Not just a desk job
Niall Feldman of Solid State Logic talks to E&T
One of the biggest names in professional audio equipment design and manufacture, Solid State Logic is world famous for its large-scale recording and mixing consoles. E&T spoke to SSL's director of new products, Niall Feldman.
If you've ever seen a TV documentary interview with a record producer, the chances are he - or very infrequently she - will have been sitting at a mixing console. One of those things that look like a control desk at Nasa: a small fortune in blinking lights, VU meters, sliders and rotary pots. There is also a pretty good chance that Solid State Logic (SSL) built the console. In the mid-1990s the UK-based pro-audio company had an 80 per cent global share in the large mixing desk market. Its clients work with the biggest names in rock music - the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Roxy Music, David Bowie. To complete the picture, the control room where these artists' records are mixed will be lined with acoustic panels and there will be lots of opulent-looking peach-coloured wood surfaces. There will also be a pair of Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors. The ones with the white cones.
At The Enid
Niall Feldman, SSL's director of new products, picks me up at Oxford railway station in his bottle-green BMW and heads for the company's facility in Begbroke, deep in rural Oxfordshire, where the design and manufacture takes place. At the Royal Sun pub we turn into a leafy science park and what appear to be almost utopian working conditions.
As I'm shown into one of the console demonstration rooms I get a feeling of déjà vu. I mention to Feldman that I'm certain I've been here before. "You have," he says. "This is where we recorded a demo about 20 years ago." While I was laying down guitar tracks with a Welsh pop band, Feldman was the tape op, producer, keyboard player and session engineer.
This was in his early days at SSL, but Feldman's career in professional audio has deeper roots, going back to his childhood ambition of becoming a musician. "I very quickly realised that for an electrical musical instrument you need amplifiers. My dad owned a TV shop and he said that the cheapest way to get an amplifier is to build it yourself. He said, here's a book on electronics, here's a kit, now go and make one."
After leaving school Feldman read electronics: "At the time I was convinced that I wanted to have something to do with recording studios. I spent most of my spare time playing or recording music."
On graduating, Feldman "had the good fortune" to get a job in a recording studio owned by progressive rockers The Enid. He arrived expecting there to be both assistant and maintenance engineers, but within a month Feldman was the person on site who knew how to drive the console. He spent 18 months in the deep end, managing sessions, doing everything from getting the band into the studio, getting the mics set up, starting the recording process. But working with musicians was taking its toll: "I realised that if you wanted to become a successful recording engineer you had to spend a lot of emotional energy dealing with some quite - shall we say - complicated characters. And there was no guarantee of success."
It was at this point that Feldman decided that he wanted a more regular job that combined electronics with the recording business. In 1988 he arrived at SSL as a systems engineer, which at the time meant carrying around two cases of components, a soldering iron and "an understanding of how recording studios went together".
Feldman spent most of his early years installing recording consoles, which involved arriving at a studio or a broadcast facility and integrating the desk with all the other bits of kit that sat around the studio. Often this would also involve training the equipment owners and maintenance people who were going to use the machinery. This procedure would take a week or two, and it was not unknown for the engineer to jump ship and stay with the desk, becoming a studio engineer for the client.
The concept of digitising audio had existed from the early 1980s, around the time when Sony and Philips started to talk about producing compact discs. This was also the time when computers started to make their way into music production, and SSL was part of the early pioneering work into how to combine the concept of a processing engine with manipulating audio, or managing information flow within the studio. By the time Feldman arrived at SSL, samplers were in their infancy, and sequencers were being instructed by MIDI. But if you wanted to record anything of any length, you still had to use tape (see 'Changing the workflow' on facing page).
According to Feldman the most interesting issue at the start of his career was storage: "Digital storage has driven revolutions in audio production. When I started at SSL we'd already made some digital products, one of which was a digital system designed for CD production, and the other a hard-disk audio editing system designed to work alongside a system from Quantel, who were making the first hard-disk video editing equipment at the time."
For most followers of the pro-audio equipment market the golden age of recording studios were the years from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, when SSL was producing enormous, 100-plus channel recording and mixing consoles.
Feldman says: "If you talked to the man in the street five or six years ago then no one really would have heard of us. We've got a credit on a KLF track - '3AM Eternal (Live at the SSL)' - but that's as far as our public persona went. But, among professional audio engineers we're a very recognisable brand. and that's largely due to the penetration of our big mixing consoles into studios."
The flagship product was the SL 9000 series famous for its ultra-clean SuperAnalogue processing, in contrast with the earlier SL 4000 series that was known for its 'warm' sound. This disparity of approach inevitably led to the two technologies being combined in the Duality large-format production console. Duality has an interesting microphone input stage where there are two microphone pre-amplifiers (hence the name), one of which is a "really beautiful linear analogue preamp, with amazing distortion and frequency response characteristics and incredibly low noise, and is as good a microphone pre-amplifier as you can get". The other has patented distorting characteristics that can be tailored to sound like, say, a transistorised or valve-based distortion. "That's all about harmonic frequency content and how the mic pre-amp responds to the dynamics of the signal."
During the heyday of large console manufacturing, SSL was owned by Carlton Communication, then, after a short period of venture capital funding, the company was sold to Peter Gabriel - a long-standing client of SSL - and broadcast technologist David Engelke. They brought in a senior management team comprising several ex-SSL personnel. "The new owners and management team really understood the business and SSL's technologies, and really gave impetus to what we wanted to achieve," says Feldman.
At this time the company was developing a new analogue workstation that was to become the AWS 900. Feldman says that a fast-emerging market dictated the need for this new product. The design criteria were that it should look like an SSL console and it should be affordable. "It was 'what could you fund on a credit card' basically, providing you were of reasonable means and had a good credit limit."
SSL's research showed that, in the composition of a typical project studio, there would be a £1,500 desktop computer, surrounded by several tens of thousands of pounds worth of auxiliary equipment. Feldman remembers the early concept meetings, where "we asked if we integrated all these components and put them all in one box, then why isn't that a good idea? Indeed, the moment we launched the AWS 900 we started to sell to exactly that market place - little project studios. There were lots of those growing up all over the place."
As technology allows music producers to work with little more than a PC and an I/O box, SSL has entered the software plug-ins market, but Feldman insists that there's still space for analogue. What he finds fascinating is that there are several manufacturers emulating pieces of SSL signal technology, in particular the processing from the older analogue consoles.
"On paper they all emulate similar hardware and you'd think that if all you needed were analysis tools and software they'd all sound the same," says Feldman. But there is a good deal of lively forum debate about how these emulations sound and which ones are preferred. This for Feldman is an indication of how much left there is to learn about emulating analogue audio processes in the digital domain. SSL is working with instrumentation developers to keep ahead of what's being designed, so that they can test the reproducibility of the technology being developed by SSL.
A significant temptation for SSL must have been to concentrate on large-scale, expensive products although the rise of the project studio meant the market for large-scale commercial studios was changing. "The issue," says Feldman, "is that we're in a technology-driven market where there are quite often big influences that are difficult to predict." This has led to the company becoming more broadly spread, both in the markets it sells into and the underlying technology. "We've developed digital technology, created software products and segmented our analogue processing into small, modular systems so we've got a selection of smaller products we can sell into a range of applications."
Back in the 'Duality' control room I ask Feldman if he's ready for some photographs. He tells me that we can do some shots, but not in here. There's hardware development going on, and it's all very secret. He shows me into another demo room, where he's happy to adopt the classic pose of the studio engineer, arms folded leaning on a pair of Yamaha NS-10 monitor speakers. The ones with the white cones.
Changing the workflow: from tape to disk-based systems
Niall Feldman says that analogue tape is still being used, but it is a "miniscule" part of the market, and those that use it will be using it for its "audio qualities". Since he started in the business, the big shift has been the move from tape into hard-disk-based recording. With the migration to hard-disks the personal computer has become more prevalent in studios.
"This has led to some significant changes in the scale of the technology," Feldman recalls. "Whereas once you might have had a metre-cubed tape machine that was recording 24, 32 or 48 tracks of audio, now you can record the capacity of several of these machines onto a laptop. More interesting though, has been the way in which technology has changed workflow. Linear tape means that you can only do things in a certain order and when you need to do something else you had to wait for the tape to wind - the ability to record multiple tracks onto hard-disk has completely changed all these issues."
For example, when recording to tape, engineers would be limited by the number of tracks to hand - a third of which are taken up by the drum kit - so they would typically use an overdub process to build up the final song.
"For many recordings, the age of the one-take wonder has long since passed, and artists who want to express themselves more accurately than maybe they did on their first take, have the opportunity to go back and do it again. But on a tape machine, typically there are a limited number of tracks, and the whole process of winding back and going into 'play' and 'record' takes a few seconds. In reality, this whole process is restricted by how many times you can bear to rewind; all those kinds of things that test one's patience. In the world of digital audio, the number of tracks you've got to record on are limitless, in effect. So you can have a go as many times as you wish and you can edit between the takes," Feldman explains.
"You can take the first syllable of the first word from take one and the second syllable of the first word from take two and so on. And the challenge becomes making a decision, because you're procrastinating further down the line than you are with tape. The need to be precise has been reduced. You can say: 'Let's record 15 guitar solos and we'll make one up from all those, because somewhere in there will be all the things we need.'"
Digital vs analogue: what's the best consumer experience?
For years audiophiles have debated what sounds better - analogue or digital - but central to reaching an understanding of the issues is, according to Solid State Logic's Niall Feldman, the acceptance that the human head is fitted with analogue listening devices: ears. Where there are imperfections in the listening process is normally at one of the conversion points from one medium to the other.
"There's a lot of science and a lot of hogwash," says Feldman. "But the signal has to end up as an analogue waveform in order for the ear to understand it. And the other thing we have to bear in mind is that we're talking about taste, too."
Logic suggests that digital should have obliterated all analogue areas of audio production, but that just isn't the case, especially in non-real-time audio applications such as music recording and video post-production. But the take-over is more pronounced in real-time application areas such as broadcast and live sound, where drivers such as reliability can take precedence over quality. They make digital fundamental to the process.
For years the big issue with digital was to make the audio capture as linear as possible, so that the recording was faithful to the source.
"The thing that I find interesting," says Feldman, "is that there are enough people who desire analogue equipment to suggest there is a difference. As time goes by we understand more, but we're still only learning about how audio gets represented in the digital domain."
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