Behind the Console: The Custom Series 75 Powered by Neve

Affectionately known by both staff and students as simply ‘The Custom’ our Custom Series 75 powered by Neve console is an integral part of our students’ experience with us. We put a great emphasis on developing both creative and technical skills throughout our course, and recording and mixing on the console in our dedicated studio at Abbey Road unites these areas of expertise. From that first moment of stepping into the studio to running your own session, it’s always an exciting space to work in. What is it that makes the desk special and why do our staff and students love it so much?

We spoke with different members of the London team to get their personal perspectives and insights. First up Carlos Lellis, our Programme Director. Since we opened our doors in 2015, Carlos has taught many, many studio lectures on the Custom. From our regular ‘recreate a track‘ sessions to handing over the reins to students to run their own sessions as their confidence increases, he’s acquired a lot of studio hours and knows the desk inside out and back to front.

Carlos. How does the Custom 75 help our students develop as producers and engineers?

There are two main factors as far as the role of the Custom 75 has in our teaching. Firstly, even if you’re going to be working with computers for the rest of your life, and not use analogue equipment, if you learn signal flow with analogue equipment it will ensure your way of working within the digital domain is a lot more consistent. Because you’ve had to understand the basics of routing signals from one point to another, what needs to happen in series, what needs to happen in parallel, that knowledge makes you work differently when you’re working in the digital domain.

Secondly, if you’re going to be working with all kinds of different plug-ins that emulate the analogue sound, if you have experience working with the analogue gear itself, you’re able to judge how much of that is really important to try to find later on. That knowledge equips you both technically and creatively.
For instance, it’s normal for analogue equipment to produce noise. Is this something that you’re going to look for when you’re working digitally? Probably not. But there are lots of other things that you experience in the analogue domain, such as harmonic distortion and the nonlinear processing that happens. You could look for that later on when you’re working in the box where things perhaps are ‘too clinical’ or ‘clean’ and you want to have a little bit of the ‘imperfection’ of the analogue world.

Do you think there are particular benefits of learning on the Custom 75?

Yeah, definitely. There’s something about the Custom that, within that tiny footprint, it gives you so much in terms of sonic options. The Custom can behave very much like an SSL or it can behave like a vintage Neve. It gives you so many options and possibilities which is impressive if you think about that being possible on something that is that size. It’s almost like a ‘best of’ if you were to get the best stuff from the 70’s Neve world and some of the really clever stuff that SSL consoles do. I think that’s the strength of the console. It doesn’t have some functions that something larger does, like the consoles that we have in (Abbey Road’s) Studios One, Two and Three. But in terms of sonic options, the Custom can give you elements of both and that’s what’s so clever about it.

What would you say is your most memorable session in our studio?

My favourite sessions are the ones that I’m not terribly involved with, so I’d say the sessions where I watch the students reimagining a cover. It happens at the end of the course, I get to sit at the back of the room and watch them work. And I enjoy it because now we’ve talked a lot about how things work and how to run a session, but I’m not running the session anymore.
I have an opportunity to see how far they’ve come. Some of these guys have never even touched an analogue console before they came to study with us and in less than a year not only they’re running the console, but they’re getting sounds that are really interesting. And you come up with stuff that is inspiring.
One session that does come to mind that was fun to watch was Ramera (Abraham) engineering with Jerry Barnes and Ralph Rolle (CHIC bassist and drummer). I was in the back, just supervising. It was great that Ramera was able to run a session with those guys.

Following our conversation with Carlos Lellis, we spoke with the second Carlos on our team. Carlos Bricio, an alumnus of our London school and now Head Technician, has done his own research on the desk and has a special insight into what the Custom 75 offers. 

Carlos, could you start by giving us a bit of background to the Custom 75 console?

The console was created by Studios 301 Manufacturing in Sydney, Australia and is now used across the world. The original design was created by an engineer called Bruce McBean, who was part of the Studios 301 team and it was commissioned especially for the studio. It’s a ‘customised design’ of the Neve console, hence ‘The Custom’. So it’s not an original Neve itself. The designers essentially took what they thought were the best parts of Neve consoles and customised it in this one model. Combining something that is new and yet it sounds vintage and it has an easy connectivity with modern technology.

What are the most important things that you highlight to our students when you introduce them to the console for the first time? 

When our students are in the studio for the first time, they’re always so excited. We all feel that, especially when it’s the first session. The Custom is the very best of what we use in our studio. It’s a 32 channel console. Each channel is the same throughout but you can run things differently depending on how you want to work. Each channel is essentially a 1081 Neve module with a 1073 output. So you are combining those two classic sounds, the 1073 and 1081. And then to complete the console, it has two 2254 compressors in the master section that can be assigned to your master mix bus. But they can also be used as outboard equipment to add even more versatility to the setup. So it’s these elements which are what make it ‘custom made’. It has all analogue controls. No digital controls whatsoever, meaning that you cannot automate the console. Everything is done manually.
There is a small computer to recall the basic routing, but it is limited. All the knobs, all the EQ, all the gain, all the faders and the routing that is not internal, can’t be saved. It has to be done manually. Every fader has to be positioned correctly. Every pan for left and right has to be positioned correctly. That makes it a completely different approach when you compare it to mixing in the box and working with ProTools or Logic. This is more hands-on.

What are the differences between working with the Custom over another make of console?

The main difference between the Custom and other consoles is, of course, the sound. You have what is called the “Neve sound”, which is completely different from what an SSL console sounds like. The good thing about this console is that it’s easy to navigate and learn signal flow with it.
At the beginning (of the course), all of us struggle with getting to grips with the console. It’s mostly understanding the concept of moving the signal through it. You just need to think of the channels as lanes on a road, and as long as you find how the roads move and how they go from A to B, you are all set.
The moment that clicks in your brain, it’s when you truly unleash the full functionality of the console. If you understand the routing and how this “simple” console works you can translate that into any other console!

What are some of your most memorable sessions on the Custom 75?

I have many. Every single session that I could have been part of had something special about it. I’ve brought in friends, artists and professionals – people who were very excited about being able to record there and about the sound that we could get.

I don’t know – they all are memorable!

I have really good memories of sessions with (classmates) Adolfo, Pedro, Marco… There was a friend of mine who came over from Spain and we recorded a song for his sister’s wedding. We did it in conjunction with the Custom and the production rooms. They made a small video for the wedding saying: “We not only recorded a song for the wedding but we went to Abbey Road to do it”. Everybody was blown away. That was just fun.

One of the things I enjoy the most is working with the students and helping them to understand how the console works. I like spending time with them and seeing their faces when all of a sudden they have this moment of ‘Right! Yes! That’s how you do it’. And it’s not just in the Custom. It’s also helping them plan their sessions and making them think ‘so how can you do this?’ It’s like helping them with a puzzle. Thinking about how they can create music and the sound they want with all these tools in the studio. I really enjoy that.

Do you remember the moments when you were learning about how to use a console where things started to fit into place?

I had a vivid moment at Pret with Andrea (Mastroiacovo), from my intake. We were having a coffee and it was after the first lecture with Carlos (Lellis). We were reading the manual and things were starting to fit into place. So that day was really good. I really enjoyed that.

And then the other moments when you really learn are when you’re under pressure or you’re in someone else’s session, and then you’re like, how do we do this? And you have to just make it work.

Is there a particular class or lecture on the Custom 75 that stands out for you?

The guest session that I love, which is completely different from anything else, is the BBC Live Lounge session with Simone Lombardi

I find it super inspiring. You use the console for recording, but you’re only recording 1 stereo track. And you are performing with the band because you have to be mixing live and moving faders for them to speak. It’s a completely different approach from just recording a band. In a regular recording session, most of the time you try to record clean or without committing too much. Then you mix in the box or on the Custom, which is also really great. But the session we do with Simone is treated like a live show. You see how he uses the console to do all these things and then stream them down to 4 faders or 8 faders and manage it all with 2 hands. And it sounds like a BBC record. I love that!

There is no multi-track. The sound that they transmit to the audience and perhaps to an album afterwards if it’s released, is what it was live. The microphone choices and positioning are very important. Getting the best sound out of a live performance, using the routing capabilities of the console, flavouring it with EQ and outboard equipment. It all uses the Custom 75 to the max! I think that’s why I like that lecture the most.

Simone Lombardi at the Custom 75

How important do you think it is to learn on a console as well as learning in the box? 

I think it is important for several reasons. We know that nowadays, you could probably not see a console in your whole life and make records. That’s also important, as your question implies and many people will say, you don’t need a console to make a record.
That’s what we’ve seen, especially in the last few Grammys with Billy Eilish for example. But having said all that, I think it is really beneficial.  Some of the things that you use in the box, they come from an analogue world. And I don’t mean only the emulations or plugins that you might be using all the time, but also the way a software’s user interface works.

If you’ve used a console before working in the box you start understanding how the signal flows works and the reasons behind why the software works the way it does. And it’s not a random reason. It also helps you to understand gain staging. When you’re recording in the box with your audio interface you record as hot as possible without distortion. But when you’re recording in an analogue world, there are certain rules that can be broken. You can distort in the analogue world and it sounds nice. But at the same time, you need to balance that too.

And really it sounds different. I can make a record, mix a song or work in post-production inside the box, no problem at all. It will sound nice and you can even have analogue emulations that sound almost identical (to using a console or outboard equipment). And for the average listener, nobody will notice. 

But it is those extra tools that you get from the console or the fact of not having automation. That means that if you’re mixing something. You’re performing the mix. It adds fun to the equation too. Making us focus more on the sound and not looking at the screen all the time. That’s one of the reasons why people still go into studios and still buy consoles. Because it makes it more fun and real than just being in front of a computer.

I love to mix in the box, but I think there is space for both.

Has this whet your appetite to find out more about the Custom 75 or consoles in general? For further reading and insights, we’ve shared a few links below which you’ll find useful. 

The Custom 75 Series website.

Find out more about the Sound on Sound’s take on the desk when it was launched in 2010.

And the team from Production Expert who met up with Burbank Audio who now build the Custom 75 consoles. Watch their discussion on YouTube.