Sytek President Mike Stoica and one of his Neotek Elite consoles (Metro Mobile)
Photo Source Mike Stoica
Mike Stoica President of Sytek and producer of
the Neotek studio console series. Part 1. (posted 5-1-07)
In this day it is not uncommon for musicians to have home studios. If they do not yet have their own studios then they at least have the dream of it. A friend of mine, who plays guitar and has had his own studio for a few years now recently began shopping for a new console. I suggested that he take a look at a used console vintage 1980s or 1990s as they might be a lot cheaper and built better for the amount of money he could afford. I was surprised to find that the prices of old pro consoles were not as cheap as I had assumed. I have been fortunate in my studio experience, beginning in the late 1970s to now, to have been surrounded with really nice equipment. This extends to the consoles too. From 1980 to 1995 I was able to use a NEVE 8036 (vintage 1972) which was located at the Music Annex in Menlo Park, California. This board was the drawing card of Music Annex studios. Back then, it was always fun to take a break and walk around the halls of the Annex's other 3 rooms to see what projects and musicians where there that night. I was there mostly at night. I remember Carlos Santana, John Lee Hooker and Ronnie Montrose to name a few. You never knew who you would find on one of these walks. The other rooms had very expensive consoles as well, but none could compare with the NEVE. If there was ever a grand old classic console, this was it. George Martin can be seen sitting in front of an 8036 in the his interview segments in the first Beatles anthology, "The Beatles". This board and a set of URIE wall monitors in a tuned room was better than... well you understand.
Here we are recording the "Through the Windshield" album in 1982 on the hand wired Rupert NEVE 8036 in Music Annex's studio A. Top photo is Russell Bond, current owner of Music Annex. Bottom, Keith Hatschek and myself on right.
Then briefly in 1994 I was able use another classic console, the Trident (vintage 1970) which
was located in Sausalito at what had been the Record Plant. This board was also very warm sounding.
On both of these boards I was impressed with the great sound that they produced before you applied
any EQ or outboard effects. This would be what I would look for in a mixing console going forward, a great warm sound before you applied any EQ or effects. On both of these boards you will notice that the hardware is all very large, taking up a lot of space. There are many consoles that you would think should sound good due to their price, but do not. On some consoles you could spend hours working with the EQ trying to get a good sound to be your starting point. My feeling is when you need to spend much time at all to get a good sound up on the console, you are dealing with a poor circuit design.
Then on December 19th of 1995 I purchased a 1992 Neotek Elan from David Shogren, one of the founding Doobie Brothers band members. The NEVE 8036 with it's hand wound audio transformers was estimated to have a value of about $280,000 used. I am not sure what the Trident was worth at the time, but it wasn't cheap. Even today the old Tridents are not cheap. (the word is, Jimmy Page recorded the album Led Zeppelin II on a Trident, ergo, a "classic" console)
So, here was this Neotek Elan that sounded really good and it's cost was under $40,000 for
32 channels, brand new. Not unlike the cost of a good instrument. In addition, the Neotek Elan has
this extremely nice (90db) signal to noise ratio and tons of head-room. In addition, the Neotek consoles have a modular design that allows for each channel to be removed and worked on individually.
A console with a great warm sound before you apply any EQ or effects with a digital noise floor, what more could one want?
This then was my introduction to this great sounding, low priced console. One other nice thing was
that the console did not take up the entire room. Although this Neotek Console with patch bay and
producer's desk was 10 feet long, the Neotek Elan (vintage 1992) design layout was much more compact than the Trident or the Neve.
Here is Dave Shogren and myself recording the "Sleeping Lady" album on the Neotek Elan in 1997. This photo was taken at Dave's Subsonic Studios. I still use this console on my projects.
So, I thought that the insights of the owner of the company that produced such a console would be helpful not only for musicians who wanted to put together their own studios, but for those who will sooner or later will be recording in someone else's studio. It is important to know that what you hear in playback might not be just your performance, but the electronics of the mixing console itself. Bluegrass musicians spend a lot on their instruments. It is important to understand the sound in the playback speakers.
Moss: Mike, you have been in the audio business for some time
now. You are quickly becoming
Mike Stoica: I think that was based on the demand back in those days. I knew the president who started the company, Craig Connelly, back in 1974. I think the first consoles were based on the demand for some great sounding consoles compared to whatever was made, but in the U.S.
Jim Moss: What was being made back then in those days?
Mike Stoica: I think that the people just had the option to use the English consoles, more like SSL or like AMEK. I don't think AMEK was in business back in those days. It was more like Neve. For a number of years the Harrison console was a fairly good console and available. I think the Neotek approach was just to design a console that sounded very good, but could also be affordable. Also, to have a console that was made here (U.S.A.) and be supported here. For me, I have always had an interest in pro audio, pro audio design and gear.
Jim Moss: How and when did you start at Neotek?
Mike Stoica: I started in 1985, around August of 85. And at that time, the line of (Neotek) Series I, Series II and Series III was obsolete. The Elite and Elan consoles were designed to replace those consoles. I think there was just a shift in the market in those days to a standard console... If you look at the Series II, it was a split console with inputs and sub masters. We switched to all "In-line" consoles.
Actually, the Series II was the first (Neotek) console that was designed all "in-line". The Elan and the Elite were designed not only to be in-line consoles, but actually a dual system console.
Jim Moss: Now, for the readers who might not know this, what is the difference between an in-line and a split console?
Mike Stoica: Well, a split console will have a number of inputs and a number of sub-masters. The sub-masters, it's the maximum of VU meters and the maximum of channels that you can return. This makes the console very large. I think those kinds of consoles are still available and are made by Yamaha and by Soundcraft, but they are mainly preferred by sound reinforcement people rather than pro audio recording people. In the days when you had 4 track, 8 track, and 16 track recorders, that was ok, but...
if you have 24 input channels and 24 input sub-masters, the console will be extremely large. By moving the sub-masters into the same panel as the input channel you have an in-line console with your sends and returns in the same module. That will make the console very compact.
Jim Moss: This way you can use each module for either side with the input to a channel being selectable from the recorder output or a mic input, quickly giving each channel two uses in a recording situation. In a sound reinforcement application I can see where this is not needed as the sound is always coming from the stage and going to the power amps and room speakers.
Mike Stoica: Yes, you can push a switch and move (a channel) from record to mix down. Instead of sending signal to the tape machine you are now playing back the tape machine into the monitor and using the same modules. The new generation of consoles, the one we designed in 1995, those consoles were actually dual channels. So you could have your tape return in one module and a MIDI signal returned in the same module. You can flip between those two, you can mix those two, or you can take one of those signals and send it to both channels. I am thinking mostly of the Elite console which is fairly complex.
Jim Moss: The typical console would be more like your Elan though, right?
Mike Stoica: I think that the Elan is a typical console, but even the Elan is a dual path configuration. The modules can work with two signals at the same time. You can send one to the mix and one to the recorder. That will save a considerable amount of console space.
Jim Moss: How has the studio console world changed over the three decades that Neotek has been around?
Mike Stoica: Well, I don't think it has changed much. The pro studios still maintain the good sounding desk (console). Even so, with digital coming in, the good studios still maintain large format consoles and analog tape machines. Now unfortunately, since the economy changed, a lot of these very very large studios have disappeared. What remains is probably just the good large-name studios in that market. A lot of people these days are able to do a lot of pre work... do a lot of music in their homes before they have to go to a large studio to do a mix-down and master the project.
Jim Moss: Did this happen about the time of Alesis starting to make home recording more affordable?
Mike Stoica: I don't think so. I think it just happened at the time when synthesizers were more available. I think the price of the gear came down, it is still expensive. When you talk about music, you have a large variety of music types. A lot of people can do a lot of work in their project studios before they have to go to a large studio. With the price of the equipment coming down and the people getting more educated, having more talent in that direction... people can actually prepare their own sound and their own ideas in their homes.
Jim Moss: Actually, that is why I got interested in having access to a studio. Although I worked with one of the larger studios here in the SF Bay Area for about 15 years through a business arrangement I set up, ultimately I needed to get more control over my projects. It was often a matter of fighting with the studio engineer who was maybe lazy, you know. Not all of course, I worked with some brilliant people that is for sure and they taught me a lot, but you could get one with a different attitude and personality each time you walked into the studio and sometimes you wanted to kill'em. I heard that Jerry Lee Lewis shot his bass player with a 44 magnum once. I can see where somebody could do that to a studio engineer, just for being difficult. I mean, when an engineer who is working for you says to you, "how does it sound now?" and you say "better", then he follows that up with, "I didn't change a thing", man that is grounds for immediate execution. This guy is working for you!
Mike Stoica: There is something else. In the 1990s a lot of people started building large studios in their homes because if you are a great artist and you have an inspiration you want to practice at your own convenience. I think it is difficult to hold your talents until you are able to book a session in a studio.
Jim Moss: Jimi Hendrix built Electric Lady Studios for that very reason.
Mike Stoica: Well, not only him, but I think even Michael Jackson in the 1980s. Jimmy Rock and Roll in those days was his chief engineer. He ordered a Neotek, and we custom made it for him in I think 1987 or 1989. Because he had so many ideas and so many songs to write he said, "I don't want to wait to book a session when the inspiration hits me". I think it is true, it is not only him, but even Whitney Houston has a studio in her house.
Jim Moss: Neil Young.
Mike Stoica: Neil Young, sure.
Jim Moss: What are a few big names who have chosen Neotek consoles?
Mike Stoica: Well, I would say Michael Jackson, George Harrison... I mean, we build thousands of consoles.
Jim Moss: Did people use these boards for album projects or...
Mike Stoica: Yes. I think Neotek was extremely well built and an extremely good sounding console for mix-down or recording. The whole design idea for this console was to make a desk that would sound good more than anything else. It conflicts a little with the ideas of a young engineer. A young engineer thinks into the absolute of the console... "I want a console to be extremely quiet, I want a console to be extremely dynamic, I want a console to do all these bells and whistles" but few people will actually understand that if a console doesn't sound good, that is a problem. I can give you a few names which in the industry rise above the average. I think Harrison is a good sounding console, but for many years people complained that they were kind of "brittle" sounding. I think the reason for this, from an engineering standpoint, is because they use a lot of monolithic op amps in their design. They did not spend enough time on the design to soften the sound, like on a TL074.
That kind of op amp, like a JFET kind of op amp topology... in those days the JFET required more attention and I think they were something that could sound good, but young engineers and people who want to design audio, they kind of go by the text book. They say " I want something to have a very wide bandwidth, and I want to have something very clear, and with very low distortion". Well, go with the standard monolithic IC like the NE5532 and 5534, but unfortunately once you have too many of those it just sounds too crystal, too harsh. I think even today in the industry a lot of people, they dislike the TL072 or TL074 or TL071. If you go on the internet you see a lot of comments that say "oh those ICs they are no good for pro audio", but I am trying to remind them that the whole industry for 20 years used them including Harrison and AMEK and Trident. It is more about how you use them. They are kind of tricky to use and I think Neotek learned in the early days how to use them and it is a very simple principal. You don't try to get a lot of gain out of them. With almost any op amp, if you don't try to get a lot of gain out of them, just use them more as a buffer, it will have a softer sound with a greater bottom. They can be a good sounding op amp.
Jim Moss: The 5532 and 5534 have a real good output current capability.
Mike Stoica: They have a good output capability because they are able to drive 600 milliwatts into 600 ohms. They also have a very low input impedance so they are GREAT for some buffering. We use those in Neotek a lot on fader buffers and line inputs because you want a fader buffer to have a low impedance because the fader is only 10k ohms. You want to have a low impedance type buffer with extremely low noise. The TL072, it will create some noise with its high impedance inputs. Most people don't realize that if you don't try to get a lot of amplification from the TL072 it can sound very good. In the Neotek consoles we alternate these op amps, depending on where you use it, how you use it and how much gain you design in. In our early Elan and Elite consoles we went a step further and used discreet transistors, even so we didn't brag that much about it. A lot of high gain is done with transistors, the mic pre amp had transistors, the fader buffer had a transistor input, the buss amplifier had transistors because the transistors that we chose... there were no op amps in the universe that could match the characteristics, but it was just employing a lot of parts to make those work at an extremely low noise level.
Jim Moss: I noticed that the Neve 8036 used a lot of transistors.
Mike Stoica: Well, I think if you talk about the Neve in the early days they used a lot of transistors, but I don't think they used transistors for noise. It was just convenient to use a couple of transistors and a couple of transformers, but if you try to make that console only with transistors it will take a tremendous amount of energy and expensive power supplies.
Jim Moss: I see. So these transistors that you use, are they a specific type? What do you look for when you look for a transistor?
Mike Stoica: The transistors that we use were pioneered by the Japanese and they became available in this country in about 1985 when we started designing this console. Before 1985, we just used some low noise Motorola transistors. In 1985 we used the SB737, one of the most famous transistors for audio. Those were designed by the Japanese for use in tape recorders. They were capturing the industry of tape recorders and they needed a powerful transistor with extremely low noise to match their magnetic heads used in the recorder industry. From that point on, I think everybody used those transistors, including SSL, Harrison, Soundcraft, AMEK, Neotek. I think, even Sony consoles use those transistors.
Jim Moss: Do you still use them?
Mike Stoica: We changed to a newer transistor that is ten times better which is made by Toshiba. Those transistors have an extremely low impedance capability. These transistors are very capable of working with extremely low impedances. It has to do with the way the transistor die is built. The die size is larger. This die gives you more amplification without noise.
Jim Moss: Now, don't you get more capacitance the bigger the die size?
Mike Stoica: No, not really. The capacitance is only a factor when you have high impedance. If you have a tube design, you get into trouble with capacitance. In transistors and op amps, that is one of the reasons you alternate some of the devices. If you expect a very low impedance, like from a fader, you don't try to use a TL074 because that would be a high impedance input. If you put a low impedance on the input the op amp, it will generate a lot of noise.
Jim Moss: So, you like to use the low impedance there and step up to a high impedance.
Mike Stoica: Right. It is the same thing with the mic preamp. If you use a low impedance amplifier design like the mic preamp that we designed for Sytek, it was capable to go to less than 25 ohms. It will accept 50 ohms or 25 ohms of mic impedance without generating a lot of noise. If you don't have those transistors which actually behave like a buffer, like an impedance converter, and lets say you put a TL072 or an NE5532... well, the NE5532, the input impedance of that is more like 600 ohms. So if you put 50 ohms into that you will amplify a lot of noise. In the old days with the Neve they probably used a transformer which would convert 50 or 75 ohms to 600 ohms.
Jim Moss: Isn't that a problem these days with all the different mic impedances that are out there?
Mike Stoica: No, I don't think it is a problem, not with the Neotek gear. I don't want to talk for other manufacturers, but I think Neotek is capable of working with almost any mic, because the mic pre is capable of working with almost any microphone that I have heard of. Now, if you have some other company's console, where they do not spend that much effort in designing the mic inputs, that will probably create some problems. There are a couple of manufacturers out there that put 60 db of gain in the mic and... they expect you to get 60 db of gain with a 600 ohm mic, not with a 50 ohm mic. If you put a 50 ohm impedance mic and crank it to 60 db, you get 12 db of gain or something.
Jim Moss: When we look at consoles being used in the past, moving up to the present, where do you see the market pushing Neotek?
Mike Stoica: At Sytek we spent a tremendous amount of design and development for a portion of the market that goes to the small studio. We see a great demand from the small studios for a small format console with the performance and the characteristics of a large format console. I think these studios are getting mature enough to recognize that they actually need a console if they want to mix down. Otherwise, you will have a console in racks of outboard gear and you will have to buy external devices like summing amplifiers, mic preamps, equalizers... by the time you are done you have probably spent more than if you had a global console.
Neotek for the last five years has gone mostly toward the small project studios. We offer a 24 channel Sytek with motorized fader automation for Elan and Elite console ( 32 to 48 channels coming soon). The beauty of this console automation is you can use any DAW software like Cube Base, Sonar 3 or Pro-Tools software to control it over MIDI or USB, for Macintosh or IBM computers. So, you do not have to learn any new fader automation software. We also offer a dual layer automation to control the console faders and by pressing a switch per fader or a global switch, the faders control the DAW software in your computer (like Cube Base, Sonar 3 or pro-tools and few others). We call it dual layer because it is two systems in the console one for fader automation and the second for your DAW. We use in this system 2 motorized faders per module, one internal, and one external visible.
This system will be direct competition for SSL AWS900 console. The SSL SWS900 console with DAW control does not have the 2 motorized fader system, they use a DCA (Digital controlled amplifier) to control the fader level. We all know that a DCA will have it's problems with what sounds like zipper noise, distortion and poor linearity. We call our system the Elan II with fader automation or Elan II with DAW control. This is the same for table top models such as the Elan II TT with fader automation or Elan II TT with DAW control plus the Elite console Elite II with fader automation or Elite with DAW control. I think that people have not given up on computer mixing, but I think there is a great demand for analog boards.
Jim Moss: I have seen people who work in ProTools, but have begun to use fader boards to control ProTools. Actually, some people have moved away from doing everything on the front of the screen. They want to have a better interface.
Digital came in with 16 bit CDs bit converters, and now DVDs have 24 bit converters. Coming from a world of tape, how does this influence or reflect on all of the console manufacturers, and then specifically Neotek?
Mike Stoica: Well, Neotek consoles always had a low noise floor. This is true even today, lower than any digital gear out there. It is hard to compare one with another because with the digital board they use a different technique to measure the noise floor. You are not going to measure the digital noise floor before you filter the signal because you will get all the noise from the clock.
Jim Moss: Oh sure, from the converters.
Mike Stoica: The analog boards, of course, are required to be installed properly and be well grounded. I think most of the consoles today get noisy because people bring this type gear into the studio and they forget to ground the console correctly. I think Neotek was always about minus 88 to minus 90 db signal to noise. I think that is very compatible if you compare it to 0 dbm. Minus 88 to minus 90 db should be very digital compatible. I don't think that ever was a problem.
From what I have been told by many many many recording engineers in the last couple of years, to be honest with you, they are saying "well I don't really care about the tape machine this much". Most people are very happy with their hard drive recorder, they are very happy with recording to a computer, but a lot of people are very interested in the console. By the time you bring the signal to the computer or to your ADAT recorder, that is a very big step. If you warm it up, if it sounds good, if the resolution is there... I mean, your converters can be 24-bit 96 kHz, but if your signal is poor in quality, that is not exactly what you want to record. I spoke with a gentleman, Tim Powell who owns Metro Mobile, and he has a console from 1987, a custom console in his truck (shown at top of this page), and he is going around even in Canada to record shows. You know he is a very well known gentleman in the industry, and he is recording in the last three or four years to hard drive and he loves the Neotek. Its like, once I got it to the hard drive, the sound is incredible. I think he tried other gear, out boards... some external devices before. A lot of people buy a mic pre amp which is $2,000 or $3,000. If you compare a $2,000 mic pre amp with a Neotek channel, a lot of people get disappointed. This is because you don't get as much for the money as you do with a channel. The cost of a channel is about $750 or so.
Jim Moss: When I first started noticing the difference between console electronics, I was down at Music Annex in Menlo Park, CA. They had a Neve and they had a few other boards over the years including a big Soundcraft 36 channel console. I have to tell you that some of the boards may have looked nice, but you would have to work for hours trying to get a good sound on a single track using the on-board EQ and never get the sound you needed. I was using great mics in all cases too. This was tough because I had worked with the Neve where the channels just came up sounding great, with no fiddling with EQs. On the Neve the EQs were used to sculpt the sound to keep the instruments from masking each other. But, with some of those boards, and they were quite expensive, you could just not get a good sound through a channel. This was what made me buy the Neotek, it just came up sounding great in the first place. If you wanted to use the EQ to tailor the sound, that was fine, but you never had to use the EQ to MAKE the instrument sound good. In this way, recording acoustic instruments, the Neotek Elan was similar to the Neve, for me at least.
Mike Stoica: Yeah, that's true, yeah.
Jim Moss: I have always said that the biggest shortcoming in consoles has got to be the EQ section.
What advice would you give to home studio owners.
Mike Stoica: Well, I would say, the best advice that I could give someone, something that I have learned in the past five or ten years... I think today a lot of the young generation who have started studios have been a little mislead to think that if they get themselves editing software and buy a couple pieces of gear, that they can be just like the people that you read about in recording publications. A lot of people don't understand that a lot of artists may record something in the basement, but they mix and master it in a large studio. I feel that a lot of people these days think, well if I buy this editing software, and if I buy this computer, and if I buy a couple of mic pre's, and with these I can probably cut an album just as good as like... this artist or that artist. Talking with a lot of people in the last five or six years, I found some people getting extremely frustrated. They get very confused not only by the market, but by the whole industry of digital equipment that tries to tell you, "This is what you need" and "This here is what you need" and "This is what is going to sound good".
Jim Moss: Hype!
Mike Stoica: A lot of hype. Sadly, I see studios spending probably $50,000 or $100,000 in gear which, if I were building a studio I would just, I don't know, buy some URIE speakers, some URIE amplifiers, a good sounding console... used or second hand or brand new, and a hard drive recorder. You are still better off than... you can build a studio for less money than a lot of people spend on some gizmos. Just to give an example, there are a lot of studio monitors out there, they are self powered, which is a great idea, yeah... but they cost a fortune. Its like, I see devices like that where they cost $3,000 for two monitors. It like you can buy a couple of Yamahas on a stand and a couple of amplifiers for less than half.
Jim Moss: You have to keep in mind what it will be played through in the end too.
Mike Stoica: The prices that people charge for anything decent out there! It is kind of difficult to understand what is going on because you have, on one hand, people who do well on extremely good gear that they want a fortune for. Do you want a decent mic pre? Do you want a decent EQ?
Well, you have to spend $2,000.
Jim Moss: Easily...
Mike Stoica: Easily, you know they sell all these rack channels. I think, even SSL and Neve. Everybody came up with these mic pre with EQs for about $2,000. And you know, it is extremely expensive, but to put a studio like that together... you buy all this gear, you buy all these self powered monitors... you buy a summing amp to mix out from the computer...
Jim Moss: Without buying a board, you mean?
Mike Stoica: Right, without buying a board. It's unbelievable the path that a lot of people in the younger generation get steered to.
Jim Moss: You know I learned a lot of technique from some great engineer producers in the 1980s and 1990s, of various ages, that I managed to hold up :-) and that is about what you have to do to get to the real cool techniques, you have to hold them up somehow. Producers are very private with their hard-learned skills. What I found was that some really classic mixes and sounds that are good forever did not use the most modern gear. In fact, some hot sounds were the result of accidents, like the English studio that had this great chamber reverb sound which no one could copy, that turned out to be a chamber that had formed a water leak and had filled to about 10% with water. This reverb sound was the hot item and no one knew until one day when the tech had to move the mic in this underground chamber, that the chamber had water in it. Some sounds do require modern gear, but you cannot be a slave to the latest product, that is just the advertising people that are behind what you see in the recording magazines that are coming after you, not producers or engineers. It takes money to get into those publications, YOUR MONEY!
Mike Stoica: That's correct! And I think with all the digital hype out there... I see a lot of people buying gear and spending $15,000, $20,000. It is not unusual for someone to buy some editing software, which in the last five years the whole market is loaded with. You can see those selling on Ebay a year later for about a tenth of the original price.
Jim Moss: Yeah! That is another thing, this stuff doesn't always retain it's value. Now, you know that computers are obsolete in 18 months. So, if this software is designed for one of the current computer systems, these systems will be junk in 18 months. I don't want to be knocking software, I write software, but we all know that the computers don't last as long as most of our girl friends. So that software you bought is out of date that fast. Take the AVI files... I did some video editing in 2000 to 2003 and right now the new video editing software cannot open these AVI files unless I run a program on each file that changes the header information. And who knows what happened to the project timeline files!
Where as, if you buy yourself a good console or you buy a good mic, the price and use will be there for a long time to come. In fact, if you get a vintage Neumann mic you will see the price go up as the years pass by.
Mike Stoica: Well, I think that Neotek consoles are by far the best investment people can make these days, because you buy a console, say brand new, for maybe $30,000 and you get accustomed to the sound of that console for at least 12 or 15 years. I don't know of anything, even my car which I paid probably more than $30,000 for, will be around for 15 or 20 years in good condition with good performance. We built customer consoles for Steve Albini who recorded Nirvana and I think that was in 1998 or 1999. They have a technician who maintains it, but to be honest with you, they bought their parts from us, and for just a couple of hundred dollars worth of parts, they used a 48 channel Elite for the last ten years. To just buy $200 in parts, I think that is a tremendous value.
Jim Moss: And, you don't have to go through a new software learning curve every couple of years.
Mike Stoica: To be honest, I think Neotek was too well built. All the ICs are in sockets, all the resistors are discrete. There are no surface mounted devices. If you blow one you can see it or smell it and just pull it out and put in a new one. You can put a new IC back in ten minutes. In just ten minutes you are back in session. And with the new generation of consoles made modular, you can just pop out a channel and the whole console will still work.
Jim Moss: I haven't been around a board that wasn't modular. Do you have non modular consoles?
Mike Stoica: No, and I think that is the greater thing that Neotek actually designed. Until 1985 we had all those modules plugging into the mother board. And you had the temperature inside of the console which will fluctuate and increase once you turn on the console from room temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, it will rise on the inside to 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
Jim Moss: On many consoles and tape machines this would cause stress on the printed circuit board traces.
Mike Stoica: This console will stay warm inside. This is a good reason to leave it on all the time, but the temperature inside will raise to 130 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of that, and having aluminum extrusions, believe it or not, that six foot console will expand a quarter of an inch. That will move the mother boards and in time that will create fatigue in the connector. People would pull the modules out and they might screw them in off center. You could have intermittence in these very old consoles. After a number of years the reliability would be compromised because of that.
Jim Moss: You would also wear out the gold tipped board fingers. That was the problem with the MCI 24 track tape machines too.
Mike Stoica: Right, I think this is the funniest part of the whole console industry. When we made those consoles, we built about 40 consoles for all the mobile recording units in Sweden. Sweden radio and television. We built a lot of consoles for Metro Mobile in Chicago and another guy in Canada. When I talked to Tim Powell he said, "Hey Mike, this console has over 450,000 miles on it". That is how much he drove around. There is no way in hell to drive a console that much if you don't have the flexible connectors we designed in.
Jim Moss: That's right! The board I have, the Elan, has flexible connectors with ribbon cables that connect to the channels, so there is no stress build up. And another thing, if something goes wrong with a channel, you can trouble shoot the signal path by comparing a channel with another on the board. With these modules as you can pull up two and use one as a reference to find a problem in the other.
Mike Stoica: Small studios, the project studios, in the last five years have been divided between the people who don't actually need a console that much and those who do. Some work with song writing and maybe use a lot of editing, mainly static music, not that much dynamics. I have friends who compose music used in advertising for Pepsi Cola, for Coca Cola. These are things where they don't really need a mixing console.
Jim Moss: More of a demo studio.
Mike Stoica: Right, but also there are some small project studios that still deal with live bands and they still deal with live recording, real time recording. And I think a lot of these people already have some sort of analog boards. Around year 2000 so many big recording studios close their doors that this created a huge surplus of big analog boards. Lots of peoples got good deals, but that exceeded the studio's ability to service, install and maintain such old console. Now that also put many console manufacturer out of business or at least very close to it. You could see people picking up AMEKs and Neves... all types of consoles for a really really good price. I saw AMEK consoles that were big. We had a few consoles that people didn't know what to do with, that we got as part of a trade in. We sold those AMEK consoles for four to five thousand dollars, big 44 channel AMEK boards (see below). You know, good working consoles. I think a lot of small project studios got fairly good pro audio consoles. They are very happy and they learned that these consoles can be extremely useful and make a huge difference in their studio.
The way the market goes right now, a lot of these bargains are gone. In the year 2000 we used to call dealers to see if they had any sales leads and if they wanted to buy a new console. The answer was, "Well, Mike, I have already four or five used consoles here made by Neotek". Now I have dealers calling me to see if I have any used consoles. I think most of this gear from the big studios ends up in the small studios. The small studio is still going up, fantastically. It is because this gear is getting really cheap. Even microphones... I mean, I can name a hundred microphones that are really decent out there for three or four hundred bucks. I think even companies like AKG and Neumann, they came out with a line of more affordable mics, especially AKG.
Jim Moss: Well, at least for $1,000.
Mike Stoica: For different applications people can find some really good microphones.
Jim Moss: Some cheaper mics are always better for some applications. Take an SM57, they are always better for recording a Marshall stack. It is perfect, you can use a U47 fet for a Marshall stack, but most likely the SM57 will sound better. So in some cases cheaper is actually better. Not all, but some cases.
When people go to get a console, they have to remember that some really great albums came from home studios, take the first Eurythmics album. They did that album in a warehouse above a business at night when the workers had gone home. Annie Lenox was working as a waitress. They just put together a little home studio in this upstairs floor of this warehouse and they made a hit record. You said you sold a console to the guy who recorded Nirvana?
Mike Stoica: Steve Albini from Electrical Audio. He recorded on a Series II. In 1985, when he heard a Neotek console he really wanted one. He picked up a used Series II and we refurbished it for him and when he opened a commercial studio he ordered a custom made 48 channel Elite with motorized faders and the whole thing. He has a couple of Studer machines and he is really happy with that, and all analog. To be honest with you, I think his move was extremely smart because around him there are like 200 studios. And those people, everyone of them, who have small studios, compete one with another and the only thing they have to compete on is price. Steve was able to do really good. He is doing REALLY good, because in his own way he is unique. He is all analog and the sound that he gets out, I mean, he has people flying in from England and staying in Chicago in order to record in his studio. He recorded the first album for Nirvana.
You know, if I had to give advice to the small project studio owner it would be, maybe once in awhile look around you and if you are surrounded by so much gear, you might want to think about exactly what direction you want to go in, what exactly you want to do. Because, without a console, it is impossible to do any kind of decent recording. You know most people, they pile on gear without even knowing.
Jim Moss: Most of us have noticed that the resale value of modern gear is not all that good either.
Mike Stoica: Not at all. People spend two or three thousand dollars for a piece of gear, then resell it for half the price they paid for it.
Jim Moss: When a board manufacturer cuts price what do you usually lose in a console?
Mike Stoica: Well, to be honest with you there are a lot of small mixers out there, but they are being used for monitoring only or sound reinforcement. I don't mean to brag about the Neotek, but the Elan is very well priced for what you are getting. I think you get, for about $750 per channel, a mic preamp, EQ, and a summing amplifier. Also you have the VU meters and a lot of P&G $50 faders. You also have the Elite for about twice the price at about $1,500 a channel, with a better EQ. But when you look in a studio and see how many mic pre's and how many compressors and how many EQs they have in the rack, they will easily justify the cost of a console. I don't like to compare a mixer to a console. I know there are some cheap mixers out there.
Jim Moss: Let me refocus the question. SSL is probably one of the most expensive boards out there right?
Mike Stoica: Yeah...
Jim Moss: Then at the other end the M company comes to mind.
Mike Stoica: Mackie.
Jim Moss: Yeah... and you take a look at just the signal path, JUST THE SIGNAL PATH, not the bells and whistles. Clearly, the sound that comes through on an unaffected channel is different.
Mike Stoica: Well, it is different because I think that a lot of very cheap gear doesn't have the ability to amplify wider signals. I think the mic preamp is fairly poor compared to a decent mic preamp design. The EQ is not exactly state of the art with full parametric variable...
Jim Moss: The knobs may look the same, implying a similar circuit.
Mike Stoica: Right, but most the time they don't even supply the power supply with plus and minus 18 volts, so the head room is not exactly there. But to be honest with you, I wouldn't compare very very very low cost mixers with a console because I think a mixer...
Jim Moss: For the readers, what is the difference then between a mixer and a console?
Mike Stoica: A mixer is mainly a Tapco or a Mackie and it might be used for sound reinforcement or monitoring. Soundcraft use to make a mixer. These were very small mixers, but they were designed mainly as a side mixer in a studio. If you run out of channels on your main console you have a side mixer.
Jim Moss: And a console would have a patch bay...
Mike Stoica: A console would have a patch bay, and also will have a good mic preamp and good EQ because when you buy a console you don't want to buy a tremendous amount of external gear. So if I just have to mix a couple of midi signals or have a little live band somewhere, you can buy a mixer for a couple of thousand bucks.
Jim Moss: Most people reading this are acoustic musicians. They will put a mic in front of a guitar...
Mike Stoica: A small mixer will probably do the job for a live recording or for sound reinforcement, but you if you really want to mix-down and record in your studio, where you will record a number of tracks,
Jim Moss: For example, to make an album.
Mike Stoica: And you want to make an album. I want to make a demo. I want to make a CD. I want to make a cassette. The whole idea of sitting down to a console, is to close your eyes and mix-down. I can control the phase. I can move this instrument from left to right, and from front to back. I can make the drum to be louder, shift to right side, shift to the left side. But, if you don't have an equalizer (EQ) there is no way to actually mix it like that.
Jim Moss: I was confused by the term mixer vs. console. I guess a console has all the controls you mentioned as well as assignment busses.
Mike Stoica: A console will have higher resolution VU meters. The monitor electronics will be much better. A good console will have a way to lay out tones in the console. A way to listen in the studio. For the people being recorded, the good console will have head phone mixes.
Jim Moss: One thing I was trying to get to here is... Somebody could actually spend a lot of time trying to get a good sound, and if they don't have a good signal path that would come with a good console they might never get the sound of their instruments to the recordings. See, a lot of musicians spend a lot of money on their instruments in this music, upwards of $10,000 or $40,000. maybe $100,000 and much more at times. To have this kind of instrument not make it through the cheap console or mixer is not good. These people may get a nice $3,000 microphone and they put that in front of it, but then they go through a channel of a lesser board that they think, because of the advertising, is really good... and they find that... it might be really discouraging when their recording sounds less than the live sound. It gives the impression that they are not as good as they really are, because they cannot make the sound get to the tape. In fact, I found this to be true, that if you don't have a good quality signal path, in other words the channel and EQ electronics itself, you could sound really poor and it is not really you, but the channel.
Mike Stoica: Well, if you are in that situation then my best advice is spend a couple of hundred dollars and go to a great studio and...
Jim Moss: Yeah, go to a great studio to record as a reference. This way you will know what you should sound like. If you can find a combination of microphone and preamp or EQ and outboard gear, then it is just a matter of replicating that in your home studio. I think the Neve and the Neotek have a very open sound as opposed to a closed sound... I think a DBX compressor has a very closed sound and a URIE 1176 LN limiter has a very open sound. Both might be very useful in a mix, but they might not be good for your instrument. In a mix you might want to have a variety of different sounds, but if the board channels sound like they have a clip over their noses, then that sucks.
Mike Stoica: Yeah, that's right.
To be continued
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