Recording equipment: our API console and Neve sidecar

by | 12 Jul 2014 | Blog | 0 comments

Circle Studios’ API recording console first arrived in Birmingham while our refurbishment was still underway about 3 years ago. If you are interested you can watch the v-log of that over on youtube. Here’s the first of thirteen videos which showed the journey to Naples and back again to collect it:

A lot has happened since then. In addition to our studio finally being completed (to be fair this was slowed considerably due to the number of changes to the plan I managed to make along the way). There were some days that I even felt sorry for our acoustician, Thomas Jounjean from Northward Acoustics, as I first changed the aesthetics of his design and then added a wooden room, and a stone room, and a white room. Fortunately Thomas always took my latest crazy idea with a smile and a shake of his head. Because he knew that fundamentally my ideas (other than the colour and feel of the control room) were all in pursuit of sonic excellence. One high profile record producer even went as far as saying the “Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham is truly the only studio you’ll ever need.” Kind words indeed. But that’s how we managed to end up in the fortunate place we are in today. Because in addition to some amazing UK artists, the last year has even seen bands cross the Atlantic just to work here!

But while Thomas was busy turning my dreams into carefully drawn up plans, and Mark was busy turning those plans into reality, I had already moved onto a whole new set of crazy ideas. And foremost in my mind was this: there are a whole bunch of discreet Neve consoles in England, and only about four API desks. But there are NO hybrid Neve/API ones. So what would it take to make one?

I first wondered whether I could do something as simple as buying a Neve 10** series rack and drop it into the producer desk. I thought I could just bring the modules up on the patchbay and patch them into the line input of any channel. Shortly afterwards I was at the AES show in San Francisco and I chatted to Geoff Tanner of Aurora Audio, a virtual god when it comes to all things Neve, and asked whether there might be a way of making a bit more of a custom solution to meet my needs. Instead he tried to sell me one of his Aurora sidecars. A lovely piece of equipment I have no doubt, but not what I was looking for.

Sometime later, while doing some research online, I saw that Charleston Sound Studios in North Carolina had asked API to modify the producer desk of their own API 1608 to accept 16 extra 500 series modules in the penthouse, which they then brought up on their patchbay. As I pondered this it occurred to me that a simple way to achieve my aim would be to ask API to retrofit my producer desk in the same way and then obtain an API 8200A summing mixer (which incidentally has an insert and two aux sends per channel) and use that to interface the producer desk modules into a pair of aux returns or even the external ins on my own 1608. This would effectively integrate the producer desk with the console’s centre section. In addition, as I was now going down a 500 series route, this opened up a word of potential modules to me. So with that plan in mind I then began the long and arduous task of trying to trial modules in order to decide which would be the ‘cream’ to the API ‘cookies’.

Just around that time AMS Neve introduced its own 500 series ‘1073’ preamp and EQ. The two modules came with a ‘link’ option which allowed them to be hooked up “just like a real 1073”. I was excited. Until I heard them. And then my search continued. After trying many modules I found that I was a big fan of the Avedis MA5 preamps and E27 EQ. I got so excited by the Avedis E27 EQ that I decided that rather than just have a small bucket of 8 of these I wanted to fill a whole 16 channel bucket of the API. So my search continued.

And that was when I came across Audio Maintenance Limited, based up in Lancashire, just a stone’s throw from the original Neve factory. The owner, Colin, once one of Neve’s own engineers, runs a little company quietly and without fuss, turning out some of the best sounding 500 series modules I have ever clapped my ears on. At any price. Now at first Colin brought down some of his modules, a pair each of 1073s and his own recreation of the venerall Neve 2254, the AML 54F50, and just sat quietly sipping tea while I put them through their paces. I was impressed. But didn’t want to seem too keen (after all I am still Scottish and it’s well known that over-keenness often turns into higher prices!)

I began to ponder whether Colin might be interested in doing a little more than supplying me with some modules. But I felt I needed to know exactly what I wanted before I raised the issue with him. As a result it was a number of weeks before I called him back. When I told him what I was thinking he immediately just seemed to ‘get it’. Better still he seemed positively excited about the project. But he was busy and I knew from the outset that even if we could achieve it, it was likely to take some considerable time. But where we ultimately got to was way beyond my own vision.

Initially, around December 2013, the project began to feel like it was taking off… slowly. Colin would turn up about once a month. Mutter quite a lot. Take some measurements. Test fit some random pices of bare metal. Have a cup of tea. And would then disappear for another month. By Easter I was beginning to wonder where the project was going. And then, towards the end of April, Colin turn up with a box full of metal. But this time it appeared to be powder coated. As he removed them from the box and fitted them to the desk I realised I was looking at the back plate of the console. 16 male XLRs and 16 female XLRs towards the bottom and two huge Circle Recording Studios’s logos sitting above them. I was gobsmacked. Over the last 3 months Colin has continued to turn up on a monthly basis, first with the backplane and power supply for the 500 series slots, then with eight of his Neve 1073 modules, repackaged for the 500 slot format. But these were different even from his own off the shelf Ez1073 modules. Cosmetically they were black, rather than the battleship blue/grey carried on his standard module. “It wouldn’t have looked right, a grey module in a black console”. And in addition, he had fitted a fader to each of them “well it just wouldn’t be right, a channel strip without a fader” he said. “Oh, and I’ve fitted it in exactly the same point of the circuit as the original, before the output transformer” he said with a grin. I was blown away by his attention to detail and his enthusiasm for the project.

This month he dropped two of his 500 series Neve 2254. Also in black of course. And he brought with him and fitted another full length backplane for the 2254s. When I asked whether I could put any 500 series modules in the spare slots, he told me there would be no spare slots. He felt that the API 8200a route was a compromise and that we should put together a discrete mixer with sends and aux busses and integrate the whole thing with the desk via the edac extension which comes as standard on the desk! Once more, I was blow away and delighted.

Anyway, at the time of writing, the picture at the top of this page is how our producer-desk sidecar looks. Hopefully I’ll be able to update this with pictures of the final think in the next couple of months. For now at least, we are integrated via the API 8200A. The incredible AML Neve modules sound incredible on vocals, guitars, keys, strings… indeed almost anything you can throw at them. And together with our API desk it means Circle Studios now also has every recording console you’ll ever need!