Recording Consoles are simply a set of component parts all put into one box which can be configured into two modes
The components in the Record Mode are configured thus:
The recorder and the speaker and power amp are not part of the console but are part of the chain. So let's go through each component and look at what it contributes to the chain.
The microphone preamp is possibly one of the most important component in the whole recording chain apart from the microphone itself. Between them, these two units bring the minuscule voltage coming from the diaphragm up to the 1+volts that we work with. From that point on everything is operating at normal levels and the signal can be recorded, EQ'd etc. without problems with noise and distortion. The typical mike preamp can have the following controls.
I said "can have" because not all do. First there is the mike input level knob. This is the gain control for the preamp.
A special note here - Before you start to set the mike input level you must set the console up for unity gain. This involves first setting the console output faders to Zero, then the channel fader to zero. If you are going out a group put that fader to zero. This first step is vitally important because a console is capable of increased noise and distortion if not setup with correct gain structures. If you have a little Mackie or something which doesn't have a separate control over monitoring turn your amp and speakers down. Basically if you run the output faders low you have to get the gain from somewhere so you turn up the mike preamp which is capable of adding noise and distortion.
If you find that you are fully counterclockwise and still have too much signal you must insert the Pad. The pad drops the level by 10 - 20db (depending in the console) and stops the preamp from overloading. Some consoles will include a phase reversal button which is a very handy option to have. There is also a button for Phantom Power which will supply power to your mikes if required. (See microphones) It often comes as a single on/off switch on the rear of the console. There is often an optional line input knob with an associated mike/line switch. This allows you to trim the level of the line inputs. Finally you will probably find a mike/line button that allows you to adjust the level of the line input individually. The flip button is only on certain consoles. It swaps the two main faders over (line and monitor), More about this option later when we look at monitoring..
The equaliser is the next stage within a console. This are the controls on a quality console equaliser.
This equaliser is a true 4 band, parametric equaliser. It incorporates four separate bands with the low-mid and high-mid bands fully frequency sweepable with variable Q. Go to the full page on equalisation for more about EQ.
The insert send/return appears as an output and return on the rear of the console typically as a stereo jack with the tip being the send and the ring the return and the sleeve as a common ground. This facility allows you to insert a compressor or effect unit into the signal chain.
The auxiliary sends are split feeds of the track signal that can be sent to other units such as reverb and effects units. It can also send a separate mix to the headphones for the musicians. The send knobs are self explanatory, the pre/post switch determines whether the signal it sends comes from before or after (pre/post) the fader. If it is set to post fader as you turn the fader up and down the signal going out the aux send follows and also goes up and down. The pre fader position means that changes you make to the fader won't effect the aux send output and its level will remain constant. This is important if you are sending a mix to the musicians which is normally done with pre fader sends so that your mucking around with the faders doesn't change their balance. The monitor button will switch the input to Aux 1 and Aux 2 from the channel signal to the monitor signal on that module.
The channel fader gives you control over the level of the channel. As mentioned earlier In recording it should be used as near to 0 as possible. It also becomes your mix fader.
The output group is the amplifier that joins all the separate channels together and routes them to their destination.
The Routing Selector allows you to send the signal from a channel to any of your subgroup outputs. I say sub groups because you will also have a stereo main output. The Pan control allows a stereo output between two selected channels typically 1 & 2 , 3 & 4 etc. The pan control will have a pan additional pan on/off switch. The direct out button allows you to send the channel directly out of the console via a plug on the back of the console without going through a group amplifier. The stereo output selector sends the signal directly to the master output and is used when in mix mode.
The signal from the group outputs will now appear at the recorder inputs and when monitoring through the recorder or playing back, it's output will appear back at the console at either the line input or more typically the tape return input depending on console type.
You must be wondering how you are going to hear what you are recording. The key line here is "what you are recording". You must follow the sound through the above outputs etc. so that when you monitor the sound it is "what you are recording". Now we have all the channels going to the recorder and back. You must now listen to the signal through the Monitor control. This is usually a knob (or fader on the more expensive consoles) below the auxiliary send section and has a pan control associated with it so that each monitoring return can be panned left or right in the monitor speakers as the output of the monitoring mixer goes directly to the monitoring output of the console and to the speakers. You can change the balance, switch instruments on and off in the monitoring section without affecting the signal you are recording. The monitoring section also has auxiliary sends or it has access to them via the monitor switch in the auxiliary send section as mentioned earlier. This is where you should send your headphone sends for the musicians. You must also send them prefader mixes so your changes doesn't effect their balance. I have emphasised this because it's very important:
The Monitoring Selector Section
The monitoring output goes to the power amplifier and thus to the speakers. Some better consoles have a monitoring selector section where you can control what signal goes to the speakers.
There are two outputs from the monitoring switcher, one goes to the studio speakers (if you have them) and the other to your control room speakers. The selection buttons allow you to select the source for your speakers The control Mix selection puts the . The mono button allows you to check the signal in mono and the A/B button allows you to have two sets of monitor speakers (main and nearfield) and switch between them.
The aux returns (or effects returns) are the return channels for all your effect units like reverbs etc.
The aux returns are where you bring the returns from your effect units back into the console. They are usually supplied with a routing selection output just like the group outputs so they can be sent to the group outputs as well as the master outputs. If sent to the group outputs the effects can be sent to the recorder with the original signal from the channel and recorded.
In the overdubbing situation nothing need change as the console is already in that mode. Tracks from the recorder are played back through the monitoring mixer and new instruments processed through the channels and group outputs to the recorder. Please make sure you send the musician a good headphone balance, it makes it so much easier for them to play well.
To mixdown your creation the console needs to be reconfigured thus.
You will note that what was the mike channel has now become the tape return channel and follows the same route through the equaliser, inserts, fader and aux sends to the routing switcher. Here it can either go direct to the master output or several channels can be grouped together via the output group and then on to the master output. The aux returns are as before. The signal now goes through the DAT and back to the monitor output and to the speakers. Once again we have a "what you are recording" situation where you are listening to what is going on tape.
I have included an extra in the mixdown stage called automation. Console automation makes use of a unit called a voltage controlled amplifier or VCA. An amplifier is normally in full gain mode and you change the gain of a signal by putting more or less into it. A VCA on the other hand is an amplifier where you can adjust its gain via a change in an external voltage. In an automated console the amplifier at the fader stage is a VCA and the fader adjusts the voltage of the amplifier thus its gain. When you turn the fader down you decrease the voltage and visa versa when you increase the gain. There are three important advantages here:
The variations in the voltage during a mix are recorded as data in the automation module and when the mix is played back the VCA changes in time with the track and follows your changes. These fader changes (and mute changes) can be altered progressively until you are happy with the mix. I Love Automation!!! For the automation to stay in sync with the track it will need a timebase reference which is usually Time Code from the recorder.
Some companies like Mackie produce an automation package that you can plug into any console so long as you have insert send/return plugs on the back. Here the VCA becomes like an external effect and is plugged into the channel via the Inserts. You place all your faders to Zero, turn on all your mutes and proceed to set your fader moves using the supplied remote control. All the changes in the VCAs are recorded within the unit and can be played back. I've done heaps of mixes using this system and I highly recommend it as a simple, cheap, and reliable automation system. (Hey I'm not sponsored by anyone so I can say what I think!)
We are now entering an era where the console is coming back but in a different form. Companies like DigiDesign with ProTools and Yamaha with the O2R are producing consoles designed to be a user interface to a computer based hard disk recording system where there is a friendly 'hands on' interface to a sophisticated hard disk recorder setup. I dream of the Virtual Reality studio where the home recording artist can put on a set of Virtual Reality glasses and be in any control room they like with touch sensitive virtual consoles and effects. Your friends can be included with selectable identities and even though you are only in your 8' x 10' bedroom in virtual reality you are in the control room of a major studio. Any smart software writers out there?