Studio tool or collectors’ item: what has become of the large-format mixing console?
People have put a lot of effort into naming recording facilities, using biographical, geographical or just plain quixotic cues, like Electric Lady. But the studio rooms within those facilities are generally monickered far more prosaically: Studio A, Studio B and so on. However, they also once tended to take on the identity of the most central piece of equipment in them: the console. Individual studios were said to be ‘the SSL room’ or ‘the Neve room’ or ‘the Trident room’. It was a shorthand that spoke reams technically and evoked sometimes extreme emotional responses. In some cases the names transcended branding to become dog whistles tuned for very particular ears. In the ‘80s in New York, advertising agencies would call up studios enquiring as to whether they had an SSL. They wouldn’t ask if one had an SSL console — it was just ‘SSL,’ reflecting the near-magical status that those consoles had achieved among the city’s Mad Men, who had no idea what the hell it did but who knew that it was what the hottest jingle producers wanted for commercial music.
That kind of self-identity is disappearing, along with the production and mixing process itself, into the box, literally and metaphorically. The battleship console has considerably less cachet these days, as the production process has moved into smaller residential environments, and more of their functionality and — far more subjectively — their sonics have been replicated digitally in the form of plug-ins and apps.
But that does not mean that these old soldiers are ready to fade away. There remains a brisk trade in vintage desks and, in the process, studios and individual owners are using them as signifiers. Think of them as really expensive, complicated vinyl records, whose mere presence is meant to convey a sense of aural high-mindedness.
Gerhard Buchbauer owns Prime Studio, near Innsbruck, in Austria. He’s not trying to corner the market in historical consoles, it just looks that way. His Studio B is already home to one of the two EMI TG12345 MK IV desks ever built, and which came from Abbey Road Studios, as did an EMI Pathé Marconi desk. A Neve 8016 at Prime was once the main console at Caribou Ranch Studios in Colorado. He recently finished up the details of having the Neve 8068 desk from Muscle Shoals Studios shipped over to him.
Prime is hardly a museum. Its main control room is THX pm3 certified, and Buchbauer offers services in post-production, film editing, colour grading and commercials, as well as music production. But the provenance of these consoles conveys a gravitas that you can’t get from a plug–in. When you walk into Jungle City, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood, the first piece of gear you encounter is a bespoke EMI TG12345 MkIII desk, one of 14 made for EMI studios and sourced from EMI Brazil by way of AR Studios. As an introduction to the space, the console (with its charming separate talkback switch reserved for ‘Artist’s Manager,’ recalling a much more formal era of music production) is no mere artifact. It’s a welcome mat that says, here, you’re among friends.
Joe Bean, an equipment broker in Nashville, compares desks like these to classic autos or watches — they need more TLC than today’s digital desks but they offer sonic rewards that he and others believe cannot be digitally duplicated. “These are consoles for people who really care about audio, about what music should sound like,” he told me. And that’s the message that the presence of such a console connotes — it doesn’t have to have current running through it to speak.
While their historical and perceptual values are significant, these consoles also have an economic value, though that can vary greatly according to a number of factors, such as condition and vintage. Bean, who has brokered the Music Shoals console twice now, says the most recent transaction brought nearly three times the amount that the previous one, in 2006, commanded. He estimates that a connection to an iconic facility like Abbey Road, or to a particularly classic recording — Caribou’s 8068 spun its magic for U2’s Under A Blood Red Sky and Rick Derringer’s All American Boy — can add 10 percent or more to the price of a consoles. “They’re not making any more of them,” he says of their scarcity, “and you can’t recreate their sound with a box.”
And these vintage consoles can still very much be workhorses. Bean points out that MIDI and DAW integration with Flying Faders has been available for some time, allowing vintage Neve desks to integrate into modern workflows.
Like the vinyl revival, some vintage consoles recall a different kind of design and manufacturing ethos, one that dovetails nicely with the Millennial fixation on craft. Dave Malekpour, whose Pro Audio Design company in Boston has brokered consoles like the Rupert Neve-designed Air Montserrat console — one of only three ever made — points to the toroidal transformers on virtually every I/O on the desk. It’s now at Subterranean Sound in Toronto. Like others who broker these kinds of items, he’s seen it through multiple transactions, including its stays at A&M Studios in LA and Alaire Studios in upstate New York. He points out that one economic advantage that vintage equipment has is a considerably slower rate of depreciation compared to new products. “Even if a vintage console just holds its value, you’re still ahead, compared to a digital console,” he estimates, but adds that that’s also dependent on the amount of money it takes to restore and maintain a classic console. Like a vintage automobile, you really don’t know what you’re in for until you get deep under the hood.
But at a time when there are fewer and fewer easily recognisable differentiators between production environments, the classic battleship console reasserts itself, a diamond ring the size of a boulder that says, ‘Yeah, we mean business.’ Even if it’s not plugged in.