Lately, we've been doing a lot of retrospectivizing around here. You see, next month marks Mix's 30th anniversary (we've got some cool surprises planned for the October issue), and we've been doing a lot of research for the TECnology Hall of Fame, looking back over decades of pro audio history. Yet the console — such as The Record Plant's Solid State Logic 9000 J that graces our cover — is one link that's remained relatively constant over Mix's three-decade run.
The key word here is “relatively.” SSL debuted its first 4000 Series board (complete with Studio Computer) in 1977, also 30 years ago. Combining track-arming and dynamics on every channel, computerized automation and transport control with the in-line design that MCI's Jeep Harned and Dave Harrison pioneered five years earlier, the SSL 4000 ushered in the era of the modern studio console. But technology never stands still. High-performance analog and digital consoles, and DAW-based production have changed all of the rules.
The irony today is the feasibility of making a top-selling album without using a console at all. With some outboard preamps, a monitor controller and a reasonably equipped DAW, nearly anything is possible.
Yet the concept of screen-based, “in-the-box” mixing is hardly new. In fact, one of the first such systems I recall seeing was exactly 20 years ago, with visionary/futurist/wizard Todd Rundgren demo'ing WaveFrame's AudioFrame DAW at the 1987 AES convention in New York, showing the reality of the concept. Although almost any mix is possible with offline automation editing, my impression — then and now — is unchanged, and mixing with a mouse is a chore. In certain applications, the technique is great, but this is not the way humans (I can't speak for other species) were intended to mix music.
Legendary engineer/producer Tom Dowd is credited with first having the idea of using linear faders — rather than rotary knobs — for mixing music. Dowd felt that mixes shouldn't be static (a practice he affirmed with countless great records in his lifetime), and by moving the faders during the mix the engineer could respond to the performance.
Thankfully for the rest of us, Dowd's fader caught on with console-makers, revolutionizing the art of mixing. And the ergonomics of fader and hands-on control still applies to today's mixer/controllers. Modern consoles have the ability to pack hundreds of inputs, effects, routing and more into ever-shrinking packages, with owners selecting the size of a control surface for their needs. But even after the sale, your “new” console might be only a software update or a couple DSP cards away.
At the same time, our old friend analog maintains its popularity — as high-performance designs (vintage and new) or as digitally controlled systems combining full console functionality with a layer devoted to workstation mixing. Fortunately, there's no strictly defined way to work. Even within a single project, some tracks might be mixed in the box, others outside the box and still others as a hybrid.
Technology moves on, but whether using fingertips, VCA/DCAs or mouse control, having options makes life easier for all of us.