|London's EASTCOTE STUDIOS installs TONELUX
Music Recording has changed in North Kensington, West London. Eastcote Studios installs a TONELUX mixing system. Founded in 1980, Eastcote Studios seeks to provide the best of Vintage and "State-of-the-Art" in a creative, musician-friendly ambience.
From Tracy Funk's interview:
How did it start? Back in 1979 Chas Jankel (Ian Dury and the Blockheads) asked me to build a studio for him in West London. I had trained as an architect: up till then, music had been mostly a hobby. I had had my eye on Kensal Road for several years, walking along the canal from my flat in Maida Vale and enjoying the semi-derelict Victorian industrial buildings. No 249 was then occupied by metal-bashers making parts for second-hand ’planes belonging to dodgy African airlines, and the distributor of "Furry Freak" comics. The vacant ground floor had once been the factory stables. The floor sloped for washing away the horseshit and there were several smithies’ forges. Saga (aka Trojan) Records was up one end of Kensal Road, but almost all of the music/media business was still in the west-end. So we built the first recordings studio in Kensal Road. Now there are perhaps over 50 studios within 1/4 mile.
Tell us about the first incarnation? Well, the first desk was a Trident Series 80 (now something of a cult desk) and we bought one of the first Otari MTR90's in the UK. There were some huge, horrible, JBL monitors. The first recordings came out dull as shit because the JBL's were so bright. Time management went out the window: each day we would start later, work louder and longer and finish later until once a week we'd loop the loop. The music was mostly white funk.
What about Bob Marley? Around '86 Chas and I were looking for a tougher sound: we found it with Jamaican engineer Steven Stanley at Compass Point studios in the Bahamas: MCI desk and Pultec equalisers. I came back to England, found a third-hand MCI for sale at Jerry Boys' Livingston Studios and bought a pair of Pultec's from Paul McCartney. The MCI was originally one of three boards’ custom built for Island Records in the early '70's for their studios in Basing Street and St Peter’s Square. After API, MCI made the premier tracking console in the States: in a way it was the American SSL, sporting the first commercially available automation system. The + 36 volt power supply (take note, ye boffins) gave humungous headroom; hence it's popularity with the Reggae guys. Our desk came out of Studio 2, Basing Street (now Sarm West, the Horn HQ) whence it was used, amongst many historic recording sessions, to mix "Exodus" by Bob Marley. If only knobs could speak!
Eastcote Studios has 2 main rooms: Studio One is the tracking room (MCI JH500C) and Studio Two is used primarily for overdubs. The desk in Two was originally a TAC Scorpion, replaced in the 90’s with 56 channels of Mackie 8-Bus. I have been trying to replace the Mackie for years, but every time I looked at the sums they just didn’t add up. Clients never complained about the board, it was fit-for-purpose. Buy another big old piece of history? No thanks: who needs all those redundant channels, a maintenance/spares nightmare and air-con for the power-supplies. There were no modern compact consoles out there that were a significant improvement on the Mackie, apart from a few boutique products that would probably never pay for themselves.
Two things have changed in the last couple of years: we have encountered a demand for mixing in the box, or via a summing bus, with stems. And there has been a significant increase in the demand for live recording, i.e. musicians playing together in a room.
I began to find the lack of headroom in the Mackie a big problem. The SPL Mixtreme was an excellent stop-gap, but we needed faders, mutes and more sophisticated monitor control.
Enter Tonelux! I saw an article in Resolution about Peter Schmitt’s setup: here was a way of buying a big console sound without hundreds of redundant knobs and dodgy switches. I found Paul Wolff’s attitude to audio electronics impeccable: minimum signal path, high headroom, unconditionally stable circuitry, flexibly configured. And, of course, I’m a big API fan. But there’s more to it than circuit genius: choosing and sourcing good looking, reliable components and achieving top build quality is crucial.
I costed a compact 22 input console, in two 4u racks: it wasn’t cheap, but was just within the margin of risk I was prepared to take.
What we got!
A summing bus, with a row of faders, mutes, insert/phase/pfl, and 4 aux sends: in other words, a 22 input stereo mixer. And we got 4 Mic-pre’s, 4 Eq’s and a couple of compressors, and a monitor controller.
So now we can do stem mixing with impeccable quality, and we can track a five piece acoustic band (with help from some outboard pre’s).
We have tied the Tonelux into our existing TT patch bay, so that everything is accessible. Wiring up the racks required some head scratching: the documentation is very good, but I was trying to make sure that the differing requirements of my regular clients would be easily met, including occasional surround monitoring.
How does it sound?
Everything sounds better! Corny, I know, but unmistakeably true. After 30 years running a professional studio, I have become pretty jaded about the claims of manufacturers, pundits and producers who claim that they hear “more warmth” or “airy highs”. Plus it must also be said, aged 58, my hearing is not what it was. Nevertheless, I quite definitely hear a lot more detail. Also, nearly as important, my two best clients agree! The Tonelux handles a pounding ProTools output comfortably (the levels some people pump down the pipeline these days beggar belief.) I have A/B’d some “faders in a row” mixes done on the MCI against the Tonelux, and my “golden ears” assistant couldn’t tell the difference.
Since the installation we have done a few tracking sessions; although we ran out of mic-pre’s, the desk was flexible enough to accommodate several quite different ways of working.
It’s too early to say how quickly (or whether!) the console will pay for itself. It has certainly given Studio Two a new lease of life, and it is great not to have to apologise for the desk! The mic-pre’s sound amazing: the tilt eq is simple and usually just the ticket. Not quite enough gain for a very low output ribbon mic, but the output trim enables you to drive the circuitry with a hot source and get a nice bit of crunch. The eq module is easy to use, ‘q’s well chosen and bottom-end not at all woolly. I have been able to add some top-end sweetness to a whole mix, as well as radically spice up a lacklustre bass guitar. Something of the precision of GML, but more funky when you need it. The compressor is a bit fiddly: being a two-knob man I find the choices a tad bewildering. Maybe I need to make the time to get down and dirty with it.
All the major manufacturers have now jumped on the compact mixer bandwagon, and about time too, one might say. Close scrutiny of the alternatives has produced no evidence that I made the wrong choice. Rupert Neve’s new desk is nice, they’ve got the right ideas but it comes at a price on which I cannot see a return. The AMS Neve rack stuff is way too fiddly and has too many chips inside. (Ergonomics was never their strong point.) The SSl offering looks nearer the mark, we will have to wait and see.
But for me Tonelux rules, ok!