Sonic Sculptor

A legendary soundboard at 54 Sound in Ferndale changed the course of musical recordings.
Music Man - Joel Martin, owner of 54 Sound in Ferndale, operates one of the world’s most iconic recording studios. He also won a major court battle against record companies over artist royalties. // Photograph by Sal Rodriguez
Music Man – Joel Martin, owner of 54 Sound in Ferndale, operates one of the world’s most iconic recording studios. He also won a major court battle against record companies over artist royalties. // Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

As The Romantics burst through the opening chords of a recent rehearsal at 54 Sound, a legendary recording studio in Ferndale, the band was in the presence of something exceedingly rare in the music industry.

Just a few feet away was a Neve 8028 soundboard, an original analog board and one of the few still in existence. Built in 1971 by British-born audio engineer Rupert Neve, the console has been used to record some of the most iconic artists of yesterday and today.

The board is treasured for its ability to equalize, or balance, different frequencies in ways today’s digital recording technology can’t capture. From Smokey Robinson’s tenor voice to the strum of a bass guitar from the Funk Brothers to the blare of Maurice Davis’ legendary trumpet, the console can capture the very movement of air — or, in music parlance, the auditory signal path. 

Studio owner Joel Martin, who has worked in the Detroit music production scene since the 1970s and purchased the board a few years back, says it’s one of only four that are still in use. And he has no intention of letting it become a mere historical curiosity.

“I don’t want this to be a museum,” Martin says. “It’s not supposed to be a museum. It’s a place where people learn and record. I’ve got possibilities of bringing in groups (from) all over the country here — if they understand what’s going on here.”

It’s the same type of board that was used at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, and was the subject of a 2013 documentary directed by Dave Grohl, drummer of the rock band Nirvana and front man and guitarist of the Foo Fighters. “It was arguably the most famous series of boards that were ever made, and there are very few in existence that actually reside in recording studios,” Martin says. “People have taken the guts out of these and they just sell (each of) the modules for, in some cases, $15,000. But we have 24 modules and they’re all working as they were intended to work.”

As rare as such boards are, it’s even harder to find studio pros who know how they work. That makes Martin and the Neve board a unique combination.

“This is what I understand,” Martin says. “I was a recording engineer. I worked with the Motown engineers. I started working with Funkadelic (at Universal Sound Studios in Detroit) at 16 years old in a work-study program out of high school, and I happened to be at one of those iconic studios back in 1973. I understand how people were recording back then.”

But why would someone want to record using an old-school analog board when newer digital technology easily eliminates flaws and distortions? According to Martin, that’s exactly the reason.

“The EQ (equalization of the Neve board) is more responsive to sounds that weren’t recorded digitally,” Martin says. “In some cases, I don’t even know why you need equalization on a digital recording. It’s what they call transparent. But what’s lost is the distortion of the harmonics that come from a piece of gear that was meant to capture things differently on the low frequencies or the mid-frequencies.”

So what kind of sound comes from a Neve 8028 soundboard? “Warmer. Gooier. More distortion,” Martin intones.

And, yes, those are good things.

“Included in our collection of analog gear are the four reverb plates that were originally from the iconic Chess Records studios in Chicago,” Martin says. “The EMT (electro-mechanical sound they produce) is a bad-ass reverb. That’s what people are trying to emulate. You could turn a knob up instead of setting the parameters on a digital reverb, and it’s tactile. You feel differently when you’re in the process of doing it on an analog board like this.”

Others at the studio can see — and hear — the difference of working with such a classic and powerful soundboard.

“There’s something to be said about the imperfections of analog,” says Nick King, an engineer and studio manager who works with Martin at 54 Sound. “You can’t make that with a computer program, and those imperfections are what adds quirk to your music.”

The bands that would benefit the most from a Neve 8028 might be those who make their best sounds during live jams. With the board at 54 Sound able to pick up sounds so effectively, it’s a much more viable option for bands to record together in a studio rather than separately.

It’s a throwback to an older way of recording, as well. And with all due respect to the digital technology of today — which 54 Sound also offers — lots of listeners would surely not complain if their new music sounded like the stuff they’ve heard (or remember, if they’re old enough) from the old days.

Imperfections and all. In fact, that’s a feature — not a bug.