Classic Recording Console History.

Part One
Let's start at the end of the 1950s. Most of the first generation of recording studios built their own sound consoles. It has been suggestedthat they had to do this because professional commercial desks were unavailable at that time.It is probably the other way round. There were few desk manufactures because the small amount of studios around didnít need them. It made sense and was the norm to build custom consoles to suit.
The first generation of mixing desks were simple affairs consisting of a small quantity of mic pre-amps, some limited eq if you were lucky and a set of output amps . The big studios like Abbey Road and Decca had R&D departments and maintenance staff, for who,building some valve mic pre-amps would be done before the morning tea break. If desired, modular pres could be bought like the Telefunken V72s that EMI used to build the sixties consoles around.


As more tracks became available on tape machines the desks needed more channels to accommodate so designerslooked towards the emerging technologies.The introduction of the transistor in the late fifties opened up many more avenues of design, with their small size, low voltage use and eventually, low cost. Dick Sweetenham over at Olympic and Rupert Neve led the way in the recording field being two of the first in the commercial sector to experiment with this technology and build transistor consoles in the early sixties.

The majority of the professional studios where based in London. The engineers and maintenance staff of studios often moved around so one studios 'secrets' could be passed onto the next place of work. And many of these engineers worked at one time or another for Abbey Road, the university of sound, which not only designed its own equipment but would study and modify the best from America and Germany.

The vast majority of recordings in the UK where being produced on British desk and most designs were linked directly to studios. The in house designs of  EMI, Trident, and Sound Techniques would become commercially available. Dick Sweetenham's desk at Olympic was a blueprint for the formation of Helios. Decca only built for themselves and then you had the independent companies, the main two being Neve and Cadac. These are the names that have achieved almost legendary status.There was also the Soundcraft with the series1/2 , Rosser from Wales built one of the Mayfair desk and became a big part of the Rockfield set up but were more of a communications company. We shouldn't forget Vic Keary over at Maximum Sound and Chalk Farm. Vic built his valve desks, told everybody for the next 40 years that valves were best and eventually most people agreed with him. Hats off to you Vic. Vic now designs the superb Thermionic Culture range of equipment ( no I'm not being paid to advertise, just credit where credits due) There were few foreign desks in the UK, these being from the German manufactures Neumann and Telefunken.

Advances in electronics and technology would suggest that these desks would now be museum pieces, valued for their historic and nostalgic value, leaving us wondering how the makers of the recorded music coped with such primitive offerings. We've now come to the realization that the technology used within these desks may have just been spot on for the recording of pop and rock music. In fact it could also be suggested that these consoles were an integral part of that sound.Maybe the public always knew that those records sounded wonderful and that we never really needed all these so called advances.We now refer to much of this gear as 'classic'.

In terms of features and control, the designs of today are light years away from what was once used. But what about the sound?

If we compare old to new with our electronic test instruments we could happily come to the conclusion that new is best. But what are we testing for here? Is one system better quality, more accurate, more transparent, less distortion. Technically distortion should be as low as possible. But do listening tests back this up.How important is phase integrity? Can we really list in order what are the most important elements for the design of recording equipment. Is not the bottom line producing a sound that the engineer, producer and musician likes, that can be put onto record for the public to like? The guitars and amps of the late fifties and early sixties are still seen as possibly the best designs, the sound of rock and roll in its broadest sense. So why is it so hard sometimes to accept that much of the studio gear of that era sounded right for that style of music.


Many of the designers of that era have become historical figures within the recording industry and their designs are seen aslegendary to be borrowed and reworked. But is it possible that we suddenly had a burst of great designers in the sixties and seventies and now the secret information and judgment that these people had has been lost ? Is there common ground in these designs? Yes.
Discrete circuitry, first valve then transistor, inductive eq and transformer coupled.
They were designing and building with the information and components that were normal for that era.

'There are some desk where, by pure fluke, it actually enhances the sound -Dick Sweetham's first desk at Olympic for example.'   Glyn Johns - June 81.

Part Two

Neve - Cadac - Sound Techniques - Trident - Helios - Decca - EMI - Rosser - MCI


 

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