Gear Stories With Sylvia Massy: The Age of the Customs

Jul 27, 2010 2:50 PM, By Sylvia Massy

A PERFECT STORM

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Detail of the diamond-shaped faders from Crystal Studios consoles

Detail of the diamond-shaped faders from Crystal Studios consoles

The newest Custom Console: Terry Manning remotely adjusting a fader level on his iPad controller

The newest Custom Console: Terry Manning remotely adjusting a fader level on his iPad controller

Van Halen at the Sunset Sound Custom Console in Studio 2, circa 1979

Van Halen at the Sunset Sound Custom Console in Studio 2, circa 1979

THE NEWER NORMAL
As the ’70s revolution raged on, Trident Studios in England had been making its own Custom Consoles called the A-Range and B-Range, and in 1975, the studio unveiled the new Series 80 console, which had a very standardized layout. The Series 80, 80B and 80C were mass-produced with a minimum of 32 channels for which the controls were mounted on long strips instead of individual modules. Personalizing was limited, and for the most part was not needed. Each channel had a mic/line amp, 24 buses, EQ, eight cue/effect send outputs and a linear fader. Each 80 Series also had a built-in eighth-inch TT-style patchbay, a center section with send and monitoring controls, and a standardized stereo bus—everything you might want for recording in a very streamlined form. You didn’t need to be a technician to buy one, and any independent engineer could navigate a session on one of these new-generation consoles without needing any more instructions than where to turn on the lights in the room. One by one, the big lunky Customs were replaced by MCI, Harrison, Amek, Soundcraft, Neve V and Solid State Logic. By the 1990s, most of the great Custom Consoles had long been replaced.

My first personal encounter with a true Custom was when I worked at a studio called Bear West in San Francisco in the ’80s. Its old API DeMedio in Studio A was big and square, and had a vast patchbay of brass ¼-inch plugs with just about any patch point you could dream of. It had a fake plastic wood veneer that was chipped off on the corners and a worn Naugahyde bolster that was cracked and peeling. But, oh, it had soul. It sounded thick, golden-brown and grainy, and would often spit at you. I loved it. I was disappointed when the studio owner replaced the board for a cookie-cutter Sound Workshop. Not that the Sound Workshop sounded bad; the API DeMedio just sounded too good.

RE-INVENTING THE WHEEL
Today, with the advent of digital, the entire idea of worksurfaces is quite different from how it was 40 years ago, but the concepts and the appearances are surprisingly familiar. It may be a picture of a knob or a fader that you are manipulating on your screen, but its purpose is the same. Whatever it was in that recipe of graphite, copper, resistors, potentiometers, plates, strips and islands will hopefully be offered to you soon as a plug-in. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating works of art as you would by having a copy of a Matisse or a Dali on your wall. Not everyone can have an original, and in an abstract way we can now all have our own beautiful Custom Console masterpieces.


Sylvia Massy is the unconventional producer and engineer of artists including Tool, System of a Down, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and Prince. She is a member of the NARAS P&E Wing Steering Committee and Advisory Boards, and is a resident producer at RadioStar Studios in Weed, Calif.






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