Debate: The Large(2)

For the past four years I’ve owned and operated a large format, vintage console (a Neve 8108, to be exact). Handmade in the late ’70s, this desk has the vintage quality, the character, that appeals to me in a way that is directly analogous to how a guitarist may view an old ’58 Les Paul. While there may be more efficient tools, the romantic studio guy in me looks at owning this monster as one of my life’s biggest accomplishments. But, it’s also been quite the challenge — there’s a price to pay for having these great channels that are so “characteristic,” that add a certain gloss and polish to my signal.

Relatively speaking, I spend nearly as much time tinkering with this damned thing as I do with my wife. Lovingly, I refer to it as “my baby” or “you bitch,” depending on the time of day. Given this emotional roller coaster, I find myself oftentimes wondering: Are large consoles really worth it?

It’s obvious that, nowadays, you do not need a 1600-pound console to make a great recording. Even with all its charm, I see a lot of people bypassing the signal path of their console for the sounds of their external pres. There are, undoubtedly, many good options for the modern recordist, thanks to the spoils of technology. With every passing day our gear becomes more compact and, arguably, more versatile and efficient.

With a large console comes the advantage of a flash factor when dealing with prospective clients, an aesthetic lure that a virtual mixer just doesn’t have. There’s a sense of mystical power as they watch the moving faders running, the plasma meters glowing. I’m certain that having a nice console draws business to a studio, especially if you are working with a Neve or an SSL — as people in the industry trust that certain brands lend themselves to big hits.

And that attitude can work well for you, if you actually have a client base that can support you financially, as it takes a lot of money to run a large format vintage console — along with a lot of patience. Through spending many years, in many studios, working with varying budgets, I’ve learned one thing: If you don’t have a full-time tech on staff, there will never be an instance where every channel on a board is working properly. It just doesn’t happen. Lack of serious money is almost always going to materialize as lack of full function.

Fortunately, most of these vintage bad boys are modular, so if you find yourself in the aforementioned position, you can physically move EQs, pres, auxes, or filters to any channel on the console. But, after two or three channels go bad or, God forbid, something in the master section screws up (which is semi-regularly, up to three times a year in my case) you end up dropping big bucks on console repairs, as well as the cost incurred from not having your studio fully operational.

And from a business model standpoint, the logistics of console maintenance become even more impractical as the majority of us are forced to let studio time slip to under the $50/hour mark just to survive, what with all these legions of competitors arising, setting up digital studios on virtually every street.

If you are using external preamps, dynamic processors, and have a decent control surface for your DAW, you are able to make a comparable product. And in foregoing the cost of a large console, you open up your budget to buying lots of really cool pres that allow you to get a lot of raging tones. If you’re going for that great, crystal-clear pop vocal, you may be better off buying one of the many external pres that are much cleaner and quieter than what you can get with the elevated noise floor of many consoles.

But there is something to say for not only the “coolness” factor of having a large console, but for the fact that you can only synthesize sound with plug-ins and cool, modern, outboard gear. There’s a reason people stick by their old favorites. Outside of habit, they produce unique sounding recordings that have a character that the emulators have yet to nail perfectly.

Sure, digital studios take up far less space and are totally modular. As technology advances, you see less outboard gear in some studio racks, and more processing power on our computers. But that fact, in and of itself, does not necessarily equate with large, vintage consoles being obsolete. The practices of many great producers/engineers who still swear by their old trusty behemoths point in the opposite direction, and that’s one path I’ll probably always follow.

Now if you’ll excuse me, channel 12 is making that “screeching noise of doom” again. . . .