Despite staying somewhat under the radar as far as marketing and promotion in the US, the UK-based TL Audio seem to put considerable time, effort, and love into developing products that find many happy owners. But I'll have to admit, I've always put TL Audio at the back of my "buying" burner. Other hot brands have always caught my interest first. But when you stop and look closely at TL Audio's product line, you may find that they make pretty killer, very usable stuff-at modest price points. After months of research and dragging my feet, I purchased a TL Audio M4 tube console. I contemplated buying a used console because, after all, the M4 comes with a hefty price tag, and buying a used console would have saved me some hard-earned dollars. I pondered tracking down a used Neotek, Trident, Soundcraft, or the like, but I wasn't excited about recapping, fader replacement, rebuilding the power supply, and so on. I've bought dozens of consoles in the past fifteen years-at good prices-but more dollars were always needed to get the console working properly. And after a bit of time and money spent on repairs, something else would inevitably go wrong. So despite it being somewhat feature-light compared to a similarly-priced used console, I decided to buy a brand-new M4 and get on with it.
There are a few console models in the TL Audio catalog-top-of-the-line being the almighty VTC, followed by the M4 in the middle, then the trimmed-down M1. I was told by TL Audio and their distributor that the VTC and M4 are quite similar in sound and design, but the biggest difference is that the M4 lacks the routing, busing, and tape-return facilities of its bigger brother.
The busing concern might be a deal-breaker for some console buyers, but keep in mind that the M-series was designed as a direct-out tracking device with simple mixdown capabilities. Other than the main L&R bus and the four aux sends, there are no additional output buses on the M4. If you are used to working on a traditional large-format console, this may not be the console for you. I thought over this dilemma for a while, because I always utilized the eight groups on my previous console. Would I need them now? Well, it turns out the answer is no. After using the M4 for three weeks on fifteen songs so far, I am getting by just fine without busing. Since I track to Pro Tools HD via the M4, I use PT's busing and grouping instead. This is, to me, a better way of working. Simply using the M4 for its amazing sound, its elegant EQs, and working extra magic in PT, the lack of buses is not an issue at all. Anyone who works with a DAW may agree. Now, for those who record to dedicated, non-DAW recorders like tape machines or stand-alone hard-disk recorders, the M4 may not offer much for your workflow by way of routing.
The other notable difference between the VTC and the M-series is that the VTC has a Mix B section that you can use for tape returns, with dedicated faders, EQ assignment, mute, solo, and pan. Again, this may be a very important feature for some users. I'm not missing these features because I'm letting my DAW handle most of this work. It really seems to me that the M4 was designed for the DAW user who wants to control most routing in software but still wants high-end preamps, great-sounding EQs, and awesome summing. The M4 certainly does not lack in these departments.
I own a pretty good assortment of high-end outboard preamps, EQs, and compressors-Neve, Millennia, Summit, and so forth. While waiting for my M4 to arrive after placing
the order, I began to doubt the ability of the console's preamps and EQs to match those in my racks. Upon delivery, when I piped a few instruments through the M4 for the first time and had the band go through an improv jam, I realized all was indeed well. It's always hard to describe in detail what preamps and EQs really sound like, but if I were to grab a few words at the top of my head, the sound is elegant, smooth, detailed, and HUGE!!!!!!! When set properly, the preamps can handle any source with clarity and class. When pushed to the point of tube saturation (as every channel has a tube), awesome harmonic distortion occurs; musical saturation for which I always ran to my Summit TPA-200B is on every channel! If you are worried about tubes adding excess noise on a channel, much less 24 channels, let me say that the M4 is very quiet even when I push it to the limits of the preamps. Wonderful. The imaging on this thing is very sweet. It made me realize in an instant why mixing on a console is important. Tracks have better placement in the stereo field. Effects on tracks are more detailed. Mixes simply come to life. You can definitely hear the "tube" in this console, but I have to say it's a very musical and workable sound. I had read in some forum that the posting user found the preamps to lack headroom, but I personally find the preamps to handle all levels and all sources extremely well, including acoustic and electric guitars, bass, synths, drums, and drum machines.
As for the EQs, they have four bands: HF (10 kHz) and LF (100 Hz) shelf; sweepable LM (50 Hz-2 kHz) and HM (500 Hz-18 kHz) boost/cut with fixed Q (0.7). All are +/-15 dB. For me, the EQs have always been the most important section of a console because in the past, I've relied on outboard preamps for much of my work. What's the scoop (no pun intended)? These EQs respond differently than any other console EQ I have used (as well as outboard for that matter)! They can defiantly handle and sweeten any signal and make the track better by far, but no matter how much I boost or cut, the original source is never demolished. If I boost the HF by 7-8 dB, the result is still smooth and transparent. These EQs were designed to be used and abused. I find myself doing some pretty radical EQs to my tracks, and everything sounds amazing. Again, elegant and smooth come to mind. Phase distortion and the "grainy" trademarks of other console EQs I've used are simply not evident. What is evident is clarity with color! I decided to give the EQs a bit of abuse to see how and when they would start to destroy my tracks. I ran some synths, acoustic guitars, drum machine, and voice live into the M4. I EQ'ed the sources and fed the EQ'ed direct outs (which you can individually switch pre or post-EQ) to my recorder. I then fed the processed tracks from my DAW back into the M4 and EQ'ed once again. I expected the output to suffer. Instead, the results were pleasing and musical yet again. Even with a combination of up to 15 dB of boost, things still sounded great! Test concluded. These EQs are very musical, very workable, and will add that much-needed extra something to any tracks. They are especially great on synths, drum bus, vocals, and guitars. I should say that these are "sweetener" EQs. To surgically tweak a problematic source, you may need the help of an external or plug-in EQ with adjustable Q.
Now in terms of the aux sends and returns, I wish I had more to work with. You get only four mono sends (two of which can be set pre or post-fader while the other two are fixed post) and two stereo returns. On the positive, the operating level of each send and return can be switched between -10 dBV and +4 dBu (great thinking TL). Also, the auxes are very clean and seem to maintain the high-
frequency detail found in the channel strips-something I've found to be lacking on other consoles. On the negative, I just wish I had more to use. I love effects processors, whether it's a killer Klark Teknik DN780, an Eventide, or some funky stompbox I patch across the board. The lack of auxes kinda holds me back. Six sends would have been perfect. Oh well, can't have everything.
One last thing about the M4. When I first patched in my HHB CD burner/player to the 2-track input and played a CD that I've been familiar with for years-WOW!!!!-it was like I'd heard the CD for the first time. It reminded me of the way my father's hi-fi system sounded. The master section also has a tube path, and it was totally giving my ADAM P33As a workout! Even the M4's master section is top notch in sound quality (and if anything, the M4 is a great way to hear your favorite records and CDs). But as might be expected, it is basic in features but quite utilitarian. You get L&R VU meters; aux send masters; level and balance knobs for the stereo returns; separate PFL, headphone, and speaker volumes; speaker mute; and thankfully, a real talkback facility (with an XLR jack for a user-supplied mic) that can feed one or both of the first two aux sends.
So, is the M4 everything you need? That is obviously up to you. For me, it augments my studio setup in a very positive way. Great preamps, fantastic EQs, top-notch summing, plus the ability to add DO-8 8-channel ADAT I/O cards to seamlessly integrate the console into my DAW, make spending the money on the M4 well worthwhile. Yes, there are a few things I miss from working on other consoles, but once I realized the intention of its design-a front and back end to a DAW-I quickly became very comfortable with its limitations and embraced the M4 for its sweet sound. The M4 is available in 16, 24, 32, 40, and 48-channel options. (MSRP starts at $10,845 for 16-channel; www.tlaudio.co.uk)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.