IS ANALOG MIXING IN THE STUDIO DYING?
by Mark King for proworkshop.com
|OUR SOUNDCRAFT GB8-40 INSTALLED|
I looked at hundreds of options, new, used, eBay, Reverb.com, Vintage King and many more. What I found was a bit depressing, there really are no new analog consoles other than those with stratospheric prices. I can't plop $50K into my mixer right now. Also I don't need a lot of features true recording desks provide because of our split-console setup.
DIGITAL RECORDING - ANALOG MIXING
We use a networked pair of X32 mixers, with remote preamp boxes located in the main room, the drum room and the keyboard room. By using both the A and B AES networks we have 112 remote controlled head-amps to choose from. Keyboards can stay plugged-in to the local X32R rack mount mixer located in the keyboard room, guitar amps can remain mic'd up in the isolation rooms, the drum kit has 16 inputs available though we rarely use more than 10 microphones there, it's really a dream for an old recordist like me to have this digital network.
|X32 REMOTE APP ON IPAD SITTING ON GB8 MIXER|
One of the most powerful studio features is memory, the X32 can remember everything, this lets me store the recording setup for each artist, if they return to do more work we can instantly recall the setup used on their previous session for tracking. This can be a huge time saver.
The Midas-designed head amps in the X32 can be run at microphone-level, unity, line-level or even attenuated line-level to accommodate the large signals that might come from an LA2a compressor or maybe an 1176 driven with an API mic preamp for color.
During mixdown the main X32 outputs the DAW tracks via 32-line level analog outputs. In evaluating new consoles I wanted 32 full input channel strips with EQ at the minimum. I insert effects and signal processing between the X32 balanced outputs and the mixing console line-inputs. This keeps all the signal lines balanced and produces the lowest system noise.
|75"-LONG MIXER SHIPPING CARTON|
I did not want repair hassles so I was looking for a new, high performance, all analog mixer at an affordable price. All my searching led me to the Soundcraft GB-8 range of mixers. When these came out in 2005 the GB-8-40 was initially selling for $15,000 retail. The take-home price today is much lower and to me it looks as though Soundcraft is blowing out their inventory which I speculate won't be replaced by large format analog in their line-up of products ever again.
These days the market wants high-performance digital mixers with integrated effects. The X32 is a low cost leader in this field and has sold more digital mixers than all other digital mixer manufacturers combined. They've grabbed the largest piece of the market with a product that works fantastic, is very reasonably priced and so easily expandable. Of course there are lots of high-end players like Yamaha and Avid but their offerings that interested me at all were way more money than I wanted to spend.
I'm a huge fan of the X32 but when it comes to mixing in the studio I needed more of my old gadgets to get the sounds I like. I needed more places to insert signal processing than the X32 offered. Ultimately this led me to the split-console metaphor I'm using today, X32 to record, Soundcraft analog to mix.
|NEW SOUNDCRAFT GB8, RIGHT OUT OF THE BOX|
I did not start my search for a new mixing console with a budget in mind. I'd love to have an API 1608 with a 16-channel expander but our studio income could not justify a $100K expenditure. $50K for a mixer was not an option either.
While we do record outsiders the primary focus of our studio is to support our own songwriting and music publishing endeavors. I was not looking for something to impress super-groups, I was looking for a mixer with a neutral sonic signature, good EQ on every channel, lots of aux sends and sub-groups. I did not need a fancy control room monitor section because our monitors are controlled by our Neve 8816/8804 mastering mixer. I did not need inline source switching because we use a separate digital mixer to feed the DAW so the analog console remains connected full time to the outputs of the X32 through patch bays. During mixing the X32 is acting as D-to-A conversion.
I spent hours and then days reading countless reviews and testimonials about all sorts of mixers. Here are a few we considered.
THE TOFT ATB MIXER
The Toft ATB from Toft Audio is a product of PMI. It is $8500 for the 32 channel model on Sweetwater web site. That does not include the meter-bridge either, that's an additional $900. 32-channels is the biggest configuration offered.
Sonically I've never been very impressed with the ATB mixer. Malcolm Toft, one of the original genius's behind Trident Audio in the 70's and 80's lent his name to PMI Audio as part of the development of these mixers. It is said that Malcolm designed the EQ's in the ATB mixers to sound like the vintage Trident consoles that cut so many hit records. Ultimately, not long after the console hit the market Malcolm quietly left the company, went back to England and started his own new mixer company.
The Toft range of mixers is modular on the inside. Each channel strip inside the console is on its own circuit card. This makes it possible (not easy) to replace a bad channel strip should something go wrong. Fortunately modern electronics are pretty reliable, I've not seen any complaints about the Toft range breaking down but I did find a lot of people who were unhappy with the noise floor of these mixing desks. Looking through various pro audio forums I found other users who were not happy with the timbre of their mixes coming out of the ATB. In spite of all the hype about the EQ I did not find many people who raved about the actual performance of the EQ in their mixing adventures. I found lots of people who complained about their ATB mixers and so they sold them off. They were quite vocal about their problems after disposing of their ATB.
A final limitation of the ATB is the range of Aux sends, there are only six and one is stuck pre-fader. I was really wanting eight Aux sends and all selectable post fader.
MODERN TRIDENT AUDIO
Trident Audio is the name of the classic English company Malcolm Toft was originally part of.
The Trident brand name has been acquired by PMI Audio in California and they have created two ranges of consoles based on the intellectual property of the original designs. There is the '78 series which is lower priced and less modular and there is the '88 series which is fully modular on a channel by channel basis.
The marketing for the '78 range is a little confusing. Lower priced versions of the consoles with LED meters are available but the retailers keep showing the picture of the model with VU meters (which looks quite nice, I'm a big fan of VU meters). A 24-channel '78 series console is $20,000 w/LED meter bridge and there's precious little information about how these mixers really function or sound.
The '88 range is impressive to study but the prices for these are much higher than the '78. A 24-channel '88 series is listed at B&H for $33,000 and the 32-channel is essentially $40k not including options. That's a lot less than an API 1608 but you need to look carefully. Standard items on the API like VU meters and transformer coupling are options on the '88 series Trident mixers. I suspect that by the time you outfit the Trident 88 range with the same options the prices will be much closer together.
The prices on the Trident range were far too rich for my needs and so far they don't have performance data in the marketplace to verify the quality and sonics of these mixers.
The Trident mixers appear to be built in Hawthorne, California. My partner and I spent three years near there and she worked in Hawthorne. Everything in California costs more, labor, rent, insurance, taxes and utilities are some of the highest in the US, I'm sure this is somewhat reflected in the pricing of the new Trident mixers.
Audient was another brand I considered. Their designer is world renowned but their prices were up there with the Trident '78 series. The Audient products are packed with features but so many of those are already covered in my studio.
Ultimately the price of the Audient range knocked it off my shopping list.
Mackie built a number of mixers for recording, I owned a few of their 8-bus mixers in the 90's. I never really liked the sound of them and when they began screwing up they were a nightmare to repair. Each group of eight channels was on one large flat circuit board, to remove it meant removing all the knobs for those 8-channels. Mackie had the worst factory service too, they never answered their phone, I guess too many of these were breaking down.
Those mixers killed the Mackie brand for me, I'd never buy any of their products ever again because their service left me out in the cold, high and dry. I could never repair my 8-bus mixers correctly in spite of endless hours struggling to do so. I even bought a used one to cannibalize parts from. My point here is, there are many ways to build a mixer on the inside, if it's not modular on a channel by channel basis, maintenance, if it is ever needed, is going to really suck. Been there, never going there again.
Another consideration about any equipment purchase is the resale value. API anything sells for high prices because everyone knows it's great sonics and solid professional quality. My philosophy is to invest in quality equipment that will appreciate in value or to go with lower priced items that won't kill me if I sell them for a loss. None of the brands have very good resale value except for the API 1608. It's too new to know how resale value on the Trident range will hold up. My instinct is it will drop in value pretty dramatically the instant someone purchases one. The demand for large format mixing consoles is a shrinking market today.
SOUNDCRAFT MIXING FEATURES
|NOTE THE METER-BRIDGE, WE REMOVED IT FOR LOWER PROFILE IN OUR STUIDO|
The GB-8 has the features I was after and I've always liked the sonic performance of all the Soundcraft analog mixers I've used. We have a little Soundcraft stereo mixer, the GB2r which is a compact, rack mountable 16-channel mixer with classic Soundcraft EQ on it. This mixer sounds great and never did anything wrong, we simply outgrew its capability.
|OUR GB2R SOUNDCRAFT MIXER|
Many mixer manufacturer's add stereo input channels and factor these into the input channel count. Soundcraft does put stereo channels in the GB-8 but they're not included in the channel count. The GB-8-40 has forty, identical, full input channel strips plus four stereo input channel strips. This means that the GB-8-40 has 48-inputs on faders. There are additional group returns for effects like reverb. Soundcraft included full stereo microphone preamps on the stereo input channels as well as stereo line inputs.
BUYING THE SOUNDCRAFT
|INSTALLING THE GB-8 MIXER ON THE FRESHLY BUILT BIRCH PLYWOOD STAND|
Bummers and defects aside, the GB8 delivers on sound quality, the separation, punch and clarity are up there with the best I've heard. The EQ on this mixer is even better than the EQ on our smaller 16-channel Soundcraft, much sweeter than our previous Allen and Heath console. The four mute groups on the GB8 are a joy to use, they're analog, no programming, just convenient little push-buttons, super easy to use and very useful for working up a mix. Every input channel has a little LED pre-fader meter to help you set the gain structure. Physical noise from the GB8 is nonexistent.
THE SWEETWATER DIFFERENCE, DELIVERED!
|TWO GB8-40 MIXERS, SWAPPING OUT THE BAD ONE|
They let me keep the defective unit to use until the new one arrived. It took almost a month to get the replacement here but it finally landed, I swapped the two consoles and the new one works flawlessly. True to their word Sweetwater took care of all the shipping cost, they went out on a limb and sent me a second console without any additional cost or deposit, they trusted me. That is an amazing attribute in todays internet market place. I've been a good customer to them but they took a big risk and I'm very appreciative of all they did to make my situation whole and right. They went way above and beyond what I've experienced from American Musical, Musicians Friend, Guitar Center or Sam Ash. Every time I spoke to someone in Sweetwater support they were friendly, helpful and on top of my problem and the status of my case.
I can tell you from experience most other retailers would have sent me directly to Harman Corp, the USA parent company of Soundcraft to resolve a problem like this through factory warranty service.
Sweetwater really stepped up to the task, eating $100's of dollars in shipping freight costs to get me the right piece, that's incredible service. No wonder they get my first call when I'm interested in buying something.
IS ANALOG MIXING DYING?
Is analog mixing dying? Not in my studio. I'm adding more signal processing to our racks all the time. The new Soundcraft console sounds great through our Meyer HD-1 monitors. There is an authoritative character to the bass that our previous Allen and Heath did not have. The noise floor of the Soundcraft is surprisingly much better than the Allen and Heath (which did not suck).
We recently added an API 2500 compressor to the Mastering-Loop of our Neve system, the combination of all the new gear sounds really good, it's fun to work on and it's fast to mix with this set up. Since the Soundcraft is Mix-Only I can leave lots of processing patched in standard locations for where drums, bass, guitars, keys and vocals go when I'm mixing. I've got a full-time dedicated Lexicon reverb on the direct output of the snare drum channel. My analog mixing set up is like power steering for me compared to my experiences mixing in the box.
I've gone from having a big stash of plug-ins and mixing purely with the Neve handling some minor summing, back to the way I did things in the 80's, multi-track with analog signal processors and mixing. This is the sound I've been craving for the last 20 years. It's the best of both worlds, the speed, repeatability and ease of editing digital audio, the tone and flavors of all the great processors combined with the console. I'm making the best recordings ever. After looking at all the choices out there I'm very happy with the one I chose.
Good music to you!
|THE NEW REPLACEMENT GB-8 FINALLY INSTALLED|