“Sound City” – A forgotten Art

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Sound City and analogue mixers

I watched this movie a few weeks back and it had me intrigued on many levels.  Not just the snippets of famous and much loved musical genius but the mere fact that one went to Sound City Studios to make music first and secondly to become famous.

Neve 8078
The legendary Neve 8078 in The Way Recording Studio, London.  (Wiki )

You had one take.  Now with our DAW, digital mixer and a host of plug ins one can become famous from your bedroom. And it happens. It just so also happens, and not because of my age, that much of the music made then rather than now is timeless.  Here I’ll single out Fleetwood Mac.  Who didn’t have a crush on Stevie Nicks in the 70s, girls and guys.  But we must stop and consider the impact that the aristocratic Michael Fleetwood had on this group. Co-founder and driving force,  I always visualise this goliath behind a drum set and mixed through a Neve 8028.

David Grohl really does a fantastic job in this documentary, a must see for not only 70s music and audio enthusiasts but budding sound engineers as well.

The Rupert Neve 8028/78 soundboard and recording console

The 8028 was a 24 track device, followed by the 8078, a 40 track device.  Hardwired and strictly analogue, this was the recording console which made artists, dare I say Pink Floyd being one of them, famous.  We do know “Nevermind”, Nirvana was recorded on a 8028 – this lead to the inspiration and subsequent documentary “Sound City”. But what was the “biggie” about Neve’s design that enthralled then and continues to do so now.

Rupert Neve was known for his audio recording equipment, even in the early 1960s and to be accredited as the brain behind the first recording studio should not go unnoticed.  Multi-track custom mixing consoles from the early days are still highly sought after.  And are insanely expensive.

The ISA (Input Signal Amplifier) 110 is possibly more famous than the 8028/78 – consisting of a microphone preamplifier with transformer coupling, equaliser and high/low filters,  still available through Focusrite but carrying the Rupert Neve sound signature.  In the schematic I have a Lundhal transformer LL1598 is used along with opamplifier type NE5534

Focusrite is a company which many musicians and engineers associate with Neve quality and the Red (high end studio) , Blue (mastering), Green (home) range of products have proven to be extremely popular, followed by the equally popular Platinum, Liquid, Saffire and Scarlett interfaces.

The entry level Focusrite range remains a very popular choice for home studio setups but this market has also become saturated with many exceptional competitive products.

Home purchases (South African imports from the USA)

If you are a fan of Focusrite and / or are planning to become one do a price check before throwing your money down.  Prices are all over the place. Be careful also of the ROE, what you were promised then is almost certainly going to change by the time it is landed. Sometimes it is also not cheaper to buy from the US exporters.

The 18i20

My choice. Rather sadly now being superseded by the second generation version but by no means out of the race. For the home user whom wants to build his own, interesting question.

Building your own Mixer or Mic Preamplifier

When I was looking for a mixer/mic preamplifier I had three possible manufacturers in mind but one main objective, it had to be rack mounted. The Presonus was therefore out, the Steinberg/Yamaha was very expensive in our market, the Scarlett was a Focusrite.  Focusrite has some Neve connection, doesn’t it?

The thing is that because modern mic preamplifiers have a USB connection of sorts doesn’t mean this is the way you need to go i.e. the essence of this article.  The big, big boys of recording will warn the muso not to outdo themselves and buy the most expensive out there just because.  You need to test, play, record, mix, mash whatever.  What you like is what you buy. Because it’s more expensive does not mean it’s better.  Presonus, Focusrite, Steinberg, whatever – your choice.

Diving into your parts bin you may be lucky to pull out a few NE5534s. This is a good start. Lungdahl transformers are famous for being very expensive.  If you are thinking along the lines of the ISA110, why not.  In my mind this is the best route to take. Build one. Fine tune. Build another. Modular approach, 1 channel, 2 then 3 and more.  Inserts and effects.

The same applies to tube preamplifiers. Some like the Amercian sound, some the British.  Who cares, get your arsenal of ECC81s, 82s and 83s together. Using two 12V transformers back to back to get heater supply and EHT is a cheap but not nasty way to get supply.

The Behringer Way

One of my pet hates is the “Bash Behringer” forums.  Having been in the electronics industry for the better part of 40 years I have not come across one company that did not have problems when migrating to China because of local costing.  But, they all get better.

Behringer have brought out some really marvellous products over the last few years, often their best remains untouched from eons ago. Because they are cheaper than many of their rivals does not make them inferior. This includes their mic preamps. Sure, you cannot compare their entry levels to a preamp costing thousands of ZAR and made for studio purposes but be made aware that they do have high end mixers/preamplification.

The Hardware Dilemma – the Do’s

If you are building your own, stick to better quality hardware i.e. the jacks, potentiometers and switches.  As a general rule of thumb it is cheaper to buy complete from a well known brand than building your own.   Good quality hardware is freakin’ expensive, especially in South Africa, sadly!

Oh yes, the other thing is making your own good quality ADC/DAC is often not possible with home tools and multi-layered boards. Possible, certainly but not easy.


Keep it straight and simple.  The simpler, mostly for the better.


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