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Off The Record: Large-format Consoles

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published March 2017

Large-format mixing consoles have been in decline for years — but could there be life in them yet?

Automobile designers are in the process of figuring out what the dashboards of autonomous cars will look like once they no longer require a steering wheel. Studio designers have been doing the same thing for a while now, only their steering wheel is the battleship mixing console, which, in the digital era, has grown smaller and, in the age of in-the-box production, is disappearing, replaced by displays, touchscreens and a mouse.

The departure of consoles raises another question: where does such a big, expensive thing go when it’s no longer needed? An SSL 4000G with 80 channels weighs over 1800 pounds and is nearly 12 feet long. It’s not something that can be left out by the curb when its time has come, and it just doesn’t seem right to turn it into a planter.

Up In The Air

Off The Record March 2017 image.The commercial airliner industry seems to offer a template solution. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to those Boeing 727s that were once so ubiquitous at US and European airports, you will find many of them, along with a bunch of McDonnell-Douglas MD-11s, Lockheed L-1011s and BAC One-11s, plying passenger and cargo routes in the Third World, still capable of lifting a payload, though often with a few missing parts and some gaffer tape here and there. So it’s becoming with the massive monoliths of the analogue-era studio. Dave Malekpour, who owns Boston-based Professional Audio Design (PAD), a studio design consultancy that also does a brisk business in new speakers and used consoles, says big consoles with greatly reduced price tags — desks that once cost $1 million might now sell in the second- or third-hand market for about $50,000 — are finding homes in Africa and Asia, where studios like the cachet that classic brands like SSL, API, Trident and Neve retain and find that the size of the consoles have an equally enormous worth for impressing clients. He recently sent a pair of SSL 4000 consoles to facilities in Mozambique and Cambodia.

Malekpour says the turning point for the big rigs came around 2005, a few years after the CD began a precipitous decline that took much of the old-school record business and its generous studio purchase orders with it. Many studios simply could no longer afford the capital or the ongoing parts and maintenance costs in big-frame desks; in an era when much of the hardware of music production was rapidly losing its intrinsic value to software plug-ins, the biggest consoles were losing it at an even faster rate.

Malekpour says it’s not all goodbyes for the older desks — many are cut down into smaller footprints or made into sidecars. And more live on in the form of channel strips rehoused in racks. “In some cases the individual parts are worth more than the entire console in one piece,” he says.

When they do have to go for good, it can be difficult to find recyclers capable of handling such large items. Recycling electronics now is far more complicated and tightly regulated than even a few years ago. Under federal and state rules, hazardous waste is subject to certain handling, recycling, and disposal requirements that can be costly. Processed scrap metal and shredded circuit boards that are recycled are specifically excluded from solid waste regulations and therefore are not subject to hazardous waste regulations, provided they are stored in containers and free of mercury switches and relays, and nickel-cadmium and lithium batteries.

Emotional Attachments

Another route for retiring big consoles is the tax write-off via donation, which is available to the extent that there’s any residual value left on paper, assuming the owners had been depreciating them on a schedule during their time of use. The growing number of music-production programmes at state universities, which are by nature non-profit, is encouraging this strategy. A valid appraisal is required to determine market value, something that certain used-equipment resellers and brokers may be willing to do for a fee (which is also tax deductible, incidentally).

But that brings up an interesting point, one made by Oshine Najarian, who runs an online pro-AV equipment resale business out of the Atlanta area: “One of the things we see, and which is why some of these older big consoles are still around, is that someone who bought the console 25 or 30 years ago has developed a real emotional attachment to it,” he explains. That sentimental miasma reinforces a perceptual value for the owner that’s often nowhere near its actual value. Worse, says Najarian, this same phenomenon — which was the ruin of more than a few homeowners during the recession — results in the console losing even more value as the owner’s illusions let more time slip by. “It’ll sit in a warehouse or wherever and it just depreciates more,” he says. And in that time, even more of the same vintage desks get added to the cumulative global pile, reducing value through excess supply while demand diminishes further.

In the end, procrastination may be the cause for more battleship consoles still on this earth than might be necessary, particularly in places where storage space isn’t an existential matter, as it is in New York. There is a well-known pro audio PR maven who has what might once have been a perfectly useful if dated BMW in his backyard that has become a de facto planter, a manifestation of Newton’s First Law of Motion. There are lots of big consoles sitting around for similar reasons, waiting for either their prince to come or for decay to conquer.

But there will also remain a sturdy core of facilities and people who want what these big desks can offer, which is not only incredible sound but also a very visible emblem of taste. They’ve also become the ultimate backdrop for uncountable music documentaries, as definitive as a television reporter doing a stand-up in front of the White House or 10 Downing Street, lending authenticity to someone’s pronouncements on the state of the music industry. However, all the vinyl in the world isn’t going to bring back the days when the big board was the hub of the music-production universe, so let’s appreciate them while we can.