Two opinions, the first from contributor Marc Alan Goodman, who is the owner/operator of Strange Weather in Brooklyn, and a second from publisher John Baccigaluppi, who owns The Hangar in Sacramento. Both extol the flexibility afforded by the modular, 500-series design. Note that API recommends using only approved 500-series modules from the VPR Alliance, which dictates strict guidelines for physical fit and electronic conformance. Placing non-VPR modules in the desk voids the warranty. –AH
Every recording studio needs a console. If a patchbay is a studio’s vascular system, then the console is its heart. It takes the signal and pumps it along its way by boosting and routing it in the right direction. Today there are a number of studios where the console itself is virtual, but it’s a console none-the-less. The decision of which console to own can define a studio. It can give you an idea of what the general workflow is like, which in turn defines what kinds of sounds the place is designed to capture. Yes, I believe you can judge a studio by its console.
Three years ago, I started looking for a new desk. My intent was and is to build a space that’s comfortable for my own preferred working style; virtual was ruled out. Amazingly, I found myself on the cusp of what appears to be a renaissance in discrete, classically-styled audio gear. From the late 1990s until only a few years ago, if you were working on an analog desk, it was either designed for live work or getting old. The advent of home computer recording choked the market for a while, and a lot of companies ceased manufacturing consoles. But a counterculture filled with engineers who preferred the sounds of classic records popped up, and with them a whole new world of boutique manufacturers of high-quality, small-batch gear appeared. Today, a studio can choose from a larger variety of off-the-shelf, high-quality equipment than ever before.
The console I was looking for was something with the clarity and strength of the better vintage desks I’d been working on, but in a smaller format and without the hassles of maintenance. My personal tastes led me to check out the API 1608. The desk’s topology closely follows the classic API designs based on their 2520 discrete op-amp. After a short time playing with one on the floor at AES, I placed an order for serial number 0004.
Delivery and installation was a total breeze. All of the I/O on the 1608 is set up with standard XLR or TRS connectors, which allowed me to interface it to my current rig without buying a ton of expensive large connector cabling. Before I even had my patchbays set up, I could get behind the desk and use it fairly easily. For the master section, a few of the connections are on D-sub connectors, but they were functions I could do without until my patchbays arrived.
One of the first records I worked on after getting the console was Jolie Holland’s The Living and The Dead. It had been recorded in a number of places, some of it by myself and some by others. I was faced with the daunting task of matching Joel Hamilton’s mixes from the rest of the album, which had been done on his Neve 5316. The 1608 didn’t even flinch at the task. Immediately, I found myself in a comfortable work environment. The 1608’s layout is in line with other classic console designs, the main difference being that the mic preamp is at the bottom of each channel strip as opposed to the top. Routing is simple and clear, yet surprisingly flexible. The desk has a number of small upgrades to keep it current. For example, the 2-track inputs are labeled as 6-track and are set up for 5.1 surround work. On a classic console, you would need a separate monitor controller.
Unsurprisingly, what I was most impressed by was the sound. Suddenly, getting the clarity I needed in the low mids was no longer an issue. The bottom of the acoustic guitar was clear and strong in a way I hadn’t heard it before. On the spot, Jolie decided to redo a vocal and add some background harmonies. The mic preamp in the 1608 immediately stood out as the best sounding API preamp I’ve heard. I’ve since attributed it to the fact that I was using the channel’s direct out, which means that the signal was going through an additional line amp stage before the computer. Everything we cut worked seamlessly with the rest of the material.
About two years later, Strange Weather had grown into a new, larger space. While working on a record with the group Charming Hostess, I found myself extremely short of channels, and hence once again working mostly in the box. It was time to move up to a larger console. API made that job easy by adding an extension input to the 1608. All I had to do was carry in the new segment and run one cable from the extender to the original console. To be fair, it didn’t turn out to be quite so easy in my case. The routing wasn’t functioning properly, and I found myself in a bit of distress. I spoke to the service center at API a number of times before I put my foot down and told them to send someone to New York. However, they didn’t even balk and had someone at my place two days later. It turned out that there were some ribbon cable issues with the first couple desks — which were quickly solved. As soon as mine were swapped out, it worked flawlessly.
There’s one more thing that makes the 1608 different from most of its competition: 500 series EQ slots. In the last two years or so, the API 500 series has become a standard among boutique manufacturers. What that means for us is options. Since I purchased the desk, it has held API 550A and 560; Purple Audio Odd, TAV, and LILPEQr; Aengus; APSI 559 and 562; LAZ Pro EQN; and Aphex EQF-2 equalizers. Plus, I’ve used the rack in the aux section to hold and power a number of different preamps and compressors. It’s allowed me to build the desk around the way I work. The kick drum channels have Aengus EQs on them. The bass channels have Purple TAVs. The second half of the board is filled with 16 Purple Odds. And so on. As I’ve refined my choices for what EQs should live in the desk, I find myself reaching for outboard less and less. Every EQ I need is already patched and set up right in front of the monitor’s sweet spot where I can tweak it intelligently. As my business has grown, so have my EQ choices, starting with an unloaded console and adding channels as I go. Purchasing the desk unloaded is what pushed the price down far enough for me to afford it initially, though it was tough to work for so long dreaming of a desk full of EQs.
Three years in, my console is still going strong. Occasionally I’ll have an op-amp die, which I simply swap out and send back to API. The only thing that irks me on a day-to-day basis is the talkback mic. There’s no outside option so I’m stuck with the one in the desk, which is so-so. I’ve voiced this to API and have come to believe an upgrade is in the works. I’ve personally worked on near one 100 records on it, and I’ve yet to find myself in a situation where I wish I’d made a different choice. Plus, I receive compliments on it after nearly every session done by outside engineers. I believe it plays a large hand in why those engineers keep coming back.
Obviously, not every studio is right for the 1608, but if you’re considering one, I highly recommend spending some time in a studio that has one. If you’re around New York City, feel free to drop me a line and come see mine. I would never suggest that someone make such a large purchase without doing their own research, but I’d be very surprised if you don’t end up as impressed with the desk as I am.
–Marc Alan Goodman, www.strangeweatherbrooklyn.com
Like Marc, after a lot of research, I bought a 1608 almost two years ago. And like Marc, I’ve been really happy with the console. Here are a few of my thoughts to add to his review.
First the bad. Yes, the API 2520 op-amps will go out from time to time and can also get noisy and/or intermittent. But they’re also the reason why this console sounds so amazing, and they’re pretty easy to replace; it’s a hassle, but I suppose it’s a trade-off for the sonics of the console. If you look at it from the point of view of a serious piece of audio gear, it will require some maintenance, but hey, all good pieces of gear do. Think of it as replacing tubes in your tube gear. Like Marc, I’ve found API’s service department to be very responsive, and swapping out a 2520 is easy to deal with. I should also mention that the 1608 has a very thorough service manual! It’s about half an inch thick and printed on 11’’x17’’ paper. It has schematics, flow charts, parts lists, and circuit board layouts for the entire console! This is how manuals used to look but rarely do any more. I don’t think API is going anywhere, but if they did, you could still get this board serviced, and the manual is another clue to the professional nature of this console.
I only have one other beef with this console, and in one sense, it’s not really a flaw, just the design of the console and the nature of how people record today. One of the reasons I bought the 1608 was to replace the Allen & Heath MixWizard, which replaced the Soundcraft Ghost, that I used only for monitoring the playback and setting up 6-channel headphone mixes to our Oz Audio headphone mixer (Tape Op #37) when tracking to our 2’’ MCI 16-track. The API has eight aux sends and sounds much better than the two consoles it replaced, so that’s all great, but the issue is if you wanted to use the API to monitor the tape machine and use the mic preamps to send to tape. This gets a bit funky. In theory it’s possible, but it’s not optimal. You can patch the output of the mic preamps direct to tape and get a signal to tape, but you have no fader post-preamp to adjust the level to tape after the mic gain. Patching an EQ in is also tricky. You can then patch the tape returns into the fader input and monitor the tape returns from the faders, essentially “in-lining” the console. But in this use, the aux sends don’t work pre-fader, which means you can’t solo or mute or change fader levels without affecting the headphone mix. Yes, it can work, but it’s less than ideal obviously. I understand it though. How many people really track to tape anymore? Hell, we have a tape machine but most bands and engineers are scared of it these days, and it only gets used a few times a year. API made the design decision to rightly assume most people are using a DAW, and in that context, this isn’t really an issue. There are workarounds of course. Use external mic preamps. Live with the no pre-fader headphone send. Get a small mixer for monitor mixing; we kept our MixWizard and will still bring it out once in a while. With a DAW, you can use the DAW I/O to create aux sends or just dedicate a group of channels on the 1608 for monitoring groups from the DAW and the rest for tracking. In our case, we “split” the console with ten channels for recording and six for monitoring.
Okay, enough about the bad, besides all the stuff Marc said about how great the console is, I’d like to add a few things. Marc mentioned the versatility of the 500-series EQs, but it’s also worth noting that there are eight more 500-series slots that can be tied into the eight returns or used independently of them. In our case, we ended up loading them with a pair of Little Labs VOG bass-resonance tools as well as a pair each of API 525, Anamod 660, and Alta Moda AM-10 compressors. I can’t stress how great it is to have three great pairs of compressors and the VOGs, pieces that get used on almost every mix, right at your fingertips in the main mix position. And yeah, customizing your EQ choices is so great. We ended up with vintage API 550A, new API 550b, API 560 10-band graphics ( Tape Op #26), Avedis 527, Alta Moda AM-20 (#70), and a pair of old Fairchild 664 passive EQs that somehow fit perfectly into the 500 series slots. I was a late convert to the 500-series format, but I’m addicted now with the 1608, plus 10-space, 6-space, and 2-space racks we use in both our rooms and remotes.
Marc also mentions the expander option for the API. Well, we run our 1608 with a Neve 34162 16-channel broadcast console (#37) with four subgroups and two aux sends. Our intent was to wire up the aux input cable (which uses an ELCO connector) to hook up our Neve to the API. But, the API’s master section is so versatile and well designed, we never got around to it, and I doubt we ever will. The API’s eight returns are basically full on balanced input channels with transformers and 2520 op-amps. (I forgot to mention transformers, this console is loaded with them! It weights a ton and the modules are masterworks in dense component layouts.) In short they sound great and are not dumbed down in any way like returns can be on some smaller consoles. We just normalized the Neve’s sub outs to the first four returns which worked out great. The Neve is designed in such a way that the signal has to go through a sub anyway, and this bypasses the stereo bus on the Neve, which is not that great sounding. A quick tone makes sure levels between the boards are correct. The 1608 even has an aux input to the sends, so we can tie the two aux sends from the Neve into the aux bus on the 1608, although in truth, I don’t think we’ve ever done this, but it’s there for the day we need to. The end result? When we mix, these two consoles are the most amazing hybrid console I’ve ever used! The master section on the 1608 sounds fantastic and has tons of headroom. It sounds much better than the Neve’s master section did. Both consoles sound great, but different. The API is bit more focused and clean on the bottom end and has more headroom and transient response to my ears, while the Neve just has that beautifully colored old Neve sound. When mixing, it’s so great to just try different tracks on different channels of each console to see which works best. And having so many EQ choices is also so great. A lot of studios (and eBay sellers) seem to be in a dilemma between an API console and a Neve. With the 1608, it’s allowed us to have both in a perfectly integrated package. –JB
(1608 fully fitted, $49,900 MSRP; 16-channel expander, $39,900; www.apiaudio.com)
A recording console is arguably one of the toughest pieces of gear to review. Connectivity to other gear, internal routing capability, build quality, ergonomics, and all-around workflow are necessary...