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 points of discussion, as is the sound quality of the various sections. And inevitably, any console will exhibit compromises worth exploring. Cost, size, and intended methods of operation all factor into the design and implementation. Consequently, the following review from Bill Wells of Marlborough Farms studio (Tape Op #22), who took delivery of an ATB32 in January 2007, is understandably copious and took many months to write. This was Bill's first gear review for the magazine. Immediately following Bill's exhaustive disquisition is long-time contributor Steve Silverstein's succinct opinion of the ATB16 from the viewpoint of an apartment studio owner. -AH
At the outset, I must admit that I'm reviewing the ATB from the perspective of owning a Soundcraft Ghost for a many years-first a Ghost LE, then later a standard Ghost with mute/snapshot automation, which we used extensively for mixing at Marlborough Farms. While we've benefited from the many useful features of the Ghost, I've never been impressed with its sound. Low frequencies always sounded murky and thin. As our outboard gear grew in number and quality, it became clear that the Ghost was the weakest link in our studio here in Brooklyn, NY. That left me with a decision eventually faced by many studio owners. Do I buy a pre-owned vintage console that may develop scratchy pots, crunchy switches, and intermittencies that may prove illusive and unsolvable... with the likelihood of a massive recapping job and the fear that some parts may end up irreplaceable? Or do I spring for a new product within my budget? Given Malcolm Toft's reputation as one the world's top designers of analog consoles, I became immediately interested when his current company, Toft Audio Designs, introduced their new ATB console at a very attractive price.
While you may know nothing about Malcolm Toft (interviewed in Tape Op #26), you probably have heard of his co-creations... the legendary Trident A Range and Trident Series 80 recording consoles. These were manufactured by Trident Audio Development, an offshoot of Trident Studios, when the studio realized that Rupert Neve could not provide the consoles they required. Malcolm Toft and Trident Audio Development filled that void first for Trident Studios, then later for many other facilities, as word spread with the help of the Trident Studios name and reputation.
The original Trident 80B and the new ATB differ considerably because each was designed during different eras for different markets. During the 1970s and '80s when major commercial studios flourished, full-featured, large-
format consoles with global switching functions and 24-bus assignment connected to analog multitracks were the norm. Interestingly, the 80B (named because it was "a console for the '80s") included IC-based mic preamps (though with input transformers, unlike the ATB). The 80B was a split-format desk, with a completely separate tape-monitor section, and all faders, including those in the monitor section, featured EQ (Malcolm's A Range being the first of its kind to include such EQ). With the unfortunate demise of many commercial studios, Malcolm Toft realized that an up-to-date redesign of the 80B would be ideal for home recording, project studios, and commercial studios requiring more compact desks. Hence the ATB. (And yes, the ATB is so-named because it rhymes with 80B!)
Like the 80B, the ATB has IC-based mic preamps (presently THAT Corporation's 1510). However, unlike the 80B, the ATB is an "American-style" in-line desk, meaning that all monitor (tape return) functions are included as subordinate controls within the input channel strips. The ATB includes no global switching between mic/line input and monitor return; each channel strip's Input Reverse switch must be changed on an individual basis. Also, the ATB relies on a Direct Out scheme for each channel strip instead of 16, 24 or 32 output buses to feed a multitrack recorder.
I had an unusual reason for buying a 32-channel ATB when our studio configuration dictated only a 24-wide desk. Over the years, I've collected a number of API VU meters-twenty-four 3" meters salvaged from old Scully 280 recorder electronics and two 5" meters salvaged from an old rotary-fader RCA broadcast console discarded many years ago by WBAI FM, where I served as chief engineer. (API being the long-defunct meter company-not to be confused with API Audio.) Using these beautiful, classic meters, I intend to build a custom meterbridge for the ATB. The smaller meters will indicate the returns of either our Sony/MCI JH-24 tape deck, which resides in a separate room, or the analog returns from our digital recording system, depending on which recorder is in use. The two larger meters will mirror the stereo bus meters on the console itself. The CAD drawings I developed for the meterbridge showed me that I could not realistically build a meter enclosure any narrower than an ATB32. Hence, my purchasing decision turned out to be purely cosmetic! A larger meterbridge would dwarf a smaller console, and the console/meterbridge combination would look absurd.
Maybe I'm a bit dull, but the in-line concept has always confused me, and I've never liked working with rotary level controls on pro gear. (The "small fader" monitor returns on the ATB are rotary, not linear.) So it dawned on me that a 32-channel ATB could be operated in pseudo split-mode, with the 24 tape returns appearing on channel strips 1-24, and the remaining channels used as either mic preamps or extra line inputs, according to the requirements of a given session. Since both the Ghost and the ATB32 are 32-channel desks, and since they had similar numbers of effects sends/returns and submaster outs, installation proved quite easy. The only problem I encountered was with the console's unbalanced inputs, which I cover later on in the review.
The ATB is compact and tastefully fitted with anodized aluminum, color-coded knobs, a durable hardwood bolster with matching hardwood side-panels, and clearly labeled silk-screened legends for all controls and rear connectors. All pots and switches have a solid, professional feel, and all operate noiselessly, even after months of heavy use. Well, nearly all of them-the master volume is getting a bit scratchy, but that's the one used most often. In the year that I've owned the console, the bolster, the top surface, and
even the knobs have remained completely free of scratches, dings, and tape gunk. A rugged desk it is.
Upon powering the desk for the first time (with its silent power supply, since no fan is used for cooling), I did note one annoying and unexpected problem. The entire right mix output was missing. After some investigation, I discovered a dirty (open) normal in the right-channel insert jack for the stereo bus. (I assumed the problem resided within the jack itself, rather than with a cold solder joint, as repeated "wiggling" of the plug/jack combination fixed the problem for good.) These jacks have been replaced with reportedly more reliable units in later manufacturing runs. My first sonic test of the ATB was very simple, though revealing. I auditioned a few CDs I knew well through a pair of line inputs (panned hard L/R of course) assigned to the stereo bus and out to my Genelec 1030As. Without exaggeration, the clarity and solidity of the ATB's sound were astounding-light years beyond what I'd been accustomed to hearing with the Ghost. In plain English-the ATB sounded BIG!
Out of curiosity, I also listened through a pair of tape monitor inputs. For some reason, the line inputs sounded a bit brighter and cleaner. Because the ATB simply pads down the line inputs before feeding them to the mic preamps, the change I heard is attributable to differences between the mic versus monitor input circuitry. The IC used for the mic input was specifically designed for mic preamp applications, and Malcolm chose it for its low noise, high bandwidth, and low distortion. TLO-series ICs are used everywhere else in the console except for the stereo bus summing amplifiers, which are 5532s, as the noise and slew-rate are better in that application. The monitor input feeds a TLO71 directly. Wondering whether something as simple as a frequency-response issue might explain the disparity between the sound of the mic/line and tape return inputs, I decided to perform frequency sweeps using my Audio Precision test set (with generator source impedances of 150 and 600 Ohms, respectively). The channel strip under test was sent to a submaster bus and then returned to the analyzer input. Both inputs measured nearly ruler flat, with -1 dB points at 20 Hz and 30 kHz, and variations of 0.5 dB or less between those points.
Recently, I had an informative conversation with David Brown, Chief Technician and head of quality-control at PMI Audio Group (TAD's distributor) for all new ATB shipments to North America. In that conversation, he offered an important reason why the ATB sounds better than the Ghost. The Ghost relies on FET transistors for mute and solo switching, whereas the ATB uses only electro-mechanical relays. Apparently, FET switches have a reputation for sounding thin. This helps to explain the Ghost's muddy, thin-sounding bottom end.
At the Fall 2007 AES show in New York City, I had the good fortune to spend some time with Malcolm Toft and discuss the ATB at some length. He mentioned something found in neither the TAD literature nor the ATB manual. All equalizers have gentle contours of 6 dB per octave (except for the 80 Hz low-cut filter, which uses a 12 dB per octave roll-off) which accounts to a large extent for the musicality of these controls. Tellingly, Rupert Neve employed this same EQ philosophy in virtually all his consoles, according to a recent conversation Malcolm had with Rupert. This highlights a relevant fact about Malcolm Toft. To use Malcolm's own words, "I have always 'designed with my ears' rather than test equipment. When I am finally happy with something, I will look to see what it is doing electronically. Of course, over the years, I have evolved a formula for this and now know pretty well at the outset how something is likely to sound." Moreover, Malcolm noticed that with many other console EQs, boost/cut knobs had to be moved a long way before any effect could be heard. He therefore makes certain that all his EQ controls perform very closely to their legends, and that even small boost or cut changes are clearly audible. With the ATB, for example, a 1.5 dB cut at 200 Hz really does sound like a dB and a half -believe me! Malcolm also makes sure that the Q (bandwidth) of his equalizers remains as constant as possible, even for slight changes in boost or cut. As he says, "This further enhances the effect of 'something happening' even with small amplitude changes."
Malcolm says he learned early in his design career that parametric EQs were not the way to go if you wanted a musical-sounding EQ. To quote his apt analogy, "The problem with a fully parametric section is that it gives you too much choice. It's rather like making a car with ten gears. Great if you're a very skilled driver who knows what he's doing, but intimidating if you just use a car for getting from A to B, which is probably (whether we like it or not), the majority of users, whether it be a car or a console." The problem is that such EQ gives users really too much choice for most situations. If you need a fully-parametric EQ for surgical work, one can certainly be applied, either by patching in a piece of outboard gear or calling up a plug-in. Again, Malcolm's design goal is for a "musical" EQ.
Last spring at Marlborough Farms, sessions were conducted for Currituck County, the brainchild of Kevin Barker, whose writing combines an intriguing blend of folk, country, and Celtic influences. He decided to use our DAW for tracking and mixing. For these sessions, personnel included Kevin on electric guitar and solo vocal; Otto Hauser (Espers, Vetiver, Devendra Banhart) on drums; Kyle Forester (Ladybug Transistor, Great Lakes) on keyboards; and Andy Cubic (Vetiver) on bass guitar. All songs were recorded live, except for vocal overdubs.
The application of EQ for these sessions was a mixture of techniques I'd used in the past along with a few new discoveries. For the song "Mixolydian", I compressed the kick drum track with a UA 1176 (with 12:1 compression), and it needed just a 2 dB boost with the LF EQ to add punch. For the snare, I applied just +3 dB at roughly 150 Hz to make it seem larger. For the AKG C 414 overhead pair arranged as near-coincident, I found I needed only a 3 dB boost at 12 kHz to add air to the cymbals. Kyle played a Fender Rhodes, which I found had a slight, annoying resonance at about 250 Hz-easily removed with the LM EQ. The bass guitar was played through an amp mic'ed with a Sennheiser MD 421U. After compressing it with another 1176, I found I needed to cut 80 Hz by just 2 dB, which I suspect was due to an amp cabinet resonance. For Kevin's vocal takes, I discovered I could add some warmth by adding 2 dB around 200 Hz. In virtually every instance, I was quickly able to dial in the EQ settings needed for the task at hand. I was also especially impressed that a very small EQ boost or cut-as little as 1 or 2 dB-was clearly audible, and often the only EQ adjustment necessary, proving to my ears that Malcolm's EQ design goal had been met.
When recording vocals, I compared the console's internal mic preamps with an outboard UA 610 using a Neumann U 87. The ATB preamp had a more neutral character, with a slight amount of up-front midrange presence, whereas the 610 sounded slightly cleaner and brighter.
Last month, at a moment when the studio was free, I decided to try mixing with only the submaster section using its (rotary!) monitor level pots, pan pots, and effect sends. For source material, I chose some pieces tracked to our digital system last spring by The Mad Scene (Hamish Kilgour
of The Clean, his wife Lisa, and friends). The band has been around for a long while, since the early '90s when they recorded with us to 8-track analog. Their style has morphed over time, now seeming more free-form, with cool, introspective jams (or is that just my take?)-but always musically wonderful. The entire band played together in our acoustically great space-no headphones needed! I connected the digital outs of our MOTU 896 to the 8 submaster monitor returns. The 896 outputs (+4 dBu) seemed a bit hot on the submaster LED meters (though no gain trims are included in that section of the ATB). For each return, its Tape pushbutton conveniently doubles as a mute. With this setup, I found it easy to create a mix with two effects sends, a feature I really liked. One send went to our EMT plate, the other to our Lexicon PCM 70. Still, I missed having EQ on each channel-and I missed the linear faders! But it turns out that with the line inputs unplugged on channel strips 1-8, the line ins are normalled internally to the eight submaster monitor returns. With this setup, I finally had the latitude to do a full-on 8-channel mix with all the toys I wanted. One problem, though! Channel 1 refused to see a signal from monitor return 1-this time, unfortunately, not something simple like a dirty jack normal. I couldn't get it to work, so I eventually gave up and completed the mix with DAW return 1 still in the submaster section. Even with this slight restriction, the results were first-rate.
I did notice that the balance controls on the effects returns really didn't seem to do very much except correct for slight left-right imbalances. I later learned from Malcolm that this is intentional. The effects returns are designed to control a stereo source, so the balance control is there to make up for any slight imbalance between the left and right signals. Therefore, only 6 dB of adjustment or "offset" is provided for precise alignment of the stereo source.
While mixing The Mad Scene, I decided to compress the entire mix using the Mon/Mix insert jacks brought out to our UA 2-1176 stereo compressor. The compressor outs were returned to the console's 2-track return so I could A/B the mix with/without compression. For the first time ever, I used the 1176's "All" (button-mash) ratio setting. Wow-perfect for this mix, I thought. Aside from a slight bit of noise due to-ahem-the unbalanced connections (or so I believe), after adjusting the compressor outs to match the Mon/Mix inserts, I was able to quickly and conveniently compare the compressed and uncompressed mixes. That wild button-mash compressor setting is definitely what I ended up printing!
At the 2007 AES Show, I asked Malcolm if he'd contemplated optional moving fader automation for the ATB. He said he hadn't, based on the way he anticipated that people would use the ATB-tracking through the ATB, thereby adding the positive attributes of the console's high-quality analog circuitry, then mixing in the DAW. However, this technique suffers from the entire elimination of the console during mixdown, unless you're willing to commit any settings while tracking. To my mind, a much better scenario entails tracking through the ATB, then returning all tracks individually back from the DAW to the ATB for mixing, using only fader automation (and effect plug-ins where appropriate) within the DAW. This method allows users to partake of the ATB's great analog sound (together with any analog outboard gear they may already own).
At the moment, the digital system at Marlborough Farms consists of three MOTU 896s feeding a G5 Mac running Logic Pro. We've had no latency issues recording with this system. The ATB's line ins, while normalled through the patchbay to
our JH-24 tape recorder's outputs, can be easily patched to the 896 outs. The ATB's direct outs are normalled through the patchbay to the 896 analog inputs. With analog tape prices being so steep these days and hard drive costs dropping, many bands-for better or worse-do choose the digital option.
This fall, a Norwegian group, Professor Pez, booked sessions to record about eight tunes with our digital system. Recently, we mixed these pieces using the setup just described. One tune in particular really caught my ear, so I decided to mix it first. A fast-paced, tight instrumental, it included a full drum kit, bass guitar, electric guitar, and Rhodes and acoustic pianos. To keep the mix as analog as possible, I decided not to use any plug-ins-only our outboard analog gear. With Logic's automation running full bore, and with all sixteen DAW channels returned separately to console line inputs 1-16, I was able to sculpt an amazingly great mix, with a warm, musical sound that results from merging a decent DAW with a great analog console. For mixing from digital-believe me-this setup is the way to go! (Assuming of course that your DAW can support multiple outputs assignable to individual tracks.)
With virtual unanimity from the staff and friends at Marlborough Farms, the sweetest-sounding arrangement involves the totally "old school" marriage of our JH-24 and the ATB-tracking through the ATB to the JH-24, then mixing from the JH-24 to the ATB and our great array of outboard gear. Since the ATB includes no automation, we use as many fingers on faders as will fit comfortably at the console! With the ATB, inputs for mixing never pose a problem. With line inputs, tape returns, and both channel and submaster monitor returns all available, you have more than enough for any conceivable situation.
Over the past month, we've been tracking and mixing Mossy Pine, the creation of Chris Seeds (Stratotanker, Art Tanker Convoy), completely in the analog domain. The sonic results are unparalleled (especially compared to our particular DAW), thanks of course to the JH-24, but primarily to our move from the Ghost to the ATB. One of the last overdubs we did before mixing the song "Circle Round" involved re-recording a 12-string part for the song's intro. Since the intro includes only Chris's vocal and 12-string guitar, I super-close-mic'ed the guitar with our Altec M11 "coke bottle" tube mic on one track while using Chris's high-quality Fisher pickup DI'ed into a UA 610 on another track. Panned slightly apart on mixdown, the combination sounds so sweet and up-front-really appropriate for the song. Once gain, the sound of the ATB made all the difference.
In mixing Mossy Pine, I did notice something annoying. You can't solo a stereo effects return together with an input channel, which would allow you to hear the effect along with the track it's affecting. To circumvent this situation, I patched the stereo effects return to the line inputs of two spare channel strips. Note that on channel strips, the tape returns via the monitor path cannot be solo'ed-no solution there!
Conveniently, any combination of the ATB's six aux sends can be used to create cue mixes for the musicians. Aux 1 is permanently pre-fader, while 2-6 are switchable pre/post. Additionally, without external headphone amplification, you can cheat by feeding headphones directly from the aux send jacks on the back of the console (or through a patchbay). Also, a talkback mic in the master section allows you to communicate to all the aux sends (as well as "slate" yourself to the subgroup and stereo buses). While tracking Professor Pez, we used all six aux sends (from our patchbay) to create three separate stereo cue mixes with appropriately wired Y-cables. When utilizing this trick of no external headphone amplification, each of the sends can drive as many as three mid-Z headphones, but only to moderate levels. Unfortunately, the talkback mic doesn't have enough gain in this situation, so you need to speak loudly while leaning into the flush-mounted mic. As the ATB manual rightly states, you really do need an external headphone amp to get loud with headphones. At Marlborough Farms, we use a Crown D-75 power amp (with current-limiting resistors in series to avoid smoking headphones) multed out to as many headphones as needed. Only then does the talkback mic get marginally loud enough. For "slate" announcements, the mic gain is adequate for the talk-to-group function.
While I've effused about how much we love the sound and features of the ATB, there are, as with any new piece of gear, problems that need addressing. Why, I wondered, was the ATB designed with two unbalanced two-track returns and six unbalanced stereo effects returns? If you view the rear panel of the desk, you'll understand why. There just isn't enough real-estate available in the Master section to accommodate two balanced two-track returns (i.e., four jacks). With space for only two jacks available, I personally would have opted for one set of balanced returns rather than two unbalanced sets. The same situation exists for the six stereo effects returns, with space for only six jacks. I'm sure there are engineers out there that would choose unbalanced returns over fewer balanced returns; but in my experience, as carefully as you plan and wire balanced to unbalanced connections, you eventually wind up with noise problems-often, of course, at the most embarrassing times!
Another pet peeve of mine is related to the solo function. When you engage the solo button on any channel strip, it illuminates a single, big, flashing LED. But that LED doesn't tell you which solo buttons have been selected due to the absence of solo LEDs on each channel strip. Furthermore, the vertical travel of each individual solo pushbutton is insufficient to reveal which channels have been solo'ed. You have to go hunting for depressed solo buttons! [Revision 2.1 of the ATB, shipping in January, will have bi-color channel LEDs to denote mute and solo. Rev 2.1 also adds balanced direct outs and speaker outs. -AH]
I was also put off by the amount of effort required to remove a channel for servicing. The metal frame of the ATB is modular, consisting of two kinds of modules; an input module is built from eight channel strips and a separate module houses both the submaster and master sections of the console. To remove a module for servicing, you first need to remove the rear panel, the bottom pan, and a number of screws from the top surface of the console. You then have to remove connectors from a ribbon cable that links all the PC boards (one per channel strip) across the entire width of the console. And finally, to pull out a single channel strip, you need to pop off all its knobs and unthread all the hex nuts holding the pots to the top panel of the module. Phew! This is a helluva lot more work than I'd anticipated from reading the ATB sales literature. Oh, well-at least all the ICs are socketed. Depending on the tech skill of the person removing a bad strip, you can either repair the PC board yourself, or return it to TAD for repair. Thankfully, TAD offers a "swap" policy-you send them a defective strip, and they immediately send you a repaired strip, minimizing downtime.
Other issues? I do wish there was a better way of hiding the cables exiting from the rear of the desk, even though I've neatly tie-wrapped and dressed them carefully. A hardwood cover at the rear of the console that matches the appearance of the bolster would effectively solve this problem. The VU meters on the console itself are a bit hard
to read, unless you're standing right over the console. Angling them forward toward the engineer by at least 30 degrees would have helped. Short of buying the optional meterbridge, shimming the rear of the board by, say, 6" can provide a quick fix. The headphone jack's placement at the rear of the desk is a real hindrance. All too often, a headphone cable finds its way across the console's top surface. A much better placement for the jack would have been somewhere beneath the bolster at the front edge of the desk. The channel strip's monitor level pot has an undesirable ramp-up with respect to gain versus rotation; most of the gain change occurs near full-clockwise rotation of the knob. Personally, I'd have preferred a resettable stepped-gain control, with accurate, clearly-labeled dB markings, accomplished with either a rotary switch or with detents (though this might really jack up the cost of the desk, especially if the design employed step attenuators). On my ATB, all the linear faders stick a bit, making smooth level changes very difficult. According to David Brown, the faders, originally made by Selmark, have been replaced by superior Taiwan Alpha units.
There are a few add-ons to the ATB that are worth mentioning. I highly recommend buying the optional meterbridge, since it's difficult setting preamp gain with only a signal presence indicator and a peak LED! (Note that a submaster bar-graph meter could also be used for this purpose by placing that channel in solo.) The meterbridge incorporates an LED bar-graph for each channel strip and submaster bus, as well as two VU meters for the stereo mix bus. For all three console widths (16, 24, and 32 channels), PMI says that meterbridges will be available by mid-January 2009. A FireWire 400 converter card is still in development and may be available next summer. The card allows you to send the L/R mix outs to a DAW and bring back two channels from the DAW to the third stereo 2-track return. A dust cover for the console has been requested by some owners and may be available at some future time. According to PMI, circuit diagrams for the console are available now via email.
Toward the end of my time with Malcolm Toft at the 2007 AES Show, another audio engineer stopped by to tell Malcolm he'd just auditioned an API console but thought Malcolm's ATB sounded far superior. Need I say more?
Unlike the folks at Marlborough Farms, I purchased an ATB16. I live in a Brooklyn apartment with a lot less space than their basement, and I am excited to have a trustworthy console to mix at home. It fits nicely in my living room, where it rests on my coffee table. It has the flexibility that I'd want in a professional console without completely wrecking my last gasps of feeling like I live in a residential apartment and not a commercial studio.
I do most of my tracking mobile and typically bring a number of outboard preamps but not a console, so that is not my intended use for the ATB16. I would not have expected the ICs in the Toft to compete with my high-end discrete preamps, and I'm not disappointed that, in my quick testing, they do not. They're clear and tasteful at least, and I would not worry to use them in a pinch.
I am excited to have such useful EQs in an affordable console. A friend (who was mixing on an old Trident 65B at the time) once advised me that most EQs can cut well, but many cannot boost well. The Toft EQs definitely do boost well. The highs have a distinct and recognizable early '80s English New Wave character, and the full frequency response feels tasteful and trustworthy. It certainly can't replace the flexibility of my outboard EQs, and I won't be discarding my Mercury EQP. At the same time, I like having airy,
transformerless EQs in a console to use with less color behind outboard EQs, or for subtle changes in a mix; and as Bill points out, the Tofts are great for this purpose.
For clients who could not afford to mix in properly configured studios, I had never felt good about my setup for mixing in my apartment. An affordable small console, with flexible routing, good sound quality, and tasteful EQs is something that I've needed, so I'm excited that the ATB16 can make me a lot more confident in my mixes for these clients. (ATB $4999-$7749 MSRP, meterbridge $550-$750; www.toftaudiodesigns.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.