Is 72 Channels Enough for You?
There was a time when Mix Magazine was everywhere – in every music store anyway. You either had a subscription to it or bought it a few times a year. It was, essentially, porn for studio geeks or studio geek wannabes – like me. The only part about it that was never cool was the ubiquitous picture of the person in front of the console looking very proud of themselves. You just wanted to punch them in their smug, little faces to be working with a console worth more than your house. Dr. Dre was the first person that sat in front of the mixing desk that didn’t look smug. Or, it’s just that I feared him and didn’t want him to know my inner thoughts on people in front of a massive console.
In this day and age, though, you often wonder – “do you even need that big of a console?” I think people starting out recording at home now wonder this too, since they might have 40 channels on their computer screen in one session for a song and it’s easy to assume that this replaces the need for the massive mixing desk. This just isn’t the case though.
So, where do you use the large mixing console and why? Nowadays, as in the olden days, only the big studios bother with a mixer over 32 channels. This is because they have taken up at least 12 or more channels with a drum kit alone. The snare drum can have 2 mics, 2 overheads for the cymbals, 2 room mics for just the room sound of the kit, 2 mics on a kick sometimes, 3 or 4 tom mics, 1 mic for the hi-hat and so on. If you have a studio, you aren’t going to mic a kit, unplug all of those cables when you’re done and then go mic up a guitar cabinet. You will leave all of the channels as permanently wired as possible. This saves time. You know the phrase, “time is money?” It was probably first uttered in a recording studio. By the time you consider you have miscellaneous mics in a recording space for guitar amps, acoustic guitars, bass cabinets, hand percussion, a piano, vocal booths and so on – you can quickly get to 40 channels. Forget the mics – there are also line-level sources like keyboards taking up channels as well.
On these same big consoles that have the inputs from drums (or what have you) there are also channels from the tape or computer for playback. If channel 1 is “kick” and channel 2 is “snare” – there are also smaller faders or knobs on that same “Channel 1” or“Channel 2” strip that gives you playback control of “kick” and “snare” from Pro Tools, say. And the other gobleygook you see are the pan knobs, eq, compression, sends and insert controls for each channel. Imagine how many racks of gear you’d need if the mixer didn’t have eq and compression built in too. So, it turns out, that that sea of colorful knobs and cream-colored faders really do serve a purpose other than to say, “check me out!”
Do I need a massive SSL? No. I record an instrument or vocal and then I put away those cables and use the same inputs on an interface to record other instruments. This is “overdubbing”; I rinse and repeat as necessary. Then, instead of micing a B3, I insert a virtual one. Need a Rhodes? Why use the real thing when I can use a virtual one? (I know why – don’t bother explaining it.) All the while, I am rinsing and repeating. In the end, I have a 50-track song going. What’s my console look like? The same as yours does in your DAW. I do what Neil Young referred to as “painting” and when he records it’s “taking a picture of time.”
For some artists, they still have a band sit around and record. That’s an audio photo – capturing a snapshot of the band in real time. This requires a studio space and truckloads of gear. But, then too, large consoles are necessary for doing a dub stage setup or postproduction for a movie. For a film you have to combine the audio from dialogue, soundtrack and Foley for a movie – that requires an insane amount of channels and control. Can you imagine how much that would suck if you had to draw in automation for 192 channels of audio for Avatar? Then, what about the world of broadcasting? I mean, if you are busy running sound for Monday Night Football you don’t have time to play with software – you need a knob and fader for everything and you’d need it right about NOW.
I can’t even comprehend the world of audio for film or broadcast, so let’s quickly duck back in the studio. I was saddened to learn from a few famous musicians and Mark Isham (composer of half the soundtracks out there it seems like) that there is “nothing like the sound of my SSL” or (whatever their sick console was). As it turns out, when you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a mixing desk – you can hear what you paid for. I keep asking folks at NAMM or chance meetings, if a conversation strikes up about how they record, if they also mix down to stereo through a big console. A couple have told me that even if they’ve tracked an album at their home studio, that they’ll rent time in a studio with some sick desk there to mix down their final product. Summing together all of your channels of recorded music is a hugely critical piece of the CD-making pie. When you sum together 10 to 100 channels of music – you’re asking your computer or mixer to do a lot of work and, ultimately, it does a lot to the overall sound. I don’t know first hand – but apparently a $400,000 console sounds better than the stereo output of my audio I/O. Go figure…
So, if you see someone with that “how cool am I” look in front of the mixing console, you can still quietly hate them with envy or hate them because they really do look like jerks. But, you needn’t think they are using a dinosaur or using something that is outdated. It turns out those behemoths still serve a purpose.