Moulton Laboratories
the art and science of sound
About Buying A Console
Dave Moulton
January 1994
1. The "sound" of a console

Moulton talks about the factors influencing our big ticket audio gear purchases; in particular, the console.

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About buying a console

The View from 2005: I’ve always really enjoyed this article. It speaks to some interesting verities regarding the disease called “gear lust.” Enjoy! Even though we don’t buy consoles so much anymore, it is just as applicable to DAWs, monitors, microphones and other implements of audio confusion and mayhem. About two years ago, while I was Chair of the Music Production and Engineering Department at Berklee College of Music, the college decided to buy new consoles for the various studios in the department. We replaced the consoles in the smaller studios without too much discussion or confusion, and I won’t spend any time here on the process we went through to do it. The real fun began when we had to choose a console for our flagship studio, Studio A. That process turned out to be quite an interesting one, and when all was said and done, it revealed a good bit about (a) the nature of consoles and (b) why we buy the ones we do.

It never occurred to me to think about this process or write an article about it until one day during a class, the students asked me which console sounded best. The students and I were discussing the subjective criteria for good and bad sound quality. They had heard that we had just selected Console B (we had considered Brands A, B and C seriously, and Brands X, W and R slipped briefly into consideration) and so they asked, quite reasonably, “Well, you checked the boards out, right? Console B sounded better than A, C, X, W and R, right?”

“You mean you’re supposed to listen to them?”

In fact, during the eight months or so that we wrangled over which console to buy for Studio A, we never listened to any of the contenders, much less compared them. This is not to say that we weren’t familiar with the consoles. Our faculty is a pretty experienced bunch of professional recording engineers and producers and they had worked, collectively, on all of the consoles under consideration, so none of the consoles were mysteries to us. Nonetheless, you’d think, when we were considering dropping some major bucks on one of them, we’d at least listen to what we were considering. If you went car shopping, trying to decide whether to buy a Ferrari, a Porsche, a Lotus or a Callaway Corvette, you’d at least drive the suckers around the parking lot. Well, wouldn’t you?

So, it was really interesting to me to realize that in our entire decision process, we never once listened to the consoles. And what was equally interesting was, it didn’t seem to matter much. We made a good decision. Console B, which we selected, is a fine console, it is installed and running well in Studio A, everybody loves it, it sounds great (whatever that means), and the deal we got was a good one.

There are two things to be learned from this: the first is that we buy consoles for reasons other than differences in sound quality; the second is that, in general, consoles sound good enough that differences in sound quality aren’t really all that important.

“OK, Mr. Golden Ears. Identify the console.”

Now before everybody gets really upset by the above statements, let’s consider the reality of it. We all are into this recorded music stuff, right? We all listen to records a lot, we work really hard on making them ourselves, and we all have at least fairly highly developed critical listening skills, right? Furthermore, all records are made using consoles. So, here comes Dave’s Acid Test # 1. Get a friend to select a CD that you don’t know and play it. Now tell me what console it was mixed on. You can’t? Neither can I. More to the point, nobody can. No reviewer says stuff like, “The Blood Clots’ latest release has the typical sonic gloss we’ve come to expect from recordings made on Console C,” or “Grungenik Unplugged, on their latest album recorded on a Console B, desperately needs the raw openness of sound provided by the Console A used so well on the group’s earlier recordings.” For all that we love to say, “W sounds great, but R sucks,” consoles don’t have a sonic signature. We can’t identify them by sound quality. If we could, we would, and we don’t, so obviously we can’t.

“Actually, they all sound the same . . .”

During the period that we were trying to pick a console, the faculty in my department had a rare old time insulting each other’s intelligence and generally being obstreperous while we were making our choices. We’re no more objective and clearheaded than, say, the good folks in Congress, and so we would come up with clever little sound bites like, “Well, Console A really does sound better. It’s signal path is straighter so there’s less distortion.” Then somebody else would say, “But, ever since Garloo went over to work for Console C Company, those boards have sounded great!” Then somebody else would point out that Producer P and Engineer E, regarded by many as the greatest recording team in multitrack history, have done all of their work on a B, and not only swear by it, but attribute their success to it. As they say in various trade mag full-page endorsements, “We’d be nowhere if it wasn’t for B.”

Such discussions, after about the fortieth day, finally begin to get boring, and so one of our engineering faculty (we’ll call him Carl) got disgusted with our dithering and pointed out that for the money we would spend on an A (which was the front runner at the time) we could buy 16 Rs (R being a well-known so-called ‘semi-pro” console), and that our students were just as likely to end up working on Rs as they were on As or Bs, and if they could make an R sound good, they could certainly make an A sound good, but not the reverse, etc., etc. At which point, I got into it and asked Carl about sound quality. I said, “You guys have been bitching about sound quality, and you’ve said that R sucks, B sounds OK, C might sound great and A definitely sounds great. Isn’t it important to have great sound? Shouldn’t we just buy A?” To which Carl replied, “Actually, they all sound the same, except for the EQ and mic preamps.” Now Carl is a major engineer with major credits, he has really good ears, and when he is willing to state that all consoles sound the same except for the EQ, maybe we should pay attention.

Normal garden variety signal path, with or without VCAs, is pretty transparent these days. The response is essentially flat from 10 Hz. to 100 KHz., the slew rate is right up there in multiple volts per micro-second, and there are just not a whole lot of artifacts being added to the signal during its passage through a bunch of unity gain stages, switches and potentiometers. So, it’s reasonable to me that maybe all consoles sound pretty much identical, except for some of their signal processing goodies.

This leads us, then, to the other part of it: why do we choose one console over another? Aside from the obvious and given issues of reliability and manufacturer/dealer product support, what are our real criteria for choosing a console, the hardware centerpiece of the modern recording studio?
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