Necessity is often considered to be the mother of invention, writes Mel Lambert. In the late Colin Sanders’ case, the decision to add sophisticated computer control to recording consoles started in 1976, when he realised that nothing he could find on the market was appropriate for his personal-use Acorn Studios in Stonesfield, Oxfordshire – they all lacked the routing flexibility and settings recall he felt would dramatically increase his studio’s creative efficiency. At the time, Sanders owned Solid State Logic, a company he founded in 1969 to develop advanced remote-control systems for large pipe organs using FET-based switching and multiplexed communication between the organ keyboard and electro-mechanical elements.
“I thought: Why not add that type of programmable control to the various [cross point] switches used to route audio within a recording mixer?” he explained to this correspondent during a visit to Oxford in early October 1978 and a tour of the fledgling console-manufacturing operation. Sanders’ “lightbulb moment” resulted in the A-Series in-line console, with one-button switching between recording, tracking and mixdown mode with fader automation. The subsequent addition of Total Recall allowed all rotary controls to be scanned and then reset to their previous settings using a color-coded video screen. “It just seemed the obvious thing to do,” Sanders commented with typical candor.
Acorn Studios’ first prototype was of a split design, with separate input/routing and monitor sections. A more compact in-line custom version soon followed with computer-controlled switching; two of the resultant SL-4000 A-Series consoles were sold to Millstream Recording Studio, a local private studio in nearby Cheltenham owned by musician Dik Cadbury, and the Tocano Studio, Denmark. SSL’s timecode-referenced fader-automation system was based on a Computer Automation 4/10 16-bit industrial computer, using custom software developed by Sanders’ partner, Paul Bamborough.
Positive reactions to this initial design encouraged Sanders to develop the B-Series which, with feedback from Town House Studios in West London and Record Plant in Los Angeles – two early customers – resulted in the definitive E-Series design, which included Total Recall automation after its formal launch in 1979.
Sadly, Sanders was killed in January 1998 when his twin-engine helicopter crashed in a field near Souldern Manor, where he had his own hangar and landing strip. He was just 50. SSL is now owned by the musician Peter Gabriel, whose Real World Studios outside the city of Bath, UK has been a regular customer for many years.
"SSL has been very lucky with its inventions,” he remarked to this writer at an AES Convention in Los Angeles during the early Eighties. “The technology we used wasn’t particularly innovative, but it was the first time that anybody had added logic control switching and reset to a recording console. Of course, other manufacturers soon played catch-up, but we were there first, an achievement of which I am particularly proud,” he confessed with a broad grin.
“Although Colin might make a typically modest comment about not been innovative, others – myself included – would challenge that,” considers Sean Fernback, who worked in SSL’s R&D department during those formative years. “It took a lot of balls to stick a computer in the middle of a mixing console.”
Pictures: Top: Colin Sanders. Second: Serial number 4012 console from 1977, which left the factory in 1978 after being used as a demo console at a trade fair. It was the only one labelled as a hybrid A/B series on the spec list, and pictured in the early 2000s installed in Grapehouse Studio, Copenhagen. Third: SSL order book from 1977. Last on the Seventies list for 4000 Series deliveries: Larrabee Sound Studios, Los Angeles, Ridge Farm Studio, Surrey, and popular Italian music singer/songwriter Peppino di Capri.
Published earlier this year and sponsored by QSC Audio, Genius!2 is the second edition celebrating those clever people whose inventions have transformed the world of professional audio. The 30-page supplement is also available to read in a handy digital-edition form