Alchemea: Bye Bye CS3000

Alchemea’s Christian Huant takes a look at how the world of studio mixing has changed over the past 15 years..…

This is a sad month for us all at Alchemea, as we are saying goodbye to our Euphonix CS3000 console after 15 years of loyal service. I thought it would be a nice opportunity to look back at this revolutionary desk and how the industry has changed over those 15 years.

Back in 1997, Alchemea wanted to add a new control room to its complex. We already had three analogue desks (a Soundcraft 1624 split console, a Trident 16 split console and an SSL 4000 G series in-line console) and a digital desk (a Yamaha O2R). What more could we want? Well, back then, the future seemed bright for the Euphonix CS3000, a fully analogue console (despite pre-conceptions and popular belief) that was digitally controlled, offering complete automation of everything (including EQs, Aux sends and even Dynamics settings from one ‘snapshot’ to another), with automation data being represented graphically on screen and played back through touch-sensitive, moving faders. Back in those days, analogue was still king and no-one could imagine abandoning it in favour of digital workflows (oh how things have changed!). So this desk seemed to offer the best of both worlds; a 100 per cent analogue signal path with all the advantages of automatable, graphic digital systems. Furthermore, the specifications were superlative in terms of headroom, noise floor and frequency response. And if that wasn’t enough, it could mix to any bus configuration, allowing it to do not only conventional stereo mixing, but also surround sound (5.1, 7.1 or anything beyond that you could think of) thanks to its flexible bus architecture.

This seemed like a clear winner and Alchemea promptly bought the first CS3000 available in the UK, but sadly, all didn’t go to plan and the CS3000 never became the hit it could’ve (should’ve?) been. It sparked off a lot of interest, of course, and many top studios such as SARM West and Strongroom bought one. Other studios such as Hear No Evil already had a CS2000 – the previous generation – and were very happy with it, doing a lot of orchestral sessions for TV (maybe even in 5.1), if I remember correctly. But the buzz went a bit flat. Why? I can offer three reasons.

First of all, the desk was a little too idiosyncratic. It wasn’t your usual split or in-line design, not the sort of thing an experienced engineer could sit in front of and start using within ten minutes. It was ‘modular’, ‘assignable’, meaning you had to actually sit down and configure the signal flow you wanted before you could start working. That is annoying, especially when you are working under tight schedules (aren’t we all?) Of course, once you get to know the system, it’s just as fast as anything else, but you have to get your head around it first. Studios like Strongroom would have an assistant who knew the system in order to assist external engineers, and have templates ready-made, in a sensible, in-line arrangement. Still, people struggled. One can’t ignore the fact that the desk was computer-based, and that meant menus and hidden functions – not the sort of thing anyone enjoys. We would all rather reach out and grab a knob/fader. Also, as someone pointed out to me at Angel studios, when working on large orchestral sessions, you often need two or three people setting up the desk simultaneously to save time, and that wasn’t really possible with the CS3000, as everything was done through a centralised menu system, and there is only one of those! Granted, one experienced user could set-up the whole desk quicker than three people could set up a big Neve or SSL, but that was still a stumbling block in many engineers’ workflows.

Second – the sound. The superlative specifications mentioned previously gave the desk a rather clean, dare I say digital sound. Don’t get me wrong, the EQs are remarkably subtle and musical, and the summing bus can overload in that pleasant analogue fashion if pushed far enough, but generally it sounded clean, clear, with very little noise and no distortion, not even if you tried. Now that might sound like a good idea, but for many people that’s not what analogue gear is about. It’s not about being clean and technically amazing, it’s about having a sound – preferably lovely, warm (lack of top end or heavy mids?) and fuzzy (a bit of subtle harmonic distortion, maybe?). The problem with the CS3000 was not that it sounded bad, far from it, but that it had no distinctive sound. One could say it is quite bland, with little character. This, combined with its look and the fact that what you touched wasn’t the ‘desk’ but its control surface, led people to believe that it was, in fact, a digital desk. This wasn’t helped by Euphonix’s subsequent success in the digital market with the System 5 and, more recently, control surfaces for DAWs.

Thirdly, while people thought analogue would never die, and still spoke of digital audio as a great evil, there is no denying that, over the ensuing years, digital audio exploded on the scene thanks in part to the proliferation of 24 bit recording and the muscle of Pro Tools’ TDM additional processing cards. These elements allowed for greater digital audio quality, which is still the norm today, and enough power to run a session ‘in the box’. The convenience of this way of working outweighed old analogue methods so much that the world as a whole didn’t look back for the most part and plunged headlong into the new digital revolution. Sadly, the CS3000 wasn’t digital enough. Ironically, you could do amazing things with MIDI. For example, assigning MIDI controllers to a standard, touch-sensitive moving fader, to automate your filter sweeps on your favourite hardware synthesiser, and you could recall entire desk settings in less than a 1/30th second (including sending MIDI programme changes to recall a preset on a digital effect unit), but this still couldn’t rival the visual appeal and simplicity of opening a session on a DAW. Yes, the CS3000 could integrate superbly with tape machines. I remember the Strongroom setup, with a Lynx synchroniser, where the whole 24 track tape could be scrubbed from the jogwheel on the desk, but even tape was fast losing its appeal by then.

Ultimately, while the desk was an amazing proposition, and in many ways, ahead of its time, it faded into obscurity, with the few people who had dabbled with one thinking that it was digital and ‘clunky’. A few commercial studios still have one (Sensible Music in North London comes to mind) and are, doubtless, very happy with it as we have been. The CS3000 has also found a home in many artists’ private studios – Bruce Springsteen, Hans Zimmer and Squarepusher, to name but a few – possibly due to its incredible good value on the second hand market.

Of course, there are a couple of ‘epic fails’ about the desk’s design: the mic pre-amp has three different gain stages, which require switching. The phase reverse button is in a menu (two or three button presses to get to it). The high-pass filter is on the mic input only (to access this during mixdown is possible but complicated as it involves using the Combiner) and it is fixed at 100Hz! The ‘work around’ is to tie down a dynamics unit for that channel, because these have fully flexible high-pass and low-pass filters, for the side-chain or the main signal path.

However, despite these quirks, the desk also featured ground-breaking design features that have since become industry standard, such as the GUI for the dynamics, which is essentially the same that is being used today on every single dynamics plug-in you care to mention; or the centre section, where any given channel strip on the desk can be controlled by a virtual channel allowing the user to remain in the sweet spot instead of wheeling half-way across the room all the time. The CS series of Euphonix consoles cemented their legacy with these revolutionary ideas which also proved excellent as educational tools. Not only does the CS3000 make the user – our students – think about the signal flow as they assemble it at the start of a session, forcing them to think outside the box at times, but it is also excellent training for any kind of digital desk or control surface / DAW combination used today in the studio or live as the skills are truly transferable. Ultimately, this helps Alchemea achieve its goal of creating employable professionals. It is not just because students can go and use a Euphonix CS desk at the employer’s facility (which has happened many times, including recently with one of our graduates now assisting Phil Manzanera in his production facility) but because its basic principles are now ubiquitous. It is maybe ironic that a generation of engineers who rejected the CS series because of its concept are now using control surfaces to drive their menu based systems and applying modular approaches to bolting on additional analogue gear to their digital rig. The next generation, however, those whom we have trained or are currently training, is totally at ease with these ideas.

Over the years, some producers have been outspoken about really loving the CS3000, such as Glenn Ballard, Babyface, Steve Lipson, Patrick Leonard, John Paul Jones… the list goes on. At Alchemea, it served 15 good, loyal years, being used 24/7 by an endless stream of eager students, some who have (and will) become star producers, and it is still in good shape. The lack of official product support from Avid, who acquired Euphonix a few years ago, has made it increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain, but it is undoubtedly well made, a workhorse. However, we feel it is now time to retire it.

So, what have learned from all this? The industry can change rapidly and embrace technology quickly, but also turn its back on what it doesn’t understand? Maybe. That the CS3000 was way ahead of its time? Probably. That, in this increasingly digital age, analogue is prized above all for its character? Definitely!

PS: You may be wondering what we will be replacing the CS3000 with. Well, an equally forward thinking, modern desk, of course, one for the next, next generation! But this time, one with an established sonic pedigree and name: the SSL Duality. Check out our column next month to see why we think the Duality is the future.

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