What is a recording console and how did the legendary recording studio engineers of the past use it?
At The Recording Session Vault, it is an important component of our mission to promote an understanding through education about how the great music of the past was created. While part of my mission is to write biographies of the people behind the music, feature articles about the great studios, and also to examine the technologies and to spotlight the companies that created them that have been so crucial to the development of popular music, it is also important to understand how the process of creating music actually worked, as well. With this educational series, we will explore the following topics: how the process of recording worked and how and why the technologies that were so important to that process were utilized. Plus, we will also discuss the products that engineers used to record the great popular music that we have come to love and to cherish.
Perhaps no other technology epitomizes the great recording studio environments of the past than the large-format analog consoles that served as both the heart and soul of their famed control rooms. Almost every single photograph of a legendary engineer of the past or of a producer from the Golden Age of Music has them seated at a large-format analog console. Without a doubt, digital audio workstations have changed the very nature of the way in which work is done in the world of professional music recording. There are even major artists, engineers, musicians and producers who are doing the majority of their creative work in home studio environments, some of which do not make use of a traditional, large-format, analog console. However, in most of the major recording studio facilities in the world, large-format analog consoles are still the centerpiece technologies that they have always been and some of these legendary control rooms still feature consoles that are even thirty years old or more.
What is a console? How did this amazing and crucial technology in the world of professional music recording change and evolve over time?
Way too often, when a person who has never worked in the world of professional music recording looks at the picture of a control room in a major recording studio, the first thing that pops out to them is the dizzying array of buttons, knobs and switches (faders) that can be found on the console. In reality, just like each of the other components of the recording studio environment, an analog console is actually very easy to understand and to be able to use— once you step past the sheer number of buttons, knobs and switches (faders). It is important to start with an understanding of what a console actually is and we can accomplish this by learning about the function of a console in the recording studio control room environment. A console is a hub. It is the place where you will do each of the following tasks in a recording studio control room: route all of the signals coming in from the studio environment to be recorded, insert and use each of the pieces of extra hardware (or gear) that you may have to achieve certain desired sounds for your work, route the mix or signals so that the musicians who are playing the music in the studio can hear one another and what you are trying to accomplish, plus, it will allow you to be able to listen to your work on multiple monitor sources. In other words, a console is the vehicle through which you will do all of your work in a recording studio environment (in today’s professional music recording world) in tandem with a digital audio workstation. Let’s think of a console as having essentially two distinctive sections— a channel section, where you will work with each of your individual sources and a master, or monitor section, where you will control how both you and the performers you are working with are able to hear all of the work that is being done in the process of creating great music together. It is truly that simple. In a moment, we will discuss what each of the sections mentioned above are used to accomplish in more detail and we will also demystify what all of those buttons, knobs and faders are used for on an analog console. But, first, I believe that it is helpful to understand where the great analog consoles came from and how these technological marvels evolved over time.
It is important to understand that the great analog consoles that we see in the amazing recording studio control rooms of both the past and the present had their roots in the world of broadcasting and were heavily influenced by it. The great analog consoles were also influenced by the tremendous growth in technologies during and after the Second World War and also by the demands that the artists, engineers, musicians and producers placed upon the industry as it experienced another boom in technological development and growth during the 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, most of the legendary console manufacturers of today have their roots in the period from 1960-1975, including API, Neve, Trident, and Solid State Logic (or, SSL). The first consoles were actually quite simple and contained just a single preamp and volume controls for monitoring. Early music recording consoles were also custom-created for the recording studio facilities in which they were housed. The early consoles at EMI (now Abbey Road) where each of the legendary albums from the Beatles were recorded were all created by the engineering staff. The consoles at Olympic Recording Studios where many of the legendary songs from The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles were recorded were also built by the engineering staff led by Dick Swettingham— who would later create the legendary line of Helios consoles beginning in 1969. One of the early British companies to custom create recording consoles, a few of which made their way to the United States by the late 1960s was Sound Techniques.
Console manufacturing on a large-scale began in the United States with such companies as Electrodyne (Pete’s Place Audio), Spectra (Spectra1964), Flickinger (Skibbe Electronics), Quad Eight (an offshoot of Electrodyne) and API— who custom created consoles and components for each of the major recording studios from the mid-1960s, until the rise of foreign competitors such as Neve and Trident in the early 1970s and later, SSL by the early 1980s. Though we often think of the British companies such as Neve, Trident and SSL as being the dominant forces in the world of professional music recording consoles, American companies had also made some crucial innovations during this period and were tremendous competition for them, as well. For example, the idea of the console channel strip, a concept that we take for granted today, was started by the Electrodyne company which began creating modular channels that contained a sweet-sounding microphone preamp with an equalization section that was a rival to the vaunted Pultec equalization units of the late 1960s. Spectra made some of the greatest consoles and components for them, during this era with their amazing preamps and equalizers, plus, their unrivaled Complimiters. Flickinger made custom consoles, as well, which contained some of the very first three-band equalization units to go with their creamy-sounding preamps. But, in America, it was API that would thrive to become one of the most innovative companies during that period— a hallmark of this fabulous professional audio company which still continues to this very day, as they would introduce a modular console series and built the fabulous components which went into it, including the amazing sounding preamps, equalization and dynamics units. In effect, it was API that gave us the fantastic 500-series and its modular form.
Increasingly, throughout the 1970s as the professional audio world eventually made the jump to first recording with 24-track analog tape machines and then with the innovation of automation (where you can record the moves that you would make while mixing a song— sort of like playing the console as an instrument), the channel strips of consoles became more and more feature-laden and their routing abilities became increasingly more complex. Nowadays, most of the automation for a song is done much more easily in a digital audio workstation, though almost all of the major console manufacturers today offer both full automation and with it, digital audio workstation control with their desks (another term for console)— including models from AMS-Neve, API, Audient and SSL and other manufacturers, too. In the next section, I am going to demystify a large-format analog console to show you just how easy it is to be able to use one.
How does an analog console work?
If you are sitting in front of an analog console, just keep in mind what was mentioned earlier and that is that an analog console has two sections— a channel section and a monitor section. You use the channel section, which comes in strips (depending on the number of channels, of course, this could be anywhere from 8 to 80). Each channel strip has the same functions, so that you can work with your individual sources or tracks. For example, your first channel may have your bass guitar track, the second your kick drum, the third your snare drum, the fifteenth, maybe an acoustic guitar— you get the picture. Each instrument will have its own channel or channel strip on your console, so that you can apply effects, sculpt it or send it to a device to be recorded and then listen to or monitor your work. The monitor section is where you will listen to all of your work, it contains functions such as speaker selection, output processing (a compressor or limiter, for example) and the ability to control the volume and routing of what the musicians in the studio are able to hear while you are doing your work. In essence, you will do your work for an individual instrument or voice in the channel strip section, whereas in the monitor section, you will control how both you and the musicians are able to hear the work that you are doing.
It should be noted that there are also two different types of consoles, split and in-line. The vast majority of the consoles on the market today are in-line consoles. A split console has two sections— a channel section where everything is sent to a destination for recording (a digital audio workstation or a tape machine) and a monitor section (where you hear the playback), plus, a master monitor section (where you can control what you and your musicians are able to listen to during the process of either recording or mixing). In-line consoles have both the send to the recording device (a short fader) and the return from it on the same channel strip (a long fader), and usually in the center of the console is its monitoring section where all of the channels are routed to so that you can listen to (or monitor) your work in the control room (and so that both you and the musicians can hear each other and your work in the studio during the process of recording or mixing).
All large-format consoles normally require a patchbay. Think of a patchbay as a place where you can connect all of your gear, however you may wish to do so, to do your work at the console. It is the place (the nerve center) where you can connect any piece of gear, or create any signal chain that you desire for doing your work in the control room.
Special Note— In general, most large-format analog consoles also require a separate power supply to keep them both cool and functioning for long periods of time. Usually, these power supplies are located in a separate room that is close to, but not inside of the control room, as they normally have fans which can be a bit noisy to keep these monster units cool and at optimum functionality.
How does a channel strip work on a large-format console?
Typically, a console channel strip from top to bottom will have the following elements, or functions. We will explore each of them on a typical inline console.
Bussing Matrix— Depending on how many busses your console has and how they are configured you can use this matrix for the following functions: to send signals to be recorded in a recording device, to send signals to effects units or outboard gear for processing, or you could use it to send your work to the musicians who are in the studio, so that they can hear both themselves and your work in the control room. (Depending on the console and its configuration, you may either be able to select an individual buss or you will have to use a pan knob to select the buss you wish to use. Busses come in a matrix of 8 or more switches, but always in an even number, so, for example, if you want to send a signal to buss 1, you will simply turn the pan knob to the left, conversely, if you want to send a signal to buss 2, just turn it to the right.)
Input— The input section will contain the microphone preamp for the process of boosting the sources that are being captured by the microphones (instruments) in the studio. (Do be careful, because phantom power is also available for condenser microphones in the preamp section, as well.) Below it, a line level source control is normally available and this can be used to control the volume of either the playback of your recording device or to boost the level of the signals coming back from the gear that you may be using for processing (i.e. external equalization units or compressors).
Auxes— An auxiliary simply takes a copy of your signal and sends it to another place. Usually, you use an auxiliary send to route your signal to an outboard processing unit, such as a reverb unit or a compressor, for example. These sends can be used to send signals to the musicians in the studio— in other words, they can perform a function similar to a buss in that respect.
Equalization— Depending upon the console, you can either have a 3 or 4-band (or even a graphic) equalization unit included on your channel strips for sculpting and shaping your signals. Usually these include high or low-pass filters, as well.
Dynamics— Depending on the console, you may have a section which features dynamics— such as a compressor or even a noise gate in a module on your channel strip. It is to be noted that this feature appears most commonly on only the large-format console configurations.
What are inserts? Inserts allow you to patch in or insert gear, such as an equalizer or a compressor into the signal path of the console channel strip that you are working on. Let’s say that you are using the channel equalization on your console, but you want to have a compressor after it in your signal chain. You would simply connect (by using your chords at your patch bay) the channel insert send to the input of your compressor and then return the signal from the output of the compressor using the insert return and then it will be a part of your signal chain that can be monitored on the channel at the console.
Pan— Usually there are two panning sections— one which is attached to the bussing matrix which can be used to select whether you are sending a signal to either an even-numbered buss (by turning it to the right) or to an odd-numbered buss (by turning it to the left) and another which allows you to place instruments or sources in the two-dimensional stereo spectrum of sound.
The stereo spectrum of sound is two-dimensional. Imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall and watching a band perform on the stage. You would see the singer in the front, and the drummer and the bass player also in the center of the stage, but behind the vocalist. To the right of the singer, you might have an acoustic guitar player, while on the left, the band may have an electric guitar player. Panning allows you to place each instrument as it would belong on the stage and would sound as if you were listening to them in that environment. Most engineers will place the bass and the vocal, of course, in the center (no panning at all), but might put one guitar on the left (turning the panning knob to the left for the channel that contains the acoustic guitar) and the other on the right (turning the panning knob to the right for the channel that contains the electric guitar)— just as an example.
Short Fader— Though it can often be just a volume control knob, the small fader is normally used to send signals to a recording device. It also determines the level of the signal that is sent to such a device. (Its role can be flipped with that of the long fader.)
Long Fader— This section contains the volume for the channel coming back from your recording device for the purpose of listening to it as a part of the mix. It determines the level of the signal on that channel that you will be hearing in your mix. (Its role can also be flipped with that of the short fader.)
On the long fader, you will have two other buttons which will be labeled, SOLO and MUTE. Pressing SOLO will mute all of the other channels on the console, while MUTE will just silence the single channel that you are doing your work on.
How does a master section on a large-format console work?
The master section of an analog console is where you monitor or control how you will be able to listen to the work that you have been doing in the control room. It normally contains the following components: a master bussing matrix, a master solo indicator, an oscillator, a talkback section, a master aux section (auxiliaries) and a monitor selection section. Some consoles may also have a stereo buss compressor— but, it depends on the model and the brand. Most API, Audient, Neve and SSL consoles may have one that either comes standard with the desk or as an option. Most Trident consoles do not feature a buss compressor.
Master Bussing Matrix: The master bussing matrix determines the level of signal being sent from the busses at the console to a recording device, a piece of gear or to the musicians in the studio. For each buss at the top of a console channel strip, you will have a master buss which will control the amount of signal being sent to its final destination.
Master Solo: This knob controls the volume of the tracks that have been placed in solo mode. For example, if you have your drum tracks being returned to console channels 2-9 and those tracks are placed in SOLO mode on each of those channel strips, then the Master Solo knob will control only the volume of those selected tracks (in this case, the drum tracks on channels 2-9).
The Oscillator: This function is a holdover from the days of analog recording when the console was used to send tones to each of the channels, or to other areas in the control room or the studio for testing the equipment. You may rarely ever use it.
The Talkback Section: It is in this section where you will communicate with the musicians that you are recording in the control room who are playing their instruments or performing in the studio. When you depress the talkback button, it cuts every signal in the control room and activates a small microphone so that you can speak to your clients without the fear of a potentially dangerous feedback loop occuring in the control room.
Master Aux Section: This section is where you will control the amount of the signal being sent from the aux sends on your channel strips to a reverb or effects unit, or even to the musicians in the studio if you are using it to create your headphone mix so that you can communicate with them. (During tracking, I would use the auxes to communicate with the musicians. If I was mixing, I would use them to send signals to effects units.)
Monitor Selection Section: This is perhaps the heart of the master monitor section on an analog console. It is where you will select the monitors (or the speakers) and the sources which you would like to listen to while you are doing your work. The master volume for the console and therefore, what you will be listening to and how you will be able to listen to it, is controlled in this section of your console.
How did the legendary recording studio engineers of the past use large-format analog recording consoles?
When discussing how the legendary recording studio engineers of the past used the famed large-scale analog consoles that still continue to be dominant in the world of professional music recording, we must address three key issues: how was the console used during tracking sessions, how was the console used during a mixing session and also, what might have led a legendary engineer or recording studio facility to prefer one console brand or design over another.
During a tracking session, the legendary engineers that I had the honor of being able to work with would use the console for the following tasks: sending signals to a recording device, sending the mix to the musicians in the studio so that everyone could hear one another and for listening in the control room. Most of the engineers would bring in their own gear— such as preamps from API or Neve, or compressors from DBX or what is Universal Audio today. However, each of them would also use the preamps from the console and the bussing matrix to send signals to tape. The auxes were used to create a headphone mix for the musicians. No engineer brought in enough gear to replace the console and despite all of the great gear that every Nashville, Austin or Los Angeles studio had in their racks, the console was used for recording— in all its glory. Most of the consoles that were used for tracking that I was able to experience were from Trident, SSL, API or Neve. We had a Euphonix console (now owned by Avid) in Curb Recording Studio where I worked primarily, but it was one of the few consoles at that time in which most of the engineers would use the outboard gear, such as preamps from John Hardy, API and Neve rather than the console. In the other recording studio facilities, most of the amazing engineers used the consoles for just about everything, in terms of routing— it was truly the hub for their work in the control room. In the other studios, the engineers (as noted above) would use a few of their own preamps and compressors that they had brought into the studio that we would patch in to the studio patchbay system, so that it could be used in the recording process. But, it’s true, we did use the console for the bulk of the recording process and it would have been unimaginable to have worked without an SSL 4000G+, SSL 9000J, Neve 8068, Neve VR60, API Legacy, Trident A-Range or a Trident 80B. These legendary consoles enabled the legendary recording studio engineers of the past to record so much of the great music that we have come to love and to cherish.
During the mixing sessions the console became like an instrument to be played by an engineer. Every engineer that I had the opportunity to work with on a mixing session used the console for its equalization and routing capabilities— using the auxes to send signals to reverb units, or the inserts to connect outboard equalization units and compressors for sculpting and shaping sounds. The auxes could also be used for submixes (today’s engineers refer to these as stems) to add more punch to a song, while the compression would come from a stereo compressor in the equipment rack, the ability to place it in the mix was completely done at the console. The importance of the panning of the instruments in the mix— placing them appropriately in the stereo spectrum was all done at the console. The automation at the console enabled the engineers to be able to adjust the volume level of each of the tracks, so that you could hear a guitar solo cut through the mix, or the background vocals come into place or the drum fills appear at just the correct emotional moment in a song. While the gear in the equipment racks may have been very important for shaping the mix for a song, it was the console that brought each of those sounds of great music together in a single place. Plus, we should also not discount the very fact that on almost all of the legendary consoles, such as the Neve, API, Trident and SSL models, the equalization and in some instances, the dynamics that were featured on each of the channel strips were used by the great engineers of the past to create the music that we come to love and to cherish.
Why might an engineer prefer to have a certain type of console?
Just like with microphones, monitors and gear, each and every console has a different sound. For example, there are engineers who like to track (record music) on either Neve or Trident consoles and mix on an SSL console. There are also engineers who like to do all of their work on an API console. The reason for this is simply because each type of console has a different sound, or has features which engineers like for either recording or mixing. It may be that an engineer or a producer has a favorable view of their routing features or the modules which can be found on their channel strips— such as their preamps, equalizers or compressors. Some engineers enjoy the buss compressors that are featured on certain console models. Some console models, (particularly the digital models) are easier for engineers to use than others. And still, there are quite a few vintage or classical consoles which are available in recording studios— a few of them are more than forty years old and still recording the great music of today. In fact, in the past— producers often booked studios depending on the sound of their console. In today’s professional audio world, consoles remain quite important, but summing mixers, touchscreen digital audio workstation controllers and small-format consoles (analog and digital) have also become very important as so much more music is being recorded in the homes of artists, engineers, musicians and producers.
What are some of the great consoles of the past that are still available for educational institutions to be able consider for their needs?
Very few of the legendary consoles of the past are available for purchase today, though many of them can still be found in use in fine recording studio facilities around the world. However, the companies which made those legendary consoles do make new and fabulous desks that would be excellent choices for educational institutions and some of these will be listed below. I have also listed some new digital consoles, touchscreen digital audio workstation controllers, summing mixers and small-format consoles that would also be excellent choices for an educational institution.
AMS-Neve— Genesys Black
Audient— 4816 SE and HE
Slate Media Technology— Raven MTi and MTZ
Chandler Limited— Mini-Rack Mixer
If you are looking for a vintage or classical SSL or Neve console, such as an SSL 4000G+ or a Neve VR-60, AES Pro Audio refurbishes, restores and custom creates these legendary desks. Also, other companies such as Sonic Circus do (on occasion) sell or restore vintage or classical consoles.
If you would like to have sample lesson plans that dovetail with the readings in the Educational Guide, you can find them in this section of each unit. The sample lesson plans contain suggested readings, activities, questions for assessment and links to videos, websites and tutorials that can be used to teach the students in your classroom. Even if you have never set foot in a major recording studio facility before, these lessons can be used to guide both you and your students through the process of both learning about and how to use the equipment that you would find in a legendary recording studio in your own classroom. If you have any questions, or need any assistance either teaching or using the materials in these sample lesson plans, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Sample Lesson Plan-1 (Lesson Title-- What are the basic sections of an analog console?)