An eye-catching and imposing centerpiece of Ethan Johns' studio is the unique wraparound console he inherited from his father, Glyn Johns. We sat marveling at the console and picked Ethan's brain about it on my first visit to his studio.
How many channels of mic pres are there in this console?
Thirty-six complete pres and EQs and twenty-four monitor channels. It is so nice to be sitting here now at this console, but I didn't want to hang on to it just because it was nostalgic because obviously it has to work, but it's getting there. Dad has been so great about it. I was so nervous about the changes that I wanted to make. I was on the phone with him the other day and he was so pleased it was getting turned on again and going to be used that I could have dismantled the thing and rebuild it, screw by screw.
It was made by Helios, right?
No, no it was not. It was designed by my dad, who was one of the original partners in Helios, and Dick Swettenham, who was the in-house guy and had made a couple of consoles for Olympic [Studios], which, of course, was Dads' main studio for years and years. The only thing that it [the console] really resembles as far as Helios is concerned is the basic layout and stylistically, the wraparound thing. The EQ is based on the Helios EQ, which is very simple. I'm in the process of having them modified at the moment because it works great for Dad but doesn't work so well for me. There are Jensen transformers in the mic pres — I know that — but it basically was handmade from the ground up. It's a fantastic board. But we're making it better. I don't think Dad was ever really happy with it for tracking drums. And the guy that I am working with now, Tom Herzer, has done something with the pres, he's removed a bunch of stuff. We're trying to get it simpler and it is getting better. See, I love the tube stuff, the UA stuff and the EMI stuff. [It's] so simple, so straightforward, and I really don't use EQ that much so I don't need options up the yin yang. It's superfluous and unnecessary because I don't mix other peoples' stuff. I wasn't expecting to inherit this monster. He [Dad] called me up and he said, "Look I'm selling the farm. I don't really know what to..."
Didn't he have a barn with a home studio?
Yeah, he had a farm in Sussex, which he worked in for years. He said, "I really don't know what to do with it. Do you want it?" And at the time I didn't have anywhere to put it and I didn't have enough money to install it because once it got off the boat here it was my responsibility, so it sat in storage for a couple of years and I finally managed to get enough money together to get it wired and converted. I had all new power supplies made for it, just kind of rebuilding the thing and I've been kind of nervous about whether or not I was actually going to be able to use it, because I like using UA Consoles. I'll use real simple stuff. I'm just finally getting to the place with Tom now where we've got a couple of channels sounding wonderful. It's not like we're starting with a bad sounding console here it's better than almost anything out there. I feel like this is the great thing. I was ten years old when this console was installed and this is the console I learned on. Pretty cool.
Was that in '79 it was installed?
I am amazed at those meters. This is unreal. What are the little controls?
This is the monitoring section of the console. The coolest thing about this console is its layout. It is designed to be run by one man. Ergonomics are the thing that make it amazing. See, you've got your tape machine and your remote control here. This is the monitoring section. That's level, pan, and then you've got an echo, A and B. I don't use monitoring consoles because I like to mix as I go a lot of the time.Well it's not like I won't use 'em. I've mixed a few records on monitoring...