Buying a vintage recording console: part one

Finding the right one...

Buying a vintage recording console: part one - Finding the right one... - by Simon Campbell

The heart and soul of any serious studio is the console and since moving to Estivella in November 2014, we have been looking for 'the one'. This is part one of the story detailing the factors that influenced our decision and what we eventually bought. Enjoy

Deciding to open a recording studio in this musical climate is a brave move but the facility was principally designed to record our next album.

I still have clients asking if they can record with us, so we have decided to open commercially for 16 weeks a year.

What's the point of a large analog console?

There is no doubt for many styles of music creation and production, amazing results can be had by recording at home using just a computer, Ableton and a MIDI keyboard.

This home revolution has caused many great studios to hang up their 'cans' and go out of business, but we believe that like us, there is a groundswell of artists who again want to capture their performance using an analog signal path and then mix with big knobs :)

Let's face it, you can't capture drums and rock 'n roll guitars in your bedroom...


Recently, I wrote an article about the quest to find a console: Studios, Basques, Yoda and Perros Del Boogie and a little more in the Sound Recording is Easy article but thought further detail was in order...

What is vintage?

From what I see now, anything that was made two weeks ago can claim to be vintage!

Seriously though, for the purposes of this article, I believe vintage to be something that was made in a pre-digital age and based on engineering concepts forged during the sixties and seventies.

What were our criteria?

Of course before even opening your trusty browser you need a list of what you want, and more importantly what you don't. Like a classic car or boat, they are hard to buy and very hard to sell, so here you go!

Reliability

This is vital, as a problematic desk just isn't worth the hassle. You can have the greatest sounding machine in the world but if it crackles, hums, or is intermittent on a session, it's less than useless.

Naturally, if you have a large facility with a brilliant in-house maintenance person, this is not a problem, but for us located in a mountain village near Valencia, it could spell D O O M...


Budget

This is the next obvious question and one has to remember that the purchase is just the beginning.

Transporting a big lump of a desk in a truck will inevitably cause problems and you really need an engineer to assist with the installation ensuring that everything is setup and working correctly. We can tell you from experience on a 40 channel console, this takes a LONG time :)

It's also easy to forget that all large consoles have a plethora of multi-pin connectors, so you need to budget for extensive cabling to your outboard, recorder and live room.

Size

In our case the physical size of the console wasn't too much of a problem, except it had to get onto the first floor (see part two).

As we are going to record a variety of artists, from singer-songwriters to full bands, we needed a minimum of 24 inputs on record and 40 channels on mix. Being an old skool tape kinda guy, I wanted to set it up like a 24 track machine which kind of steers you towards a split console (ie separate monitor section) until of course you are reminded again how bloody big these things are in the flesh.

Facilities

On any large console a high density patchbay is totally essential to make use of the facilities. Older consoles used standard GPO jacks and the patchbays themselves can be totally enormous, so for us a high density bantam was essential.


We also wanted to make sure we could deal with headphone mixes easily. I find the 'Hearback' kind of system very troublesome. Giving musicians too much choice as to what they hear is a recipe for pain and suffering in the control room and distracts them from working together as a band.

A number of good old fashioned 'aux sends' seem to be best and of course you don't have to fuck about on a screen with a mouse; you just go to the channel and turn a knob :)

Noise and obsolescence

Many of the early desks were pretty noisy and some of the most famous were designed by the in-house engineers to accommodate the requirements of their specific studios: Helios was born from Olympic, Trident from Trident Studios, CADAC from Morgan Studios etc.

Bad earthing implementation, crosstalk and other bad 'stuff' was prevalent in many of the early desks, but back then tape machines didn't have Dolby and much of the outboard was also questionable from a noise perspective. There are of course notable exceptions, but it wasn't till later on that manufacturers started to sort their shit out!

One of the other things we took into account is that some components are no longer available. For example, CADAC used a very strange op-amp which I believe was called a 'rotator' which are now totally obsolete. Some of the early Harrison desks had potentiometers that are no longer available etc, etc.

Transformer vs electronically balanced inputs

This is of course one of the biggies and like EQ (see below), it's an emotive subject. I have had sleepless nights about the microphone inputs. Yes, I am a sad man...

We all know, transformers do give a certain 'sound' to a console and can be great when you start to saturate them, but this is essentially distortion; pleasant yes, but distortion nevertheless (see the section in Sound Recording is Easy).

So, if you buy a console with a 'sound' it's difficult to get round it as not all instruments and genres of music can suit every desk.

There are of course exceptions like the tiresomely excellent early Neve's, but many desks, MCI's, API's etc tend to suit a certain genre of music. Starlite and I do write a wide variety of material and hence wanted something that was versatile and within our budget, which the Neve's are certainly not :) This all led us to the George Massenburg / GML school of thinking - high headroom transparency.

EQ

Well, I left the best till last. How many conversations have I had about this subject - it drives you crazy! Is it musical, is it harsh, does it add 'growl' to the kit, does it sound sweet? Ahhhhhh!!!!

I have been very fortunate to use many of the great vintage EQ's that have been produced. As you would expect, the Neve 1084/1073 are awesome but I think some of this comes down to the lack of choice you have with these early models. The frequencies are very well selected with fixed 'Q', so you can't really mess with it too much.


The best I have heard recently was a CADAC G series (see Studios, Basques, Yoda and Perros Del Boogie) and this has a similar story, pretty limited by modern standards.

So, taking all this into account, I figured that providing our new console had a thoroughbred heritage from Neve, CADAC, API, MCI / Harrison, Trident, Helios, we couldn't go far wrong.

Private or Dealer

This was the final consideration and there really was no choice; a wrong purchase at this level is disastrous.

Buying from a dealer is more expensive but a good one will give you a warranty and hence will make sure they sell you something that won't come back and bite them in the ass.

Since we started to acquire the equipment we have been guided by Mark Thompson from FunkyJunk. He has given us great advice on buying decisions, which has proven to be annoyingly accurate.

The search...

So after the CADAC trip we talked to a few of the usual suspects in Europe but again Mark really came through with honest advice over and above what you would expect from a busy pro-audio dealer (and no, we are not on commission).

We did look at a few brands but kept coming back to Trident. They seem to be the only consoles that 'ticked the box' to the majority of criteria, had reasonable availability, seemed to be the most reliable and easy to refurb plus I did know them having used quite a few in the 70's and 80's. The question was now, which one...

It was at this point we were introduced to ex-Trident employee and ace studio service technician, Brian Haywood who started to advise on the technical aspects of the various models.

Trident Series 80B

This was the first on the list and Mark had contacts for two, one in a famous London studio and another in Italy, the latter being used to record the Falco hit "Der Kommissar". They were both 24 input, split consoles and we looked into them at length, researching technical details and looking at lots of photographs.

The 1979 TSM console had high-end performance, but cost $150,000. At $40,000, the Series 80 (1980) was more affordable, yet from its English ash exterior to its TSM-based circuitry, with clean preamps and musical equalizers, it never seemed second-rate and was hugely successful. The series 80 was inducted into the NAMM Foundation TEC Awards Hall of Fame in 2008.

Below is the 80B in residence at Pluto Studios in Manchester during the 1980's.


Trident TSM

Second on the list was a 1979 TSM which replaced the famous A and B and was at the time 'top of the range'.

This blighter sported 40 input channels and 32 subgroup / monitor modules plus four effects returns - 76 inputs in remix. It was a classic 'British Split Format' desk hence having separate modules for the group outputs and recorder returns and came in at a ball breaking 3.16m x 1.08m x 1.10m.


Here is Jonathan Cain, expounding the virtues of the TSM in Addiction Sound Studios...

Trident Vector

The third choice was an in-line, 40 channel, 32 mix bus Vector with the ability to have 80 returns on mix (oh my)...

The mid 1990's Trident Vector console was produced to fill the huge gulf between high end systems from SSL or Neve and the products then available from all other manufacturers, including Trident themselves. The design brief was to produce a console that retained the Trident sound while incorporating (and improving on) the complex routing and switching capabilities of the SSL, but in a much more compact footprint. Component quality was improved (sealed conductive plastic pots throughout), and great attention was paid to minimising noise, crosstalk and leakage from muted signals - Brian Hayward.

The console was originally purchased by Trevor Morais for his El Cortijo Studio based in Malaga, Spain and Brian had looked after it as the in-house tech since it was commissioned in the early 90's. Knowing the full history of a console is a big plus. It is pictured below just before it was moved into storage.


It's later in-line desk and hence smaller (a snip at 2.485m long) as the monitors and inputs use the same modules. It also has masses of really cool facilities and routing over and above the older consoles: four matrixed stereo buses, fully balanced group, auxiliary and mix buses, etc.

The decision!!!

Well after much negotiation, talking with Brian and Mark and general messing about - we went for the Vector.

So what's so good about it? Well, you will have to wait till part two to find out... It's a kinda 'Game of Thrones' moment :)

Read part two...

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