Recording Console

AMS Neve – The Evolution of the Recording Console

The recording console has featured in professional studios for the past seven decades and over the years, has evolved to meet the needs of today’s studios by combining classic and modern circuit designs and technologies. 

Experienced audio engineer and AMS Neve Product Specialist Joe Heaton has worked on many classic and modern consoles as well as working with a host of modern DAW-based software. 

Today, consoles aren’t seen as essential pieces of equipment for the recording and mixing process. However, they still heavily feature in the world’s premier studios, and many small to mid-level studios are adopting a console-based workflow over an in-the-box, software-based one.  

In the early days of recording, using a single piece of equipment to perform the many studio tasks of gain staging, processing, and balancing was a huge workflow enhancement from using pieces of interconnected hardware. This is still one of the main benefits of using a console today.  

Studios in the 1950s and 60s would either build consoles from individual analogue units and processors or have them custom-made to their requirements by skilled electronic engineers. Ready-made consoles came into the market in the early 1960s.  

The first mixing consoles were primarily valve-based, as this form of signal amplification was readily available at the time. Rupert Neve’s early console designs, built for the broadcast industry, used valve technology. Rupert, forever improving his designs in a search for audio perfection, was an early adopter of solid-state technology, using transistors in the place of valves for signal amplification and specifically designed transformers for signal isolation. 

Solid-state console designs proved much more reliable and required less maintenance than their valve predecessors allowing for near constant use in busy studios throughout the 1970s. One such console was the A88, built for Wessex Studios London. The A88 was designed as a tracking console for music and was the first recording console fitted with the now legendary 1073 preamp and EQ module. 

Following the success of the A88, many of Rupert’s early modular consoles went on to gain legendary status as music consoles due to their unmatched sound quality and innovative design. One of which, the 8028 used at Sound City in LA, installed in 1973, gained notoriety as artists such as The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac tracked seminal albums through it. The success of these recordings created a snowball effect, with artists from around the world flocking to the studio to stamp their names into the rock and roll history books.  

Over time, the consoles housed in studios such as Sound City became legendary in their own right. When some of these studios closed, the consoles became highly sought-after, often fetching higher prices used than when commissioned as new. Studios that adopted these legendary consoles would use the console’s history as a significant selling point of the studio, and artists would quickly book studio time to take advantage of the superior sound quality imparted to their records. Of course, these legacy consoles were in short supply, so studios wanting to cash in on the prestige would follow suit by buying new Neve consoles of their own.  

Today, large format consoles are primarily used by topflight studios that work in orchestral scoring or recording and mixing pop acts. Budgeting up to £1,000,000 on a single piece of studio equipment is far beyond the reach of many small to mid-level studios. Still, for the scoring stages at Abbey Road, Air, Fox Studios and Skywalker Sound, it’s an investment that pays off over decades of use. In the modern era, the Neve 88RS console sits alone at the very top of this market, performing the many tracking, stemming and automation requirements of modern orchestral scoring and pop music work.  

Of course, tracking and mixing top 100 billboard pop acts and film scoring may be out of reach for 90% of studios. However, there are many small to mid-format consoles that suit the needs of the smaller studios. So, the question remains, do modern studios need a recording console to track and mix music?  

The short answer is no. Technically, everything that a console delivers can be achieved through a collection of software and hardware pieces alone. This hybrid approach is hugely popular for project studios that can start small and add individual outboard units periodically as their success grows.  

A significant benefit for small hybrid studios looking to improve and grow is the sound quality a console brings. Analogue circuitry is still seen as the holy grail in studio signal flow and a console contains a plethora of analogue circuitry, more than almost any hybrid summing setup, from signal amplification, processing, stereo positioning, balancing and summing circuits.  

For modern studios, just like the studios in the golden era of recording, having a single piece of studio equipment perform many jobs can vastly speed up the studio workflow and centralise the creative process. There is something to be said about the ergonomics of a studio console. Having every track at your fingertips releases you from point-and-click DAW-based workflow restrictions, allowing you to use your ears rather than referencing EQ curves visually from a plugin window. Once an in-the-box producer fully adopts a console-based workflow, they often never look back.  

Another fundamental reason to consider purchasing a console is studio image and perception. Client reaction is critical, and when an artist or a band arrive in a studio, they expect to be wowed, the minute they walk into the control room. Since consoles have been centre stage in studios for many years and have featured in films, TV shows and documentaries, artists now expect to see a console sat in the heart of a ‘proper’ studio, especially if the studio time is costing them a lot of their hard-earned money. They also want to be reassured that they are in good hands with an engineer who understands how a complex looking console works. 

Modern consoles offer far more capabilities than the purely analogue consoles of the 1970s. Designers have taken note of the many benefits software-based workflows bring to the table and have brought them into the analogue console domain. One of the main drawbacks of an analogue console is the time taken to set up and recall a mix. This can be an arduous, painstaking task, especially on a large console.  

Studio consoles of the modern era have removed this hurdle. Current hybrid consoles, such as the Neve Genesys, achieve a fast workflow via digital control over analogue circuitry, providing a best-of-both-worlds scenario where signal flow remains purely analogue, with the instant-reset capability of a software-based workflow.  

Consoles like the Neve Genesys Black take this concept further by including an integrated DAW section, featuring a computer screen and HUI controls mounted on the console surface. This design merges vintage and modern studio technology into a true modern hybrid workstation. New technologies such as the Genesys Control Plugin enhance the hybrid workflow further, allowing for the console to be controlled entirely from a plugin within the DAW. 

Having a recording console in your studio certainly puts you in the upper echelons of the recording studio industry. A console can often be the most expensive piece of gear in a studio, but owning one improves mix quality, speeds up workflow and always brings the clients through the door.