The last time I bought a console for my studio was 15 years ago. The board was — and still is — a Soundcraft 600 analog desk (these days, we tout it as “vintage”), and I've done a bazillion sessions on that board since picking up that weighty, 7-foot crate at Leo's Pro Audio in Oakland. Over the years, it has proved to be the right choice for my recording projects, which include music CDs, industrials, books on tape, radio documentaries and scoring dates.
Along the way, the board changed; I've added automation and a hot-rodded Audio Upgrades master section. Also, in moving from tape- to disk-based recording, the way in which I use the console has changed. Typically, the role of that console today is as a monitor desk during tracking to a DAW. But when it's time to mix (in stereo or 5.1), all sorts of possibilities arise, and I often do hybrid mixes, where I combine the strengths of analog mixing (and racks of outboard gear) with the pluses of virtual DAW mixing and tons of software plug-ins. There are no set “rules”; I may mix entirely on the DAW or completely on the 600, or I might send mix stems from the workstation to the analog board (or vice versa).
Every session and every person's style of working is different, so determining the right console for your needs is more vexing than ever. When I was console-shopping back in 1987, the process was difficult. These days, there are even more questions to consider: New or used? Analog or digital? Sampling rate: 48, 96 or 192 kHz? Console or control surface? Large-scale (many faders) or compact (channel layering)? Few or many preamps — or none at all? Is a “name” console important?
When considering a mixer for stereo and surround production — LCRS, 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 — the selection process becomes more complex. Points to investigate include multichannel metering options, and methods for surround panning, whether via mouse/screen, joysticks, panpots or some combination of all three. Control room monitoring is another issue: Several companies offer outboard surround controllers for expanding the capabilities of an existing console. However, a true surround production board should have provisions for multichannel monitoring — including the ability to solo or mute any playback channel easily — without tying up subgroups or console buses.
Eventually, we come to the price: Self-financing, leasing and trade-ins are all posibilities, but while you're thinking about money, figure in some extra dough for installation, wiring and interfacing your existing gear with the new arrival. Once you know what you can afford, the real fun starts. A/B comparisons between large consoles are nearly impossible to set up, but a couple of hours of critical listening — particularly to channel separation, bus noise and the quality of the equalizers — will reveal much about the character of the product.
In this issue, our Los Angeles editor Maureen Droney talks to a number of studio owners about the console selection process, and finds the decision is never easy — even for those at the top. But one thing is clear: The more you know, the greater your chance of finding the right console.