very modern approach that also can be seen inside other high-quality units from manufacturers such as Daking and Elysia. Not least, this principle helps to control manufacturing costs.
All gain pots in the line input and EQ sections have centre detents for convenient resetting, and, although they're surprisingly small, the milled aluminium knobs feel really solid and good.
In short, working with the Trident 80B is a very joyful experience. The front-panel layout is very straightforward and self-explanatory; you certainly don't need the manual to get started. Sonically, the 80B covers a lot of ground. I'm especially fond of the sweet, lively mid-range of the mic preamp, which sounds more like a classic discrete design than this (admittedly also classic) op-amp-based circuit. The highs are transparent but not overly aggressive, and the bass is just there, without being too pronounced. In some cases, I found myself wishing that the 80B preamp sounded a bit fuller, with more 'bloom' in the bottom end, for instance, to give voice recordings a little more authority. But in such cases there's also the EQ, with which one can dial in all the bass energy one could wish. The most important thing is that the mid-range sounds truly beautiful.
It's also possible to drive the preamp a little harder and back off the overall level with the output fader. My Minimoog audio example (see 'Audio Examples' box) proves that, used in this way, the 80B can yield meaty overdrive effects. Again, some of the best all-discrete designs might sound a little smoother when breaking up, but they're higher in price, and the 80B does an admirable job in this application. The original Trident console is beloved of many rock engineers and producers, and, although it's certainly not the only console about which you can say this, its saturation behaviour is one reason why countless rock records have been produced on Tridents over the years.
The EQ can sound very soft and unobtrusive when being used for minor corrections, but it's also an extremely powerful and useful tone shaper, capable of creating some wild frequency curves without ruining the character of the original recording. Not only is it really effective, but you can hardly do any harm by turning the knobs! This is, arguably, mostly due to the elegant, wide calibration of the filter bands, so you hardly ever notice the harsh 'ringing' that can sometimes be heard on cheaper designs.
The flip side of this coin, of course, is that the Trident EQ is not so well suited for 'surgical' correction applications, such as steep notching of resonant frequencies. Again, this is due to the wide filter bands, which do not offer any manual control over the Q. But while this added flexibility could come in handy sometimes, I can't really criticise Trident for their semi-parametric design: this is a classic console EQ, after all, and you won't find fully parametric filters on designs of this era from Neve, SSL or API, either.
The boosts of the 80B's EQ, especially in the lower registers, are so powerful that you may run out of headroom at the most extreme of settings. At a maximum level of +24 dBu, the gain staging inside the Trident 80B has to be handled with a little more care than on some other units with even more headroom, but perhaps, as discussed above, you might just like the sound of the Trident driving into saturation!
The Trident Audio Series 80B dual channel strip offers all the tone-shaping capabilities of the famous, classic Trident desk but in a much smaller package. It comes without some of the bells and whistles that can be found in most modern recording-channel layouts, but on the other hand it stays very true to the original design in all important aspects. If you're looking for a good-sounding and flexible way to record your tracks, you should definitely try this one out in your own control room. The Trident 80B is a very solid piece of equipment, and at this price I expect Trident to sell plenty!
Most 19-inch rackmount alternatives are also derived from classic console input channels, but the majority come at a much higher price. A pair of SSL XLogic Alpha Channel units might be the closest competition, while Trident Audio also offer the all-discrete A-Range dual channel strip. The API Channel Strip includes an additional compressor section, and there are also countless rackmount channel strips based on classic Neve designs, such as the Chandler LTD1.
During the course of the review, I captured some audio examples that demonstrate the tonal character of the 80B. Find them online at /sos/apr13/articles/trident-audio-series-80B-media.htm or in the iPad app version of this article.