Legendary Consoles and Their Impact on Music History
Monday June 3, 2019. 03:53 PM , from Sweetwater inSync
Before recording consoles were made as commercial products, studios built their own — or assembled them from available components. But even after the first “ready-made” console manufacturers emerged in the 1960s, a studio’s console gave that room its own distinctive sound due to its unique circuitry and components. And aside from amenities, that’s what led artists and producers to gravitate toward particular studios. Join Sweetwater as we take a look at four legendary consoles and their impact on music history.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: Universal Audio 610
Universal Audio 610 console photos courtesy of Universal Audio
Why would the Rolling Stones take a detour to the deep South on their way from their triumphal 1969 Madison Square Garden Thanksgiving shows in New York (during which Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! was recorded) to their concert at Altamont Speedway in California the following week? Two words: Muscle Shoals.
When the Stones rolled into Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for three evening sessions in December at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, one might say the “burlap palace” was barely up to the task. The recording studio, with its burlap-covered ceiling and acoustic-tile wall panels, had a 1-inch 8-track Scully tape machine, no outboard equipment, and a sonically excellent but basic Universal Audio 610 tube console — the iconic Bill Putnam design with knobs as big as your fist. The board had 10 inputs with simple fixed-frequency low- and high-shelving EQ. But that didn’t stop the Stones from making what would become timeless classic recordings.
The Stones cut three tracks at Muscle Shoals Sound: “You Gotta Move,” “Wild Horses,” and “Brown Sugar.” All three would appear on 1971’s Sticky Fingers. Released as the first single, the opening track, “Brown Sugar,” skyrocketed to number one in the US and number two in the UK. The compelling rocker with its scandalous lyrics holds the number five slot on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.
What brought so many artists to this bare-bones recording studio tucked away on the Alabama/Tennessee state line? It was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, lovingly referred to as the Swampers, with a distinctive, organic sound and infectious grooves that drove hit records by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and many others. It was Jimmy Johnson (guitarist/engineer), Barry Beckett (keyboards), David Hood (bass), and Roger Hawkins (drums) that drew artists from far and wide to work in this tiny studio at 3614 Jackson Highway. When they purchased the modest property with financial backing from Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler in early 1969, they never suspected they’d soon be hosting the Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band in the World.
After the Stones worked there, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios became a destination for artists of all genres. But even before that, it was the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that attracted the attention of artists and producers.
Cher’s sixth album was recorded at Muscle Shoals and titled 3614 Jackson Highway, the address of the studio. “Kodachrome,” the number two Billboard Hot 100 lead single from Paul Simon’s third solo album, 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, was cut there. So too was Bob Seger’s platinum 1976 album Night Moves. And of course, there was Lynyrd Skynyrd, who put Southern rock on the map with their platinum-selling 1977 breakout album Street Survivors. The album was recorded at Muscle Shoals and released just three days before the plane crash that tragically claimed the lives of three band members.
During that decade from 1969 to 1979, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios cranked out hundreds of hits at 3614 Jackson Highway. So what was the technology that enabled that success? It all started with the UA console created from Bill Putnam components. Putnam didn’t generally build complete consoles, but he would sell his channel modules. The owners of Muscle Shoals Sound purchased modules and installed them in a console frame built by a local cabinetmaker — just as their former boss and Fame Studios owner, Rick Hall, had done across town. While it was there, the legendary Bill Putnam sound inspired everything that came out of that studio. With a rich legacy going back to 1958, Putnam was responsible for timeless hardware designs that include not only the 610 recording console, but also the LA-2A and 1176 compressors — both of which are still made and have remained in continual use for over a half century.
Universal Audio was re-founded in 1999 by Putnam’s sons, James and Bill Jr., with a prescient focus on the hybrid workflows that professional studios use today. Their dual objective: to faithfully reproduce classic analog recording gear in the tradition of their father, and to design state-of-the-art digital recording tools with rich vintage analog sonics. To achieve this, UA employs world-class DSP engineering talent and digital modeling experts to develop their award-winning UAD-powered plug-in platform. This hardware/software ecosystem is a popular workflow used by many of today’s top engineers and studios. The company’s UAD-2 hardware and Apollo interfaces supply the DSP power you need to handle effects-heavy, high-track-count sessions without overtaxing your computer’s CPU.
Abbey Road Studios: TG12345
Photo of Abbey Road’s EMI TG12345 console courtesy of Ben Shirley
In the 1960s, EMI Studios London, as it was then known, had a staff of innovative recording and technical engineers and racks of the best gear available at the time, much of it either designed from scratch or heavily modified by EMI technicians. The Beatles, of course, were the most famous beneficiaries of EMI’s technical prowess. Their early records were recorded on EMI REDD.37 valve consoles built by EMI Central Research Laboratories in the late 1950s, while the updated REDD.51 captured their mid-’60s creativity.
The introduction of 8-track recording and the increasing sonic experimentation of a new generation of artists demanded new technology; and thus, a new EMI-designed desk made its debut in 1968. With 24 mic inputs, eight buses, four echo sends, two cue sends, and — for the first time ever — a compressor/limiter (in addition to EQ) on every channel, the TG12345 console was substantially larger and more capable than the REDD desks. Driven by transistors rather than tubes, its sound was dramatically richer and more highly detailed. The TG12345 was put to the test in Studio Two the following year on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. The groundbreaking sound quality of the solid-state EMI TG12345 recording console left its mark on classic albums by the leading artists of the era. Four generations of TG desks served Abbey Road clients (the studio changed its name in honor of the Beatles’ album) through the 1970s and into the ’80s, recording countless hit records and film scores.
The artists whose music was shaped by Abbey Road’s TG consoles constitute a veritable who’s who list of rock royalty: Sir Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wings, Pink Floyd, the Hollies, Al Stewart, the Shadows, the Alan Parsons Project, Cliff Richard, the Raspberries, the Buzzcocks, XTC, and many, many more. Interestingly, Abbey Road’s tremendous success with record projects overshadowed the fact that their Studio One was the world’s largest purpose-built recording studio and had been hosting full symphony orchestras since the 1930s.
Today, we think of Abbey Road as a film scoring powerhouse, but by the mid-’70s, the studio was moving away from large orchestra recordings. In 1979, management was considering a plan to break up Studio One, which would give them another smaller “rock” studio, as well as expanded parking. Then fate intervened. A company called Anvil Post Production approached them with a partnership deal that would make Abbey Road a major player in the film scoring business.
Anvil had their own large scoring stage in Buckinghamshire, where the first two Star Wars pictures were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) under the baton of composer John Williams. But their lease expired in 1980, and the score for the third film in the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was recorded in Abbey Road Studio One. Right out of the gate, Abbey Road established itself as a world-class scoring facility. A string of prestigious big-budget projects ensued, kicked off by Williams’ LSO score for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Starting with 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Studio One also hosted Williams and the LSO for four additional Star Wars franchise scores; and recently, composer John Powell used it for his Solo: A Star Wars Story score. The late, great film composer James Horner also used Abbey Road for recording and/or mixing the scores for Aliens, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Avatar, and others. By the time scoring mixer Shawn Murphy recorded the Star Wars prequel scores in Studio One, the venerable TG console had been replaced by a 72-channel AMS Neve 88RS.
The “Abbey Road sound” of the 1970s was largely the sound of the studios’ in-house-built consoles, and the TG boards came along at a time when technology was rapidly advancing and music was exploding with creative energy. Today, many Abbey Road TG modules are currently being re-created by Chandler Limited, giving you a chance to enhance your music with the magical sound of this legendary hardware.
Sound City: Neve 8028
Rupert Neve started designing audio equipment in the era of tube consoles, but he made his mark with solid-state designs. Setting up shop in Little Shelford in the early ’60s, Mr. Neve faced many obstacles establishing his brand in a new technological landscape. Transistors were new, expensive, and difficult to obtain in quantity in the UK. Reliable faders didn’t exist yet — a far cry from today’s world, where parts are affordable and readily available from multiple suppliers. Nevertheless, he persisted; and by the early 1970s, the Neve company was humming along, taking orders and building custom consoles for recording and broadcast studios the world over.
The transformer-balanced Neve 80 Series consoles had a huge, punchy, and authoritative sound that defined the sound of ’70s rock. From London to New York to Los Angeles and beyond, top studios were installing Neve boards as fast as they could. By 1977, with the introduction of the NECAM automation system, a Neve console with a Studer multitrack was the console/tape machine formula for success at most studios with world-class aspirations. And that’s just what Sound City had.
Tucked away in an industrial section of Van Nuys, Sound City was fairly funky, with shag carpeting on the walls and a parking lot that flooded regularly. When west winds blew, a rancid smell from the brewery just across the 405 would waft over. But Sound City had a great-sounding drum room, a Studer A80 24-track tape machine, and a custom Neve 8028 console that was installed in 1973 — just in time for a new crop of artists ready to make music history.
The sheer number of records made at Sound City is staggering. It includes over 100 certified gold and platinum albums. Artists who worked there include Buckingham Nicks, Elton John, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Fleetwood Mac, Nils Lofgren, Rick Springfield, Dr. John, the Grateful Dead, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, Foreigner, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pat Benatar, Santana, Barry Manilow, Ratt, Lionheart, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Rancid, the Black Crowes, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Weezer, System of a Down, Jimmy Eat World, Queens of the Stone Age, Slipknot, Vanilla Ice, Matchbook Romance, Kings of Leon, Bad Religion, Nine Inch Nails, Ry Cooder, Metallica, Elvis Costello, Kid Rock, Josh Groban, Death Cab for Cutie, Mastodon, and Everclear — and that’s only a partial list!
Sadly, Sound City — analog to the end — fell victim to the digital revolution and closed in 2011. The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, who was previously Nirvana’s drummer, recorded the band’s breakout Nevermind album there in 1991 and immortalized the studio — and its Neve board — in his excellent documentary Sound City, which premiered at Sundance in 2013. He also purchased the console and installed it in his Studio 606 in Northridge, where it is once again making beautiful music. As recording engineers and musicians geek out over the sonic majesty of vintage Neves, Rupert Neve the designer forges on. His current company, Rupert Neve Designs, continues to advance the state of the art with cutting-edge products, such as the 5088 console, that sound incredible and intelligently address the challenges of the digital age. In an interesting footnote, Sound City reopened in 2017. Will it write yet another chapter in music history?
Ocean Way Los Angeles: Focusrite Studio Console
Ocean Way photos courtesy of Allen Sides
Now for a history timeline, follow along: Rupert Neve founded Focusrite in 1985. His first product was the ISA 110, a mic preamp and EQ module designed to fit the custom Neve A4792 board he had designed for Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat. This developed into a line of ISA (Input Signal Amplifier) modules, the success of which prompted requests for an entire console. Rupert built two desks, called the Focusrite Forte console, which went to Electric Lady in New York and Master Rock Studios in London. But by the mid-’80s, the cost of producing a handwired, large-format analog console had become prohibitively high, and Focusrite ran into financial troubles. Soundcraft cofounder Phil Dudderidge had a vision and stepped in. He acquired the Focusrite assets in 1989 and assembled a team from his extensive contacts in the UK pro audio industry. The new Focusrite was born, and the team set about designing a console based around the sought-after ISA 110. Their goal was nothing less than building the best-sounding recording console ever made.
The Focusrite Studio Console was like no other. Constructed in “buckets” of eight channels that were each powered and summed locally, keeping noise to a minimum, the Studio Console used military-spec parts, gold contacts, and Lundahl 1538 input transformers for isolation and clean gain. The result was exceptional audio quality. Along with its sweet-sounding, punchy EQ, engineers loved its three stereo submix buses that could be summed to the master mix bus. The board’s devotees were amazed at the sheer size of the sound and the openness of the top end. Transparent like a modern console, yet muscular like a vintage Neve, the Studio Console offered high fidelity, but with a little bit of extra color. It was a voluptuous, warm, full-range sound with crystal-clear highs and controlled bottom end. In other words — pretty close to perfect. Not counting the original two built by Mr. Neve, only 10 of these magnificent consoles were ever made; perhaps the most famous of these resides in Ocean Way Studio A.
History: United Western/Ocean Way
Built in 1952 by renowned engineer/audio designer Bill Putnam, United Western in Hollywood was a studio steeped in history — it was in United Studio A that Frank Sinatra made most of his records. After leasing Studio B (and later Studio A) for several years, 5-time Grammy-winning recording engineer/producer Allen Sides purchased the entire facility in 1988 and changed the name to Ocean Way. The fourth Focusrite built was installed in Ocean Way’s Studio A. Over the years, Allen personally worked on over 1,000 albums by top artists like Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Phil Collins, and Alanis Morissette, and it is estimated that albums recorded at Ocean Way have sold in excess of one billion copies. Many of these were recorded in Studio A on the Focusrite and benefit from the board’s audiophile sonics. According to Allen, the noise floor of the console is so low that “you bring it up and you think the speakers are muted.” Specs aside, there’s just something about the sound of the Focusrite Studio Console that inspires an emotional attachment in everyone who has ever used one. And that’s the reason the surviving consoles remain in demand. The Ocean Way board is unique in that it’s still in service with its original owner; the others, either intact or broken up into buckets, are faithfully serving their second, third, and even fourth owners.
Focusrite is still in business today, offering a line of popular products designed for the current hybrid studio. The Focusrite Studio Console was, in a sense, a grand capstone to the golden age of analog, setting the company up to bridge the gap between the venerable multitrack tape-based workflows and the new era of digital audio.
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