We have all seen pictures of high-end recording studios, past or present. They all have one thing in common: the largest possible recording/mixing console sitting dead center.
I grant you: recording consoles are as sexy as sexy gets in terms of pro audio gear (sorry, ladies…). It ain’t hard to fantasize on the SSLs, Neves and APIs of this world… And without even going that far, note how my 150 Euros / Dollars 20-year-old Yamaha MQ1602 (which isn’t even a studio-grade console) got my undivided attention (and a better cleaning than my car) a few month back.
But past the lust, does it make sense to invest in a board in this modern age of the in-the-box home studio?
I thought that listing here, in layman’s terms, the (possible) functions a recording console may help you decide… As each of these functions can be served up by a corresponding piece of dedicated gear, I also include an example of each of those. Let’s get started.
Track multiple inputs simultaneously
With its multiple inputs followed by pre-amps, compressors, limiters, equalizers, pan, mute, gain and volume knobs, a recording console enables you to take a certain number of simultaneous audio inputs, sculpt them to a degree, and guide them to an output.
The inputs can be:
- microphones (who’s low levels the pre-amps will take to line level)
- instruments (some already being at line levels, others not)
- recorded medium (coming from your audio interface at line level);
The outputs can be:
- stereo output (to your speakers or stereo recorder)
- bus outputs (to your multitrack recorder)
- Aux sends (to send the signal to outboard gear… and back usually)
- Digital outputs (ADAT lightpipe, AES, S/PDIF…)
If you only wanted that feature, you could get something like this:
Mix multiple tracks together
You have some recorded material on multiple tracks…
How do you mix all that down to a final, stable and consumable format (via CD, DVD, mp3)?
You could use your DAW’s internal mixing functionality. Or you could beam it, via an multi-output audio interface to your console.
The basic feature involved here is called summing, the act of adding up all your tracks… and while at it adjusting the level of each track, it’s position in the stereo field, add effects, compression, etc. I could write a full book on that subject, but that would take us away from this simple breakdown of features.
If you just want summing… or just analog summing, this will do nicely:
Communicate with the musicians in the live room
When you are in a two/multi room configuration, you will need a practical way to communicate with the people you are collaborating with. Consoles have that capability. They will enable you to send one or more headphone mixes out to the talent in the other room.
They will also give you the capacity to talk to them via a talkback mic.
Control your DAW
Since the famous SSL G series, automation is big part of mixing. In the days of tape machines, the automation was stored in the console. With DAWs, that information is now stored in the computer.
The computer and its DAW can be controlled by the mouse and keyboard… But it is often more productive to have a more tactile multi-knob based option. More and more recent digital consoles integrate that as a feature.
But if all you want to do is control your DAW through a physical interface, this will do nicely:
Most recording studios will use multiple speakers within a given room to give the engineer and his/her client(s) the possibility to hear the material being worked on via different outputs, typically a large system (to get the “discothèque” sound), a near-field set of monitors, a small mono box (to get the “cheap radio” sound) and headphones.
Being able to have multiple outputs like that, without un-plugging and re-plugging cables in the back of your gear, switching between those outputs, moving from stereo to mono, with or without subwoofer, etc… is a feature that some consoles can bring the engineer.
If all you need is monitor control, this will do nicely:
Another import role consoles play is the one of enabling you to route audio signals in all directions and back.
Analog consoles will do this via internal routing and a patchbay. More modern digital consoles can do all the routing internally, with the added benefit of recall. So if you like recording your vocals through a Neve 1073 into an LA2A and finally a Pultec, that set up can be recalled in as much as click.
This function can be replaced by a dedicated analog or digital patchbay:
Impress the client
This is also a feature of a recording console 🙂 Not the least of them, actually! If you have clients, naturally. How many times have I heard a studio owner say “At least with that board clients are impressed”?
If all you want to do is “impress the client”… and fit your console in your bedroom, this should do nicely:
So, what will it be? Beyond the obvious lust factor, what is your real need? What function(s) are you looking to cover with a tracking/recording console?
Let it be said: more and more home studio and professional music producer’s do without the proverbial “console”!
Happy hunting 🙂