Separated at Birth?

Separated at Birth?

Quick: what does a 44-year-old professional recording studio soundboard and our award-winning Site:1 speakers have in common? The answer, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

Live at The Garden


DSC_0441.jpgJust as with acoustic guitars, each of our Site:1 speakers possess a very subtle yet distinct character as a result of the different instrument-quality tonewoods used in their construction. Since not everyone can travel to Princeton, Wisconsin to hear their rich, resonant sound in person, we decided to take four Site:1s, each made from a different tonewood – maple, mahogany, black walnut, and cherry – into the recording studio to capture the unique personality of each. On an early Spring morning in April, my Princeton Audio team and I head out to Appleton’s Rock Garden Studios with four Site:1 speakers in tow.

Sting Tested, Sting Approved

DSC_0223.jpgOnce we’re at Rock Garden Studio, our engineer Marc quickly sets up the four different Site:1 speakers to record them, and we follow him into the control room. Marc makes some adjustments on Rock Garden’s impressively long, vintage soundboard, and then asks me to queue up the first song so he can take some levels. I obligingly whip out my iPhone and, seconds later, the mahogany Site:1 fills the room with Sting’s “Seven Days”.

Sting is one of my all-time favorite artists so naturally I use his music to test my Site:1 speakers. As always, the Site:1 creates the illusion that Sting is right there in the room with us, and everyone looks up just in case he actually is there. As usual, Mister Sumner must have been unavoidably detained, but we live in hope.

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Marc smiles, makes some minor adjustments to a few faders and knobs on the soundboard until he’s satisfied, and then compliments the Site:1 on its deep, detailed bass guitar sound, something he notes is hard to accurately reproduce. Then Marc surprises the hell out of us.

“Love Sting. He recorded on this desk, you know.”

Wait – WHAT?

“Oh, yeah,” Marc says, “Everyone from Rock and Roll Hall of Famers to Grammy winners to Oscar winners recorded on this console.”

Suddenly everyone in the room is paying very close attention to the Rock Garden soundboard.

“You are looking,” Marc continues, “at the only Aengus Model 73 custom 30-Channel recording console in existence.”

Marc then proceeds to dazzle us with the incredible history of this venerated soundboard, a story that includes over 100 hit records to its credit, including work by Sting, The Beach Boys, The Ventures, The Animals, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Albert Lee, Earth, Wind & Fire, Pearl Jam, LL Cool J, Lenny Kravitz, Beatles producer Sir George Martin, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, the Temptations, and the list just goes on and on.

“The sound of this console is huge, open, clear, and beautiful in character,” Marc says admiringly, “Quite simply, it has no equal.” Then he delivers the punchline. “No company has made anything remotely like it in decades. And likely never will again.”

Dead on Arrival

DSC_0358.jpgMarc explains how even in their heyday, great soundboards were always rare, custom-made, insanely expensive affairs made to order and built by hand by engineering pioneers. The Rock Garden Aengus was customized by Deane Jensen himself, the founder of Jensen Transformers.  Sadly, the companies that created these one-of-a-kind consoles were driven out of business by a flood of cheaply made, mass-produced gear. The new computerized gear made music cheaper to produce for the record companies, who told themselves that the public wouldn’t know the difference. The differences in sound may have been slight, but they were definitely important. If you don’t think that tiny differences are meaningful, consider that Kevin Federline shares 99% of his DNA with Paul McCartney. I rest my case.

Many did feel that something important had been lost along the way, Marc and myself included.  Marc explains how he spent years searching for the elusive key to the sound of his favorite records without success.

 “Eventually, I realized that what really defined the sound of a great record was the recording console,” he says, “So I set out to find a great one.”

Search for the Holy Grail

That turned out to be quite a task. You don’t just order one on Amazon – don’t get me started. After a long search, however, Marc found this 40-year-old Aengus Model 73 soundboard. It was in very sad shape, and needed extensive work. It’s only hope was to be adopted by someone who would be absolutely obsessive about its restoration. It might as well have had Marc’s name written on it. He snapped it up, and shipped it home. Over a grueling 18-month period, he painstakingly rebuilt the Aengus, reinstalled it in Rock Garden Studios in Appleton, and loaded it with Jensen 990 mic preamplifiers and API 550a channel equalizers. It was worth it.

“Listening to something recorded on the Aengus, it’s like… you feel like you are in the physical presence of the artist,” he says, “You simply can’t get this sound – this human quality – from a mass-produced plastic box.”

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Kindred Spirits

As Marc tells me this, I’m grinning like a damn fool and shaking my head. It’s like we were separated at birth. Marc’s quest to reclaim his music eerily mirrors my own journey. Two engineers that fell in love with music so completely at an early age that we dedicated our lives to it. We then both watched in frustration for years as that music got increasingly cheapened and dehumanized until we finally decided to make a stand, and take our music back. And we did it by embracing nearly lost traditions that held out the possibility of reconnecting us to the music we loved. We both labored for years, creating things with our own hands that would give us a means to reawaken that music, and the privilege of participating in it again.

Marc grins back at me and asks me if I want to sit down at the Aengus. Like he has to ask?

Sitting in Church

DSC_0384.jpgI park myself in front of the console and imagine all of the talented folks that sat where I’m sitting now, all of the incredible music that flowed through it. The really gifted musicians talk about working on these consoles as if it was a religious experience. The long list of people who gathered around this board, all the way down to Marc, were drawn to record on it because they’d heard something special in the music that was created with it. Something human, and beautiful. Something intangible that made them feel good, made the little hairs stand up on the back of their necks. And now I’ve met up with my brother-from-another-mother, and his one-of-a-kind, custom-made instrument is going to connect to my handmade speakers. Holy crap.

Like Calls to Like

I don’t know if I believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do know that people that are attuned to the same wavelength have a knack for finding each other.  Kindred spirits call to each other on some level. Sitting at that board, getting ready to connect my handmade labor of love to someone else’s life’s work, it felt right. I felt like I belonged there. I was in the company of people who valued the same things that I do – craft, artistry, connection, music – and we were all there together in common cause.

If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and check out Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City, about his mission to save a truly legendary soundboard that changed the lives of Grohl and countless other musicians. In the film, Grohl and the other people who made Sound City what it was talk about how the all-time-great recording studios were sadly erased by the availability of inexpensive computer programs that automate a recording process that was once done by skilled craftsmen. Guys like me, Marc, and Dave Grohl, we understand that the things that we make with our own hands take more time. They’re fussier. Less forgiving. They’re much harder to do well. But they’re worth it. You can hear the difference. And that difference is worth fighting to preserve.

Stay tuned,

Mike

P.S. Hey Sting and Dave Grohl! We have complimentary Site:1 speakers for you! All you gotta do is ask!