Technology

Field Test: Fairlight Anthem

SPLIT, INLINE, POST—THREE CONSOLES IN ONE 4/01/2006 7:00 AM Eastern

At last year's AES show in New York City, I stumbled across the Fairlight booth and saw the Anthem Dream, the company's new digital console. Yeah, just what the world needs, another digital board.

You could consider me old-school. I grew up on large-format analog consoles — Neves, APIs, Trident A Range, even SSLs. I love the sound and functionality of these beasts, and I've had a fair amount of success on them. I love their sonic personalities; I can't say I ever could get that with a digital console. Yes, I have made the transition to the brave new world. I have built a personal studio based around a digital console and a digital audio workstation. I resisted, of course, but now I'm fully committed to working this way. I even think that I have gotten my system to sound pretty decent.

There have been many digital consoles, though I can't think of many that actually thrived, or survived. The designs have not been the most user-friendly, I can't say that they sounded very good — or had that sonic personality — and at least for me, the learning curves have been steep. Many of these boards seemed to have been designed by teams that were clueless as to what engineers actually do — designers that never recorded or mixed anything or even attended a recording session. At least it seems that way to me.

I spent some time at the New York AES show with Fairlight president John Lancken and his chief software designer, Tino Fibaek. Fairlight's new board looked cool and seemed intuitive and functional, but on the show floor, I couldn't tell what it sounded like. The mixer could set it up as an inline or split console, so perhaps it could be set up the way I like, rather than making me work in the way some designers imagine engineers work. Anyway, I was intrigued, and John invited me to come to Sydney (where Fairlight is based) and try mixing something on it.

LEAVIN' ON A JET PLANE
It's a 14-hour flight from L.A. to Sydney, which is not too bad if you have the proper medication. If you leave L.A. on a Friday, you'll arrive in Sydney on Monday — talk about messing up your internal clock!

When I got there, John insisted I should stay up, so we had dinner at a former dunny (that's a public restroom) that's now a very nice restaurant in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House. So I forced myself to stay awake and do some sightseeing and woke up the next morning feeling relatively okay. Of course, having been a recording engineer for so many years, I get used to feeling jet-lagged most of the time.

I showed up at the Fairlight headquarters the next day and went into the control room where the Anthem was set up. I brought a song I had recorded live for a famous octogenarian rock band. The track needed some work and would be a good test for putting the console through its paces. I had plenty of time and nobody to criticize the results, yet I was nervous, thinking back to the times when I had to complete a project in a new and strange room with equipment that I wasn't intimately familiar with.

In the room with me to hold my hand while I became familiar with the console was Joe Hammer, a former first-call drummer from Texas who has lived in Paris for the past 25 years. The designers were also in the room, anxious to see how I work.

THE ROCKY ROAD TO ROCK
I figured the best way was to just dive in, get my tracks up to the desk and start mixing — and figure out how to use the console as I went along. First up: Can I get the drums to rock? I brought this particular recording because I knew that it needed some help. I pushed the faders up, flat, no effects, and I tried to get a balance and just see what I needed to do to get it to fill the speakers.

Hmmm. the kick drum wassn't really popping. I needed to find the fundamental and peak it, get rid of the muddy 150 to 400Hz stuff and boosted at 4 or 5 kHz to get some definition and snap. I sharpened up the Q and started boosting and sweeping the low end to find the fundamental, but I couldn't seem to find it. There didn't seem to be enough gain on the EQ to dig it out.

I tried to clear up the overheads to get the snare to speak, but I was having a heck of a time digging this stuff out. I cranked up the monitors to help find it, but I just couldn't get the tracks to stand up like I needed them to. Oh man, I was hating my life just then. I was also hating this console — another case of a digital desk just not having the oomph I need to get a track rocking. I thought, now what do I do? I really like these Fairlight guys. They have been treating me like a million bucks, so how can I tell them this thing doesn't cut it?

Maybe I could sneak a cab to the airport and go home, change my phone number or — better yet — just move. Whenever I start a project, I get worried that maybe this time I won't be able to pull it off, and I'll be exposed as a fraud and a slug. So I was worried, and even a bit angry that — because of the economics of our business — I was being forced to find a new way to work.

I excused myself and took a little walk, had a smoke and took a couple deep breaths. There were some beautiful birds hanging around, so I shared a snack with them and calmed down.

I told Joe and the designers the difficulty I was having, and that the EQ — as it was set up now — wasn't cutting it. It didn't have the sound I was looking for, and I didn't feel I'd be able to get this track sounding right. The Q needed to be sharper. I told them where the frequencies needed to be centered — especially on the low end — and that I needed more headroom and gain. They scribbled some notes, probably thinking I was a world-class jerk. I spent the rest of the day exploring Sydney, and we planned to reconvene the next morning to continue feeding my frustration at my inability to get these tracks to rock.

FEELIN' ALRIGHT
The next day, we went back at it. I hit Play and thought, ‘Am I going crazy?’ The drum tracks were rocking; the kick was filling the speaker; I was hearing the harmonics and body on the snare that I couldn't get the day before; and the bass guitar was full and clear. I wondered, ‘What's going on here?’ Yesterday, I couldn't get the EQ right, and today it's working. Well, the designers had stayed up and written a different EQ algorithm. I couldn't believe it. I was beginning to feel better.

Cherny with Fairlight's Joe Hammer

I started by trying to balance some music. But first, I needed to check out the onboard compressors. I thought, this electric guitar was a good candidate; let's see if I can get it to stand up while leaving a little room for some other instruments. Whoops: bad knee, not a lot of elegance. It was either smacking too hard — or not enough. How about a better variable soft knee, so I could hit the threshold where I wanted it and it wouldn't hit too hard — unless I needed it to, of course. Next day, there it was. I was floored. All right!

I finally felt I was getting this thing to pop. I figured out the aux sends, which are pretty straightforward. You can put real-time VST plugs-ins on the inserts, so all of my favorite plug-in reverbs, EQs, compressors and effects were right there. I was starting to feel at home. As I continued working, I became more familiar, comfortable and confident, but mentioned that I would have preferred the board's center section to be right in front of me, and felt the graphics should switch to what I was working on. Next morning, the console layout was just as I had requested. This thing was starting to feel like it was mine.

IMPRESSIONS, IMPRESSIONS
Routing was straightforward: It's easy and convenient to do grouping and traditional VCA-type groups, and you can quickly group many channels and tweak all the parameters of those channels. For example, you can compress/EQ all of the drum tracks — or even smash them and mix them back into the unsmashed drums.

The Anthem has the best and easiest automation I've used. Especially with digital consoles, many automation systems force you to work their way, not yours. On this board, you can easily and quickly automate any parameter without having anything else automated. With the touch of two buttons, I can automate an echo send, panpot or EQ parameter without anything else being affected. I wish that all automation systems worked like this one — additive and not global.

Everything is totally recallable. I could easily switch between sessions, so I could work on a few things at once. The console can be used in the traditional-style split mode (separate monitor section) or in-line, which I prefer for mixing. It has lots of echo sends and signal paths. And if you really have to, it's easy to do simultaneous surround and stereo mixes. Surround panning, busing and monitoring are well thought out and easy to use. It's easy to pan anything to anywhere.

I was knocked out by being able to design my own console in a matter of hours and implement those changes. After only six hours, I could really do great work on this desk. I could quickly configure Anthem's control surface to suit my tastes, relocating the controls I needed to the middle of the sweet spot.

Anthem offers everything I need in a console, including sounding really good. I tried to overload the stereo bus, but could hardly do it. I felt that I could get “personality” out of it — something that's always a struggle for me to do with digital gear. I ended up really loving this desk, and by the end of my trip, I felt that I had a desk built just for me.

I forgot to mention that Anthem contains a 96-track disk recorder. I really didn't get into its features, only to transfer the tracks that I brought and use it for playback. I'll get into that on my next trip.

Fairlight, (+61) 29975-1777, www.fairlightau.com.


Multi-Grammy — and TEC Award — winning engineer/producer Ed Cherney's credits include acts such as Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Matthews Band and the Rolling Stones.

ANTHEM SPECS
Anthem delivers up to 192 channels routed to up to 72 mix bus elements. This pool of bus elements is divided up and freely assigned between the eight main buses, up to 24 multitrack buses and 12 auxiliary sends, any of which can be user-assigned from mono to 7.1. Each fully featured channel includes a 6-band EQ, including filtering and two-stage dynamics. The comprehensive busing system allows simultaneous generation of multiple surround formats and bus-to-bus mixing for multiple-mix stem generation.

Physical I/Os are available in analog, AES, AES SRC and MADI formats, and a sophisticated internal patching system allows totally free routing of inputs, outputs and buses between external and internal destinations. The monitoring system is also completely configurable with programmable fold-down and fold-up modes, allowing instantaneous switching to up to nine speaker sets, each of which can be configured for any desired bus format.

Anthem delivers three configurations that meticulously duplicate traditional split recording consoles, classic inline mixing consoles and Fairlight's Constellation audio post-production console.