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The Hot Rod of Soundboards

How John Vanderslice’s analog console is bringing the noise to the Bay Area recording scene.

 

Back in the golden age of rock recording—an era that peaked in the ’60s and ’70s and staggered along like a wounded jackal through the early aughts—this analog Neve console was a star magnet. In 1999, Santana created the 15-platinum Supernatural on it. Metallica made Garage Inc. and S&M on it. And groups ranging from Journey to the Dave Matthews Band checked in to the legendary Sausalito studio the Plant to record sessions on it. But when the music labels were shaken by streaming and illegal downloads, the epic sessions ground to a halt. And pretty soon, so did the Plant, which closed down for good in 2008.

But the console, a Neve 8068, wasn’t destined for the scrap heap. San Francisco songwriter and producer John Vanderslice had been looking for that model for years—well before Dave Grohl immortalized Neves in his 2013 documentary Sound City. In 2013, Vanderslice finally nabbed the Plant’s 8068 for his new Tiny Telephone studio location in Oakland, which opened earlier this year. Measuring 12 feet long and weighing more than 1,100 pounds, the beast (which Vanderslice bought for a tidy $165,000) required 14 movers and a 45-foot box truck to be hauled down from the North Bay. Vanderslice and a team of specialists spent the next two years repairing and rewiring it before they could fire it up and record their first session. 

Created by Rupert Neve, a Brit who started building his own radios as a child in the 1930s, the consoles became fetish objects for rock musicians and engineers. If you’re looking for rich mid and low-end frequencies, you can’t do better. Vanderslice positively rhapsodizes over his 1976-born beauty: “Neve consoles have got this fuckin’ rock-hard, iron rock ’n’ roll sound down. They just got it.” The Bay Area music community has taken note: Tiny Telephone’s Kickstarter campaign exceeded its $40,000 goal on its first day—eventually tripling to $118,000—and, despite only having opened in February, the Oakland studio is already booked solid at least a half year out. (Merrill Garbus’s Tune-Yards are scheduled to record there this spring.) Here’s why Vanderslice’s 8068 is in such high demand.

→ Up in the ceiling is a sort of mechanic’s attic where Garry Creiman, one of three Neve experts in the country, spends each night from 10 p.m. till dawn. He plucks repair notes from the console, takes malfunctioning parts up a ladder, repairs and tests them in his workshop, then hauls them down and reinstalls them. He hopes the Neve will be firing on all cylinders in about six months.

→ Almost everything at Tiny Telephone—from the soundboard to the extensive collection of synthesizers to the tape reel that captures the final recording— comes from the analog age. “The ’70s were the peak of recording technology,” Vanderslice says. “One day digital will be amazing. It isn’t now. It’s kind of shocking it’s not better, but, all things being equal, the top end of analog recording trounces digital.”

→ Nothing in the studio gets done or makes sense without masking tape. It is used to label each track on the console so the engineer knows how the instruments correlate to the board controls (lead vocals on track 17, bass on 10, cowbell on 37, and so on). The tape also provides a surface on which to scribble repair notes. “You look at the console at the end of the day,” one engineer notes, “and there’s tape all over it.”

→ When something inevitably goes haywire during a session (a faulty connection, a button that suddenly stops working), there is a central panel on the console where the engineer notes the problem for Creiman to work on during off-hours. “Every night when Garry is in here,” Vanderslice says, “a couple of those pieces of tape disappear, and then there are a couple more that show up.”

→ As a singer-songwriter with 10 albums under his belt, Vanderslice has drawn fans across the globe. But sadly for them, he says he’s focusing solely on Tiny Telephone for now. For the next two years or so, he’ll spend his days rushing between his S.F. and Oakland locations and producing new records. (His credits include Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie, and Magnetic Fields.)

→ One thing that makes this console so rare is that it is actually two Neve 8068s welded together. There are thought to be fewer than 10 double 8068s in existence. There is a seam where the two consoles were joined; underneath are thousands of wires that transform the Neve from an excellent 32-channel board into a magnificent 64-channel monster. 

→ One of the central reasons engineers covet the Neve above all other consoles is the equalizer. “The EQ is un-fucking-believable,” Vanderslice says. Their flexibility derives in part from their excess of EQ points. “And that becomes very important, because when you’re sculpting the sound, you need to have many, many EQ points to access. It’s like the way cooks get interested in certain ingredients.”

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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