2. A guide to analogue mixing consoles

The Eccentric back-of-a-large-envelope guide to analogue mixing consoles

More and more clients and potential clients are calling to ask my advice about buying an analogue console. While I understand the desire to return to the golden age of sonic splendour, I am concerned at the misconceptions and poor advice promulgated by the internet.

Having sold, serviced, installed and commissioned upwards of five hundred new and used analogue mixing consoles over the last two creaky decades – probably more than any other reseller in Europe if not the world – I’ve learnt the hard way that many pitfalls lie in wait for the unwary, and as someone who takes pride in ensuring all the used equipment we sell is serviced and supported by the best technical backup available, I’m extremely selective about those desks Funky Junk is involved with. I like my clients to sleep well at night because that means I sleep well too. Sadly, though, we’re called upon to help the sleepless all too often when they leap into the dark based upon myth, half-baked internet garbage or blind faith.

Accordingly, I’ve jotted down a VERY BASIC guide about what to avoid, what to look for and what to bear in mind when considering a new or used analogue desk.

USED CONSOLES

Very few manufacturers have built professional large format mixing consoles over the last twenty years, the most notable exceptions being SSL and Neve. Most such desks appearing on the market are therefore between twenty and forty years old and no matter how splendiferous they may have been in their day, age has inevitably wearied them. Recording consoles generate heat and heat kills components over time, meaning that the majority of older consoles suffer from a variety of problems with capacitors, potentiometers, meters (particularly bargraphs), automation computers, resistors and switches. Although some parts can be replaced – often a very laborious and time consuming process – many others are no longer available meaning that these desks are almost always in a sad and sorry state and many can’t be refurbished for the simple reasons that parts are no longer available. Because we service and support the desks we sell, we’ve sadly had to walk away from a lengthy list of desks that once offered sonic excellence but now induce incurable headaches. Examples include:

AMEK

In their day, the larger Amek desks offered a level of performance on a par with anything on the market. Sadly though, that day was two decades ago and only the brave or foolhardy should consider one these days. Typical problems include dried capacitors, scratchy and intermittent pots, dead power supplies and defunct automation.

MCI

The MCI 500 was one of the best sounding desks ever made, and is still prized in certain quarters. However, almost without exception they require recapping and major servicing of channels, meters and (if fitted) automation and parts are virtually impossible to get. If you covet one of these lovely desks, be prepared to spend as much on overhauling as on purchase. The MCI 600 was built to more of a budget and suffers from module connector problems, capacitor issues and other faults. Be very careful.

HARRISON

Regarded by many as amongst the best sounding desks ever made, the series three and four use many parts that are no longer available.

CADAC

Cadac made classic consoles in the 1970’s but moved into theatre desks in the early 80s. I’ve never been quite as crazy about the classic Cadac sound as many – to me it’s a little clean and lacking in personality. I get quite a few calls about Cadac but advise caution – the EQ is based on a discrete IC called a ‘rotator’ which was found to have a limited shelf life and can’t be found any more. Nevertheless, for audiophiles prepared to make the effort and investment, these classic desks represent a bargain compared to classic Neves.

CALREC

A lot of ex-broadcast Calrec consoles have flooded the market in recent years. Beautifully made though they are, they are designed for broadcast and have a whole load of baloney going on that is useless for music recording. Additionally, they often arrive without patchbays (and require MAJOR installation) and components are surface mounted, making servicing without special tools and skills pretty much impossible. Despite this, they’re fantastically well-made and reliable, so offer those on budget prepared to work round the broadcastiness of the design a very high quality desk at a very affordable price. Usually a bit of a project, though, to be honest.

SOUNDCRAFT

Soundcraft made some excellent desks in the 1980’s (not to be confused with later downmarket Ghost style consoles) including the 2400, the 16 buss 1600 (as owned by Bob Dylan and Dave Stewart) and the Sapphyre (beloved of Reggae producers and Adrian Sherwood amongst others). For reasons best known to the ignoramuses of Gearslutz, these have become about as fashionable as my haircut, so can be picked up for relative peanuts.

Yes, pots and capacitors can be an issue if the desks have been heavily used, but generally they’re relatively easy to service, requiring elbow grease rather than quids, and as long as you’re not trying to impress your neighbour with the glitz, you can cut some great sounding tracks with these (and impress snotty-pants neighbour with the sound).

It’s worth mentioning that small 1980’s Soundcraft desks, including the 400, 500, 600 and 16- or 24-bus 6000, are also exceptional value for money. And you can always put a Neve sticker over the Soundcraft logo and trick Mr. Gearslutz into believing you’ve robbed a bank; I doubt he’d know the sonic difference.

DIGITALLY CONTROLLED ANALOGUE

Companies such as Harrison (series 10 and 12) and Euphonics (CS2000 and CS3000) made excellent sounding digitally controlled analogue consoles, offering a level of recall that went beyond that offered by strictly analogue consoles, although in this Pro Tools age, this is no longer the boon it once was. Sadly, neither company supports previous generations of desk these days, so buys should be very wary.

The other digitally controlled analogue desk worthy of considering is the OTARI STATUS, which offers a mad amount of facilities and powerful automation in a compact package.

DESKS WORTH CONSIDERING

The list of potentially serviceable desks is getting shorter by the year and by and large, those worth considering tend to be high-end, although they may now be available for bargain prices. However, there is a reason for this.

Useable consoles fall into two categories:

Modern Large Format

SSL 4000 series (E, G and G+)

SSL 4056G+

SSL consoles are well built, use good quality components and are relatively easily serviceable by a qualified tech. They are powerful, have a pleasing ‘gloss’ to the sound beloved of R&B, pop, rap and hip-hop producers, and in these Pro Tools days, are not as reliant on the (often cranky) automation as they once were.

The downside is that they need a separate machine room (for power supplies and computer, both of which are noisy), need to be turned on 24/7, generate a lot of heat meaning that both the control room and machine room must be air conditioned and require regular maintenance. Potential buyers should be aware that electricity costs could run into five figures annually.

Weaknesses are routing switches (an expense pain to replace) and bargraph meters (if fitted), plus, of course, non-availability of power supplies and computer processing boards.

Nevertheless, later SSLs are still prized by leading producers and studios and probably represent the safest option for those prepared to pay a sensible price for a well cared for and maintained example.

NEVE

Neve VR36

After Siemens bought the company in 1982, Neve produced a series of automated IC based consoles that offered fantastic sonic quality and modern facilities (for the time), including the 8028/8128/8228, V1, V2, V3 and VR (essentially a V3 with recall). Large format Neve consoles are capable of offering the ultimate hi-fi recording/mixing quality and the V series have dynamics on all channels (like SSLs) as well as extremely powerful EQ.

The downside is that these are complicated thoroughbred mechanical beasts that require constant maintenance to perform to the utmost. Most worryingly, the V series suffer from serious capacitor and switch problems, and potential buyers should ascertain that the desk has been relatively recently recapped and reswitched because if it hasn’t, it will need attention soon, and this could run into many thousands of pounds.

Like SSL 4000’s, large format Neves need a machine room, require expensive installation and ongoing maintenance, and constant air con in the control room, making them expensive to run (electricity including air conditioning and service costs could run to £10,000 per annum for a 72 input).

STUDER

Studer 900 mixing Desk

Studer was the largest console manufacturer in the world in the 1980s, believe it or not, although most of their desks went into the broadcast market. Despite having no in-line monitors, they can be easily recycled for modern recording and are well worth considering, as they offer superb value.

Good quality components were used and most are still available (faders being the biggest issue). They run cool, meaning capacitors tend not to be a problem and air conditioning is not essential, power supplies are convection cooled so can be sited in the control room, and the EQ and facilities are flexible, comprehensive and musical. These desks will start to gain a reputation of affordable classics as the better known vintage desk rocket in value.

TRIDENT

Trident-series80

I find myself recommending Trident desks to more and more clients, as this make is one of the few ‘vintage’ lines that combines a classic ‘vibe’ with a quality sound and relatively easy maintenance with parts generally being available.

The best known console is the Series 80 (available in four flavours: Series 80, early 80B, later 80B and 80C) which have musical swept EQ, four mono and a stereo aux send (like the SSL), 24 monitors (with filters/EQ and aux on later versions) and VU metering. Early desks were 32 inputs (offering 56 on mix) and the later 80B/80C were 30 inputs, offering 54 on mix (plus aux returns). Maybe a bit of a one trick pony, they’re beloved of the grunge fraternity in the States but also plumbed into some of the most reputable rock studios around the world (such as Sawmills in the UK where the classic Oasis albums were recorded amongst others). The Series 70 is a 16 buss version and is, to my eyes and ears, one of the cutest professional consoles ever made.

Trident also made other good sounding desks – the A range and B range were fully discrete and preceded the Series 80 though can require a lot of work; but the more budget TS24, Series 75 and Series 65 offer fully professional consoles in an affordable and extremely useable format (VU meters, plenty of aux’s, musical swept EQ and low maintenance). Definitely worth considering.

DDA

DDA QMR 24/16

David Dearden is widely respected in audio design circles, and to my mind is a far more important innovator than either Malcolm Toft or John Oram, though reticent when it comes to singing his own praises. Having designed several of the classic Soundcraft desks in the late 1970’s and 80’s, he struck out on his own with DDA consoles and started with the huge AMR24 – an extremely large desk that offered an alternative to the monsters being offered by NEVE and SSL in the mid 1980’s. However, he saw how the industry was changing when others failed, and designed a series of more compact consoles that anticipated the need for good sounding, well build, low-service modern consoles ideal for smaller rooms or home producer suites. If you find one in good condition, you won’t be disappointed.

For example, ten years ago I advised a new college to invest in a used DMR12 (DDA’s clever twist on a split console, with twelve mic/line inputs and 24 line only monitor inputs with full EQ and auxiliaries), and although the college has relocated twice and is now one of the most successful institutes in London with hundreds of students, that desk is still going strong with a minimum of repairs or service.

Other desks in the series include the QMR (as used by Nicky Ryan to recording the multi-million selling Enya albums). Now available for peanuts, these superbly designed desks remain as relevant to the modern recording suite as ever, despite being trashed in bone-headed recording chatrooms and forums by ignoramuses who’ve never been within a mile of using one and who rave about shoddy modern travesties that rely on big knobs and hype to generate sales. Let them whinge – if you want quality at a bargain price and aren’t snobbish about the name on the tin, there are serious bargains to be had.

Oh, by the way, Mr Dearden is also the talent behind Audient (see below) although to my mind, his DDA desks are superior in just about every respect (and when made cost several times as much).

 


  1. An Introduction To Mixing Consoles
  2. A Guide To Analogue Mixing Consoles
  3. Current Analogue Consoles
  4. Small Neve Classic Desks
  5. Other Small Classic Desks
  6. 6. Consoles FAQ