The name Malcom Toft is etched in the audio history books; he will always be remembered for his console designs and his engineering work with The Beatles, David Bowie and James Taylor. These days, Toft designs affordable analog mixing desks with lineage back to Trident, a company he founded in the ’70s. Toft’s intent is to offer that vintage style and sound, without breaking the bank. I was able to test this premise by putting the 16-channel version of the ATB (24- and 32-channel frames are also available) through its paces on a number of tracking and mixing sessions. I also A/B’d the new board with a vintage 1987 Trident 80B so that I could hear the similarities and sonic differences of the two mixers.
Before even digging into the specs on this console, you can’t help but notice its style: real wood sides, black-anodized surface with aluminum-machined knobs, VU meters and LED ladders for the eight buses and the 2-bus, all designed in the tradition and colors of a vintage Trident 80B desk.
The I/O module comprises a switchable mic/line preamp with 48-volt phantom power and polarity reverse. The EQ section (patterned after the 80B) has high shelving, selectable at 8 and 12 kHz, with low shelving at 60 or 120 Hz. There are two sweepable, overlapping mids (low-mid, 100 to 1.5k Hz; high-mid, 1 to 15 kHz), both of which have a 15dB cut/boost capability. Rounding out the EQ section is an 80Hz highpass filter. The EQ can also be switched into the monitor section — a nice feature if you’re using every available input during mixdown. Six auxiliary sends are provided, with aux 5/6 able to do double-duty across either the monitor path or the channel path.
The monitor path is controlled by a rotary potentiometer, which can then feed the L/R bus during mixdown, for a total of 32 channel inputs during mixdown. Using all available inputs — an additional eight dedicated stereo effects returns and eight monitor returns in the subgroup section — you have access to a total of 56 inputs on mixdown. Metering on the channel is provided via a signal-present light appearing at -20 dB, while a red LED is activated when the level reaches +10 dB at the channel’s output.
The submaster module comprises eight subgroup outputs, with an associated 100mm fader and 12-segment LED meter. This signal can be split via aux 5/6 for headphone mixes or reverb sends. An additional line input to the subgroups is accessed via the tape switch, effectively allowing you to monitor the send from the desk or the return from tape. Your “tape” machine could be the eight outputs from your DAW interface. This feature gives you easy send and return switching directly to the monitor section. Also, by selecting line on the first eight I/O modules, this monitor input (“tape”) is directed to the channels, giving you access to the EQ and aux sends.
The Master section includes a variable-level talkback mic, master monitor-level control, alternate monitor switching, a headphone jack with level control and a 12-segment/2-bus meter, as well as traditional VU meters, a level control for the solo system, a mono switch and three 2-track returns. The third return (2TK DIG RET) is only available if the optional digital I/O card is in use.
The optional digital I/O card supports sample rates up to 192 kHz with 24-bit conversion. A total of 10 digital sends and 10 digital returns are provided. The eight subgroups are available as ADAT optical signals, while the master left/right outputs are available in S/PDIF format. Word clock I/O is provided on BNC connectors. My test unit did not include this card, so I am unable to report any findings regarding the converters.
I first tracked various saxophones through the ATB with a beyerdynamic M160N ribbon, and found the mic pre’s to have plenty of clean gain, even though I was close to the limit of the potentiometer’s excursion. During this same session, I set up a Holophone H3-D to capture surround information with the same player. Both mics sounded crisp and clear, with a good clean midrange and rich overtones. Next, I used an AKG C 451 B on a tenor sax, just to get some differentiation between mics through the ATB mic pre’s. Again, a smooth midrange was apparent, with no edginess whatsoever. Even though these three mics differ greatly, the ATB didn’t favor any particular one; they all presented a depth of harmonics and tone.
The real test came when I put the ATB up against the Trident 80B, as Toft is marketing this mixer as a modern alternative to his vintage design. But keep in mind that we’re really talking apples and oranges here, seeing as how the 80B sold for approximately $85,000 in 1987 and the ATB 16-channel model lists at $4,499.99. There have to be differences, and, of course, there are — mechanically and sonically.
Using a Neumann U87i, I tracked acoustic guitar and vocals through both desks to a DA-88. There was more gain available at the mic pre on the 80B than the ATB, but the levels were matched and the test began. Both mic pre’s went direct to tape.
My first observation was that the ATB had greater amplitude in the midrange, making the guitar sound a bit less natural than the 80B. This was confirmed with an RTA; there was a 2dB level increase between 800 and 1.25k Hz. The 80B was slightly more natural; the recording sounded more like what was happening in the room. Vocals had a similar quality: The midrange was pushed forward by the ATB. This was by no means harsh; it was simply different. The upper-harmonics were very similar, however, with the 80B just barely winning over the ATB in the “open top-end” category.
Using previously recorded drums, guitars, bass and vocal tracks, a mult was created to feed both line inputs of the two desks, addressing the EQ sections. I gave the ATB way too much gain and swept through the frequencies, with no ringing heard on any source. Getting a bit more realistic, I listened carefully to the two EQs with a modicum of restraint. I found that the 80B had more punch in the 80 to 120Hz range, and it was more open and realistic in the 8 to 10kHz range. Also on the ATB, I found that the faders would ever-so-slightly bind when I was doing very subtle, minute moves. This could be a problem when riding faders during tracking or mixing. The American distributor, PMI Audio Group, has since told me that a different fader is in the works to alleviate this issue.
The last test was to use the ATB as a summing mixer. I set up a Pro Tools LE session, using a Digidesign 002 interface with 18 tracks directed to eight outputs. I fed these outputs to the ATB and summed them through the desk. I took the same session and went through the internal-summing architecture of Pro Tools and did a bounce, then a direct-to-Masterlink mix. Of the three mixes, the ATB version gave the mix a definite “glue”: The sound was punchier, having a better soundstage and more depth than when I used the summing bus inside Pro Tools or bouncing. I must say, I have tried other similar pieces of analog equipment that were supposed to do this, but the others came up short.
ANALOG TOUCH IN A DIGITAL WORLD
Toft Audio is marketing the ATB desk as a perfect solution for the DAW user, and my tests show this to be true. The preamps performed consistently well in a variety of situations, and the EQ is musical with only slight variations from the original 80B design. The summing capabilities, when the ATB is used across the outputs of a DAW, would make the ATB a favorable addition to a project or marketplace studio. Used as a sidecar in a commercial studio, a location-recording desk or as an upgrade to an existing home studio, the ATB will provide consistent results and a vintage vibe that would be hard to come by elsewhere at this price point.
Bobby Frasier is an audio engineer, consultant, educator and proud player/owner of 28 guitars.