Photos: Mark Ewing
Despite the increasing prevalence for people to record one or two tracks at a time straight into their computer, and to mix 'in the box', the market for modestly sized analogue tracking and mixing consoles is still surprisingly buoyant. Indeed, it could be argued that this market is in resurgence, as recent compact high-end offerings from AMS Neve, API, Rupert Neve Designs, SSL and others all suggest.
Malcolm Toft's latest offering, the ATB console, isn't fighting in quite the same market as these big-name desks, but it has already become a very significant player in the medium-priced console market. In fact, the ATB has been stirring up considerable interest over the last year or so, and its initial production runs have only just managed to satisfy demand sufficiently to allow a review model to wing its way to Sound On Sound. The list of ATB console users already includes Primal Scream and Arcade Fire, and the new Hard-Fi album was apparently tracked and mixed on one too.
The ATB is probably best described as a traditional eight-bus analogue recording console. Its name references an historical link with the original Trident 80B, and Malcolm told me that both the look and circuit design of the desk are, in effect, intended to imitate a kind of a 'mini' Series 80B. The desk is built in China using pretty traditional techniques, such as having individual channel PCBs suspended vertically below the front-panel knobs. The circuitry uses conventional components throughout as well, rather than the increasingly ubiquitous surface-mount, which makes it infinitely easier to service and maintain. Even the ICs are all socketed. The only practical difference between the ATB's construction and the typical consoles of 20 or more years ago is that rather than having individual channel strips, the metalwork supports eight channels together. That obviously makes servicing slightly more time-consuming than the old single-channel module idea, but is considerably more cost-effective.
Overall, everything about the ATB looks and feels familiar, and its surprising weight indicates just how sturdy the thing is. After manhandling the beast from its protective shipping case and up on to a convenient table, its light-coloured wooden end cheeks and armrests reminded me immediately of Trident's old Trimix consoles of the early '80s. The ATB is clearly intended as a serious project-studio recording and mixing console, and it certainly looks the part.
The format of the console is based on frames of eight input channels, plus a single master section. These are bolted together at the factory to create consoles with 16, 24 or 32 input channels. The two smaller desks place the master section at the right-hand end by default, while the 32-channel version places one eight-channel input frame to the right of the master section. The review model was the 24-channel version.
The centre section carries eight submasters or groups, plus the main stereo output section, monitoring controls and talkback. All the faders are long-travel 100mm types. The input channels boast a four-band EQ with two swept mids and switchable frequencies for the top and bottom shelf sections — a design derived from the Trident 80B — and six aux sends.
All the input and output connectors are on the rear panel, mostly on quarter-inch sockets with a mix of balanced, unbalanced and stereo interfaces. XLRs are provided for the electronically balanced microphone inputs but, unusually, not for any of the main outputs.
Each subgroup 'channel strip' also includes a monitor return section to allow the conventional 'split' console method of operation. In this configuration the input channels would normally be routed to the groups, the groups to the recording tracks, and the tape/DAW replay outputs fed back into the monitor return section to be mixed into the main stereo output. This makes it possible to monitor and balance tracks as they are recorded via this dedicated monitor section of the console, and a pair of aux sends on each monitor return caters for cue headphone mixes and effects.
For convenience, these eight dedicated monitor-return inputs are also normalled within the console to break contacts on the line input sockets of the first eight channels. This makes it easy to perform a final eight-track mixdown on the channel faders, with full access to the channels' EQ, aux routing, and so on.
Alternatively, the ATB can be used as an in-line console, and to that end each input channel is provided with a direct output (unbalanced and post-fade) which can be used to feed the corresponding tape/DAW track. The monitor/replay output from the recorder can then be connected via a dedicated tape-return input on the same channel module, and passed through a separate 'monitor path' which feeds the main stereo bus. Usefully, the channel's entire four-band EQ section can be switched between either the record or monitor paths, as can aux sends 5 and 6.
Again, to make mixdowns easier, buttons at the top of each channel strip allow the tape-return input to be switched directly into the normal channel path, so that mixing can be performed on the channel faders instead of the rotary monitor knobs.
One important benefit of incorporating both a split monitor configuration and an in-line mode is the sheer number of physical inputs to the desk. In addition to the normal mic/line inputs and separate tape returns provided in each input channel, both of which can feed the stereo mix bus, there are also the eight monitor returns in the submaster section which also feed the mix bus directly. Just above the bar-graph meters in the subgroup section are further facilities for eight dedicated stereo effects returns, which also feed the stereo mix bus. Add that lot together and even the smallest 16-channel ATB console can accommodate a surprising 56 inputs for mixing, which is impressive by anyone's standards. The 32-channel version can accommodate a staggering 88 mix inputs — although, clearly, the facilities available to most of these sources are limited to level control and panning.
Moving briefly to the master section, facilities are provided to feed two sets of stereo monitoring speakers, plus a separately controlled headphone output. Monitoring sources include the desk's stereo output, the solo bus (which has its own level control), or one of three external stereo inputs (there are two analogue inputs, plus a digital source if the optional interface card is installed). There is also a mono button and built-in talkback. The latter can be routed as a 'slate' to all submaster and main outputs, or just to the aux sends to communicate with performers through their cue feeds.
Although it was not supplied with the review mixer, the optional digital card mentioned above is intended to introduce the possibility of direct digital interfacing with a computer or digital recorder, with up to 10 audio signals in each direction. The eight submaster outputs are digitised and made available on both an ADAT (lightpipe) port and on Firewire. The main stereo output is also presented as an S/PDIF signal as well as within the Firewire interface.
On the return side, the digital inputs from the Firewire or ADAT ports are converted to analogue and routed via break contacts on the subgroup monitor-return sockets. The stereo digital return is sent (via S/PDIF or Firewire) to the dedicated two-track input in the monitoring section. External clocking facilities are also provided on the card.
The console power supply is external to the mixer. It is housed in a 2U rackmount case, and has a substantial heatsink on the rear. It provides ±17V DC for the analogue electronics, and 48V for phantom power. There are no fans (and thus no noise), and the power supply didn't get particularly hot in use.
In terms of technical specifications, the ATB competes well with equivalently priced products, boasting a bandwidth of 20Hz to 40kHz ±1dB (via the mic input), and with the ability to provide +26dBu from the group and main outputs into a balanced destination. That means there will be no problem driving the input of any A-D converter. Up to 70dB of gain is available between mic input and group output, which is useful. Whereas much of the circuitry is very similar to that in the original Trident 80B consoles, the mic preamps are the transformerless design employed by Malcolm for the last 15 years in all of his MTA consoles.
A Toft Act To Follow
For those who don't know his background and credentials, Malcolm Toft has enjoyed a long history in the music industry, having been a recording engineer at the famous Trident Recording Studios in London in the late '60s, working on such classic tracks as the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' and David Bowie's 'Space Oddity', amongst many other well-known hits. In the early '70s he played a key role in setting up Trident Audio Developments, a company established to build and market professional studio recording consoles, most notably the infamous Trident Series 80B, among many others. Malcolm eventually sold his interest in this company in 1988, but went on a few years later to launch a new range of consoles and related products under the MTA (Malcolm Toft Associates) brand. That pedigree continues under the Toft Audio Designs marque, within the American PMI Audio group.
The rear panel carries a strip of five connectors for each input channel, starting with electronically balanced TRS sockets for the line and monitor inputs. There is also an unbalanced send-receive insert socket (TRS and post-EQ, pre-fade) and an unbalanced, post-fade direct output (TS). The electronically balanced mic input is via an XLR. I'm pleased to be able to report that the TRS socket spacing allows the bulky C-series Neutrik TRS plugs to be used, as a lot of desks can't accommodate these!
As mentioned earlier, the submaster section's monitor-return inputs are normalled into the first eight channels' line input sockets. So if this facility is required, you can't leave line inputs permanently plugged in.
The channel strip itself is very straightforward, and the use of coloured metal knobs makes it easy to both identify each section and to see current settings. Sadly, that's not the case for the many push-buttons, only two of which have status LEDs. The particular style of push-button used here makes it very hard to see from above whether they are pressed in or not — but presumably adding more LED indicators or changing the button style would have impacted heavily on the cost of the console, and in this sector of the market pricing is very important indeed, so it's a compromise that we have to live with. There are a lot of controls on the channel strip, and that inevitably makes it a little crowded, but this didn't cause me any difficulties in operation.
Starting at the top of the strip, the input section is equipped with four push-buttons to select phantom power, input reverse (which swaps the line and monitor input signals), and the line input (instead of the mic input) and to flip the signal polarity. The red rotary gain control ranges from 6 to 65dB for the mic input and -15 to +25dB for the line input. When setting mic input levels, the gain increases rapidly over the last 15 degrees of rotation, but it remains quite controllable.
The EQ section will be familiar to Trident aficionados. The top and bottom sections have a shelf response with switchable turnovers of 8 or 12kHz at the top and 60 or120Hz at the bottom, while the black centre-detented gain controls span a ±15dB range. The two mid-frequency sections are sweepable, with the same gain swing and nicely overlapping frequency ranges. The upper-mid section covers 1 to 15kHz, while the lower-mid handles 100Hz to 1.5kHz. These are slightly more extended ranges than tend to be found on console equalisers, which makes this design more versatile than many. In the original Trident 80B desk, these two mid-range sections shared a common gain stage, which meant they tended to interact slightly. In revisiting the design for the ATB console, Malcolm decided to split these two sections and provide them with separate gain stages to prevent interaction. It's a subtle change, and whether you see it as a technical improvement or a move away from 'vintage' accuracy is a matter of opinion. Regardless, the EQ section is a tried and trusted design that works well for creative tonal shaping and always sounds musical.
Also included in the EQ section is a switchable 80Hz high-pass filter, and an overall EQ bypass button. A red LED shows when the EQ is switched in circuit. I noticed that crackles or glitches could occasionally be heard when operating the EQ bypass switches (as well as many of the other routing switches), although I doubt this will cause problems in practice.
Below the EQ section in the channel strip are six green auxiliary send controls. The first is fixed pre-fade and the other five are all post-fade but can be switched pre-fade if required. The in-line monitor section comes next, with a red level control (rotary fader) and black pan pot, plus a trio of buttons. The first of these assigns aux sends 5 and 6 to the monitor path instead of the channel path, and the second assigns the entire EQ section to the monitor path instead of the channel path. The third button mutes the monitor return's contribution to the stereo mix bus.
Finally, the last rotary control in the strip is the channel path's pan pot. Solo and mute buttons — the latter with an LED indicator — are also provided here. The Solo button is set from the factory to act as a post-pan, after-fade listen facility — a kind of 'solo-in-place', if you like. However, there is a hidden push-button on the underside of each channel card (only accessible by removing the bottom panel) which reconfigures the Solo mode to serve as a conventional PFL, if required. Gaining access to these switches on the review desk required the removal of no fewer than 39 screws, so you only want to have to change this operating mode once!
The fader calibration is slightly unusual in having just 5dB of gain in hand (most desks provide 10dB), but the upside of that is that fades are slightly more controllable at low levels. Five push-buttons alongside the fader slot route the channel path's output to any of the eight groups (in stereo pairs) and main stereo mix bus. A pair of LEDs here is used to indicate when the signal level exceeds -20dBu (green) and +10dBu (red). However, these only show the post-fade signal, which I don't find as useful as pre-fade indicators. After all, once the fader is open you can hear if the input level is getting too hot! A scribble-strip space is provided below the 100mm faders.
There are several variations possible on the in-line console theme, and here we see a combination of traditional in-line design married to an eight-input split-style monitor section. If you're happy with this approach, no problem, but I sometimes feel that consoles could be designed to be more friendly to the modern DAW user. For example, I'd have preferred a direct output pre-fader facility with the ability to effectively separate the preamp and perhaps a couple of sends from the rest of the signal chain, so that the preamps could be configured so they always feed the DAW inputs with no EQ, while the DAW outputs would always feed the main channel via the EQ and any remaining aux sends, to be mixed via the faders.
As it is, the console follows the more traditional model that assumes use with a tape machine or equivalent, where processing is likely to be done by the mixer and connected outboard. It would be possible to use the console more or less as I suggest by using the insert send to feed the DAW but that would mean mixing using the monitor knob rather than the fader, as there's no simple Fader Flip function — only the usual input flip. Then again, if you're using your DAW automation to handle level changes this may not be a major issue. Placing the signal-present LEDs post the insert point is a good idea, as it warns of signal flow interruptions at this point, but placing them post-fader seems odd. In use, I found this quite irritating, as you can't tell what channels are currently carrying signal unless the faders are up.
Some of the apparent omissions, such as the inability to feed the effects returns to the pre-fade foldback sends, are explained by budgetry or panel-space constraints (and can be worked around by using the split monitor section), as is the lack of a global pre-/post-fade monitor switch, though I'm not sure why the latter would cost more than placing a separate switch on each channel circuit board. However, the constructional approach may have a bearing on these decisions too, and while many affordable consoles now rely on single-board construction populated with surface-mount components (a service engineer's nightmare!), the ATB uses separate boards for each channel, with discrete components and socketed ICs, so servicing should be relatively straightforward and spare parts readily obtainable.
There may also be a subjective sonic advantage to this design, which is based on what we think of as old-school concepts, but with some worthwhile modifications, such as the improved mid-band circuitry in the EQ section. The EQ still has what we think of as a 'vintage British' flavour, but with less interaction between the mid-bands than the old Trident Series 80B console EQ, on which this circuit is broadly based. I'm also pleased to see the lower-mid having a sensible frequency range — especially at the low end, where it goes down to 100Hz, rather than the more common 150Hz or even 250Hz adopted by some designs. Overall, the EQ sounds both musical and reasonably positive, and any shortcomings in the 'hi/lo plus two mids' approach can almost certainly be made up for by using additional plug-in or outboard EQ where more surgical precision is required.
The transformerless mic preamps are also the same as used in other Malcolm Toft outboard gear and I've always found these to deliver on quality. They're clean and quiet and don't seem to impose any obvious character of their own, and while 'character' mic preamps may be useful to have in your rack, it makes more sense if your console preamps are as neutral as possible. As to how they compare with other well-designed preamps, that's harder to say, as in most applications, other aspects of the recording environment and the system in general have a more obvious subjective influence. We tried a direct comparison with a Mackie VLZ console, which also sounded very clean, and my thoughts were that the ATB preamps were a hint warmer-sounding at the low end, but they still retained plenty of high-end clarity. During this test I found that I had to have the ATB headphone gain full up to get a sensible monitor level unless using very low-impedance phones (I initially used a pair of 600(omega) phones), whereas the Mackie headphone amp was far louder, even at medium gain settings. There was plenty of level from the ATB with low-impedance Sony headphones, but 200 to 600(omega) seems to be a more common impedance for studio headphones.
Given its reasonable cost, the desk looks extremely serious and is well laid-out, with clear controls and a cosmetic design that retains a degree of old-school charm — especially the coloured anodised metal knobs, and the substantial wooden armrest and side-cheeks. OK, so you still can't tell if the routing buttons are up or down unless you look at them sideways, but then this is an issue with almost all consoles that don't use illuminated buttons, which is something that would add significantly to the cost. Paul White
Each 'channel' in the submaster part of the console actually involves three entirely separate signal paths. The first path is the group output, to which the group mix bus routes via a pre-fade insert point on the rear panel (unbalanced send-return on a TRS socket), followed by the long fader with (again) 5dB in hand. This signal is then dispatched via the balanced group output on a TRS socket, as well as via the digital card, where one is fitted.
Above the fader is a separate, dedicated monitor-return section, which accepts a balanced line input on a TRS socket (with the output of the digital card normalled on its break contacts), and routes that via a tape/submaster select switch, rotary level control and pan-pot to the main stereo mix bus. Thus you can route the output of the submaster group or the corresponding tape/DAW return track to the stereo mix bus (via a pan-pot).
There is a solo button for each monitor return, and two rotary controls provide access to aux sends 5 and 6 (the former being switchable pre- or post-fade, the latter being fixed post-fade).
Above this monitor section is a 12-LED bar-graph meter, scaled from -20 to +15 dBu, and this shows the signal level before the monitor level control knob (in other words, pre-fade). The metering ballistics are not stated in the specifications, but it is clearly some form of quasi-peak reading.
The third signal path is controlled from a section above the meters, as this is where the eight stereo effects-return channels are manipulated. The inputs are via unbalanced TRS sockets wired in the conventional stereo way, with the left channel on the tip and the right channel on the ring. Each stereo effects return is equipped simply with a rotary level control, a balance knob and a mute switch, and feeds straight into the stereo mix bus.
Sadly, there is no provision to switch a mono input to feed both sides of the stereo bus (although to be fair, the need would be rare in the context of normal effects processors). More importantly, there is no facility to route these effects returns into the aux sends. The significance of this is that if you want to put 'vanity reverb' on a vocalist's cue foldback, you'll have to bring the reverb back in on a pair of spare channels (or channel monitors), or via the submaster monitor returns, just to be able to route it to the appropriate aux outputs generating the headphone cue mix. If the desk is working in an in-line configuration, then using the submaster monitor returns to handle the reverb outputs is probably the most workable solution and it doesn't reduce the input channel count.
Finally, right at the top of the submaster section are the six aux send level control masters. The aux outputs are electronically balanced and provided on TRS sockets at the bottom of the rear panel. Unusually, there is no provision to be able to solo any of the aux master outputs, or monitor them in any way. This means that you cannot check the balance of a headphone cue feed, for example, within the desk. Personally, I would find that frustrating, but there are plenty of possible workarounds via outboard headphone amps and the omission is just one of those compromises that have to be made when designing a compact mixer like this for a very competitive price.
The final element of the ATB console is the master section, which uses a blue stereo master fader (again scaled with 5dB in hand). The stereo mix bus signal is routed via unbalanced TRS send-return insert points, and then on to the master fader and the balanced TRS output sockets.
The monitoring section defaults to the stereo mix bus signal, with three push-buttons selecting from either of the two stereo 'two-track' inputs, or the stereo return from the optional digital card. The external two-track inputs connect via unbalanced, stereo TRS sockets but these are wired in reverse, with the right channels on the tips and the left channels on the rings. This is very odd when the stereo FX return sockets are wired in the usual way, but at least this peculiar arrangement is noted in the handbook and it is easy enough to correct when connecting to the stereo source (in most cases). I'm told that there are no plans to correct this issue in subsequent production units, however, as this would cause issues with servicing.
The selected monitoring source is automatically replaced by the solo bus signal whenever a solo button is pressed, of course, and a flashing red LED warns the user of this situation. The level of the solo bus signal can be adjusted with a rotary level control, and it is worth noting that its maximum setting introduces an additional 5dB or so of gain to the post-fade signal. There is no calibration mark or detent for the unity-gain position, but this is not critical when monitoring AFL signals. If the desk is configured to work with PFL signals (via the internal switches), then the PFL level is correct when the Solo control knob is at maximum.
The monitoring source or Solo over-ride signal is displayed on another pair of LED bar graphs, as well as a pair of VU meters (calibrated with 0VU aligning to +4dBu on the bar graphs) at the top of the desk. Having the two alternative metering displays
— 'VU average' and 'pseudo peak-reading' — available simultaneously is useful.
Finally, the monitoring signal feeds a stereo headphone socket at the top of the desk (via its own level control), and one of two monitor speaker outputs (Main and Alt) which share a common level-control knob and summed-mono button. Unusually, the monitor speaker outputs are unbalanced, but given that the monitor amp (or powered speakers) will inherently be placed close to the console, this is unlikely to cause any problems in practice. There was plenty of drive from the headphone amp to generate more than enough level in my 24(omega) Sony 7509s, but I found I often ended up with the headphone level control flat out when using a 600(omega) set of AKG 240 Monitor headphones.
Last, but not least, the built-in talkback mic has its own level control and two non-latching routing buttons enable talkback to all the aux sends (performer talkback) and all the submaster and main stereo outputs (slate). When the latter is selected, the monitoring automatically drops in level by 25dB to prevent potential howlrounds.
The ATB is certainly an attractive-looking desk, and it represents good value for money given its facilities and build quality. The mic preamps are quiet and just on the warm side of neutral, but with plenty of detail and clarity. In comparing them with my reference GML preamps, they sounded smaller and lacked some of the 'larger than life' quality that makes the GMLs so enjoyable — but then we are talking completely different price points here! In a more realistic comparison with my trusty little Mackie 1402VLZ (with the first-generation XDR preamps), the ATB sounded fractionally more bass-heavy (which is no bad thing, actually), and delivered a very clear and revealing mid-range, with an extended and airy top.
The EQ is probably the highlight of the console: it is extremely usable and very musical. The ability to switch the EQ between the channel and monitor paths is an obvious facility to include, though I'm not sure how many will actually use it. Personally, I think I'd have preferred a simpler channel path without EQ to record flat into the DAW, with the ability to EQ the replay signal for mixing. The savings could have been used to expand the feature set of the stereo FX returns (with at least one aux send) and to add solo buttons to the aux masters. I'd have preferred the channel LED level indicators to be pre-fade rather than post, too... but then I'm sure we could all come up with different sets of compromises and facilities to suit our own specific ways of working!
The inclusion of both split and in-line working modes certainly appears to make the ATB very flexible, but I wonder how relevant such concepts are to modern DAW-based working practices — again, though, this is a matter for personal preferences and working patterns. Something which is certainly going to be useful to many is the option of the 8+2 channel bi-directional Firewire-ADAT-S/PDIF digital interface — although this does force the user back into a split console methodology.
There is very little to criticise with the ATB from an ergonomic or sound-quality point of view, but one area that did disappoint was the manual or, more specifically, the block diagrams within it. In general, the manual is well written and very helpful, but all of the signal-flow diagrams contain errors which (me being the kind of sad geek who reads the manual before laying hands on the console) confused me no end.
To give a couple of examples, the input-channel diagram shows the aux 1 signal as post-fade, when it is actually pre-fade, and the monitor section diagram shows aux 6 as pre-fade when it is post-fade. The output metering is also shown as being before the solo bus selector, instead of after, and the diagram suggests there is only a single, balanced stereo monitor speaker output instead of the two unbalanced ones that are actually provided. OK, so in the grand scheme of things these discrepancies can be quickly resolved with a bit of experimentation if you know what you are doing, but I fear they are likely to confuse a lot of potential customers. The expense of updating the paper manuals may well be prohibitive, but it would be trivially simple to correct the downloadable version on the web site, and to include a note within the paper copy to steer the new owner to the updated version.
That's enough of being picky, though: the important point is that I enjoyed using the console and I liked the sounds I obtained from it. It allows easy technical control of a recording session, the metering is clear and accurate, and the internal gain structure seems to have optimised headroom and noise floors very well. I was frustrated at not being able to check a headphone cue mix from the console, and by the inability of the FX returns to contribute to the aux sends, but I was able to find workarounds and the session was completed without problems. Whether or not such issues are 'deal breakers' depends entirely on personal preferences and working practices, but none is insurmountable, and of course the most important aspect is the sound of the console — which is excellent, especially considering the asking price.
The ATB is very competitively priced, given its flexibility and build quality. Perhaps its most obvious competitors are the (getting long in the tooth, although well-proven and still loved) Mackie 24/8, and the Soundcraft Ghost LE consoles. Slightly more expensive is the Oram 8T-24, which was similarly inspired by the Trident design.