Toft Audio Designs Series ATB Analog Console

It has great potential to reinvigorate the semi-stagnant eight-bus market with its unique personality.
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The model designation “Series ATB” that Malcolm Toft bestowed upon this ambitious, affordable and impressively adorned analog console line draws a less-than-subtle connection to the 1980s-era Series 80B large-format analog console by Trident Audio Designs, the respected UK console company Toft founded back in 1972. While I can’t imagine anyone is under the illusion that the project-studiopriced ATB console range is the next generation of any of the storied Trident console lines (and perhaps the factor-of-10 relative reduction in cost from the last Series 80 to the ATB was the result of a clerk’s pricing gun error?), there’s no way to miss the clear influence of the Series 80 pedigree. The ATB does include several largeformat features and provides plenty of bang for the buck, but what I like equally well is that it has great potential to reinvigorate the semi-stagnant eight-bus market with its unique personality.

FEATURES

The Toft Audio Designs Series ATB is an inline, eight-bus console available in 16-, 24- and 32-channel frame sizes (listing for $4,499, $5,499 and $6,999 respectively). Unfortunately for the manufacturer and board owners alike, both options have suffered delays and are not available as of this writing. From what I can gather, the initial run of meters is not far off, but it seems that an OEM issue on the Digital I/O has scuttled the effort to date and the company is in the process of developing an alternative.

The console has 100mm mono faders for all input channels. To the right of each channel fader the routing assignment buttons and simple two-stage LED metering providing signal present and nearing-peak indication. Immediately above the channel faders are a center-detented pan knob, mute button with LED and a solo button. The ATB ships globally configured for non-destructive AFL(postfader, post-pan) soloing, but a switch located internally on each channel’s circuit board moves its solo bus tap to pre-fader (PFL).

Fast FactsApplications
Studio, project studio

Key Features
16, 24 or 32 channel strip input modules; six aux busses; eight submaster groups; EQ derrived from the Trident Series 80; full in-line monitoring; modular per-channel PCB construction with through-hole and socketed components for easier maintenance

Price
$4,499 (16-channels), $5,499 (24-channels) and $6,999 (32-channel)

Contact
PMI Audio | 877-563-6335 | www.pmiaudio.comThe preamp input section at the top of each channel strip provides controls for gain, mic/line selection, 48-volt phantom power and polarity reverse. An input reverse button swaps the line input and monitor section input signals, the primary purpose of which is to allow use of the full set of sends and the EQ section for mix downs with a minimum of board or patch reconfiguration.

Certainly one of the star attractions of the Toft ATB is its equalizer section modeled on the original Trident Series 80B. Its four bands — each capable of +/-15 dB of gain change — are comprised of two shelving filters that offer a choice of two fixed-frequency turnover points each (8/12 kHz, and 60/120 Hz), and two semi-parametric mid-bands with slightly overlapping frequency ranges (100 Hz to 1.5 kHz and 1 kHz to 15 kHz). Also provided are an 80 Hz high-pass filter and EQ section bypass switch.

The full EQ section can be moved into the channel’s inline monitoring path via the “EQ to Mon” button adjacent to the monitor rotary fader, pan and mute controls. Likewise, the “Aux 5/6 to Mon” button allows the pair of aux sends to be placed in the monitor path (pre/post selection conveys to the monitor fader).

There are six mono auxiliary sends available on each input channel, with sends two through six pre-/post-fader selectable and send one fixed at pre-fader. The six send bus master level controls are located at the top of the central control section and the corresponding send output jacks (balanced 1/4-inch) can be found on the rear panel along with the rest of the console’s I/O connections. The ATB’s generous brace of eight stereo effects returns, each with a stereo level and pan knob plus mute button, are located just under the aux output masters. Signal input to the returns is via stereo 1/4-inch jacks; all return outputs feed into the main L/R bus summing amplifiers. Under the eight echo returns are the eight submaster controls, each with a 12- segment LED bar graph display, aux 5 (pre/post) and 6 (post) sends, solo switch, pan knob and fader.

The ATB ships globally configured for nondestructive AFL (post-fader, post-pan) soloing, but a switch located internally on each channel’s circuit board moves its solo bus tap to pre-fader (PFL).

The master section of the ATB is where you’ll find the two-track input source selector (for two stereo analog sources, and a third reserved for the digital I/O option), solo master level, the headphone jack and level control, talkback controls. A set of stereo analog VU and LED bar-graph meters monitor the the main bus signal leaving the master module’s 100mm stereo fader; the main bus monitoring knob adjusts the control room volume of up to two speaker sets.
A Tale of Two ConsolesCan’t we all get along? I mean, if two the two gentlemen of Torquay, England can’t bury the hatchet and move on, what hope is there for political reconciliation in the States, or for lasting peace in the Middle East?

OK, maybe my sense of perspective is out of whack, but that’s what happens when you get caught up in audio forums reading thread after bitter thread on Malcom Toft’s ATB console vs. John Oram’s 8T console — both of which, you may note from their tricksy model names, are inspired by the large-format Trident Series 80 consoles from that comparatively simpler and harmonious era — the early 1980s. The dust cloud surrounding these two consoles, and fanned exponentially in the ether by, shall we say, very committed forum posters, is unfortunate and most certainly unnecessary.

I’ve had the Toft ATB and an Oram 8T in my control room for several weeks for comparison purposes and you know what? These are both excellent boards for the intended markets and applications, and the for value vs. price. Sure, there are differences in features. Potential purchasers should look very closely at how each meets their needs when it comes to incorporating them into an existing studio setup and work flow. Other differences have some bearing: the Toft is made in China and the Oram is made in the UK; but the Oram uses surface mount comonents and a more monolithic approach, while Toft uses a more traditional, modular PCB approach and through-hole components. As someone who is capable of circuit mods and repairs, this latter point would win out for me (assuming all other things being equal), but the majority of users will be happy with either. The boards do have some differences in sound and character, but again, they are not even close to “night and day” but far, far more subtle.

Far too much time and space has been taken up endlessly debating what essentially comes down to personal preference, and far too much emphasis on pedigree, who did what on which circuit on the original Series 80, which has this component or EQ width, and on... Far better to be discussing making recordings and music and creative applications. As it turns out, both boards can be used very effectively to do just that!

— Steve Murphy
IN USE

I had been waiting patiently for an ATB console to review ever since I spotted it on display at the NYC AES convention — in 2005. I had no doubt it was going to be in demand, and my enthusiasm to review one (due in part to the fact that I started my professional engineering career with several years on a Series 70) was obvious. So I did what any self-respecting engineer-disguised-as-writer would do: begged Mr. Toft to let me get the jump and take the display unit to review. He politely but firmly rejected the idea with some vague excuse about “prototype” and “completely devoid of electronics.” It’s OK...I can take a hint.

But then an amazing thing happened: shortly after unpacking the ATB — all dollied up in its handsome wood trim and row after row of colored anodized knobs in the old Trident style — well, let’s just say all is forgiven, Malcolm.

I spent several weeks working with an ATB 16-channel model, and have a pretty good grasp of the big picture at this point, so let’s start there: This console is going to make a lot of people happy. And it may leave a few people frustrated, particularly when expectations and intimate familiarity with largebudget console features don’t match the ATB reality. The trick, of course, is to be realistic and mind where you fall on the trajectory.

I think most engineers, no matter what experience level, will be quite impressed by the overall concept of a familiar large-format console distilled into a commanding, smallformat package that provides better fidelity, more functionality and gobs more wow-factor than its cost suggests. That is the conclusion I came to after putting the console through a variety of tracking and mixing tasks, and after exploring every possible way to mate the ATB with my Nuendo system.

It was during the latter that I was guilty of trying to turn the ATB into something it wasn’t. I prefer to use the DAW as a multitrack tape machine with the insert loop just after the preamp outputs. That yields the most direct path to tape, and full use of the channel strip features on playback. The ATB doesn’t have preamp output jacks, so that wouldn’t work, but it does have an insert point but its after the EQ and its the unbalanced stereo-jack type. I went through every other gyration possible, but at this point it was more to have fun exploring console and the limits of its flexibility. Ultimately, using the ATB in the manner that it was obviously designed — as a channel path to monitor path in-line, or by sending submixes back from DAW to open input channels or the subgroups. In fact, this latter method was great for tracking as the eight submasters have secondary inputs that are normaled to the first eight input channel strips.

As for fidelity, its overall throughput is certainly as good as the other conspicuous consoles in this market segment, and it does offer a measure of its own Trident pedigree in the form of what one may call “warmth” and roundness, but is of course most likely the result of multistage THD and EQ phase shift. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, as they are the DNA building blocks of much analog “character.” The high-frequency detail was also very good, and didn’t exhibit any irritating graininess.

The fairly faithful EQ section of major value to the console’s ultimate enjoyment. I tended to be a bit shy of the high- and lowshelves, however. The danger is, with only the two sweepable bands, it’s natural to reach for the high shelf for brightening, but do that on too many channels at the same fixed point and you may find yourself starting a mix from scratch. This was much more of a problem on the Series 70, with its bands fixed at (from memory...) 100 Hz and 10 kHz.

I wasn’t thrilled with the overall headroom, but again, it is not built to major-console rail spec and its commensurate cost. With greater attention to internal levels, and a bump up on the amplifiers, I was a happy camper.

A few nits I had with the ATB, besides the lack of preamp output points, are its lack of solo buttons on the in-line monitor section of each channel, its lack of a stereo aux pair, and the lack of an LED indicator on soloed channels. I would also gladly trade the input reverse for a proper fader reverse (which would allow recording levels to be set with a rotary knob and the monitor signal to flow down the main channel to the faders. Or just go ahead and flip the current design around so the default is that the monitor path uses the channel strip controls and the tracking/input path uses the rotary knob and pan, as it is on most large-format in-lines I have used. In that way, all the EQ, sends, fader levels and pan settings and tweaks made throughout a tracking day add up to a great rough mix; plus, no recording levels were harmed because they were out of the way on knobs and safe from musicians who will invariably move faders while the engineer is out of the CR.

SUMMARY

The obvious markets for the Toft Audio Design Series ATB console are project studios, smaller music-oriented studios, secondary rooms in larger studios, private/commercial production suites, fixed installations and broadcast audio suites — in short, anyone who will appreciate having (or learning about) the flexibility and core functionality of a traditional analog in-line console, and whose clients will be more impressed than with any of the usual suspects in the eight-bus arena.

The ATB packs a great deal of features and functionality within its handsome wood-trimmed frame and the appeal of its impressively evocative Trident-esque stylings will go far towards the board’s acceptance in a wide range of applications both above and below its price-point station.