IoSR Blog : 14 May 2013

A bit about Studio 3

Studio 3 was built in 1999, to allow us to increase the intake of the Tonmeister course from 16 to 24. It was intended as a mixing room with a small overdub booth (designed to be too small to record drums in, but students have still managed it …), but with tie-lines to the Central Apparatus Room to allow direct recording from any of the other studios.

Formerly, the space was a small lecture room, and it's a testament to the high quality of the original specification of the building that this could be converted to a studio without needing major work on the acoustic isolation: the double skin wall of high density concrete block between here and Studio 1 floor meant that a floating floor design wasn't required, and the acoustic structure is a wooden framed box within the original structure.

Studio 3 as is

At the time, we had a 1970s Neve 8000 series in Studio 1, and a Neve V series in Studio 2. We wanted something different in Studio 3, so that students could experience a wider range of operational styles. We also needed something that would allow mixing and manipulation of 5.1 surround sound for our research into spatial audio. Looking around, most commercial studios at the time had analogue consoles in the recording rooms and something digital and a bit different in the mixing rooms (for instance the AMS Neve Capricorn in Abbey Road), so that seemed a logical route to take.

So why the Sony Oxford?

The OXF-R3 (more commonly known as the Oxford) was Sony's first attempt at a large music recording and mixing console. It came about through a convoluted series of steps, though essentially it was a talented team of designers and engineers from Solid State Logic who left to form their own company, and subsequently ended up part of Sony. They developed a console that, for mid-1990s technology, had exceptional functionality: up to 96 channels, a highly configurable number of inputs and outputs, intuitive displays on large TFT screens, and multiple EQ and dynamics options on each channel. It also pioneered other things, such as the custom DSP (a smaller version of which you can now find in the Kindle Fire, among other things), and an assignable user interface (where there is one large channel strip, and you use 'Access' buttons to select which channel it controls). And, most importantly, it sounded great: the EQ and dynamics still sell well as plugins for DAWs.

Studio 3 console close-up

The only thing that let it down from an educational point of view was the lack of commercial take-up. The assignable nature of the console is now fairly common, and the automation was inspired by that on SSLs and Neves, so there is benefit to learning its operation. However, there aren't many Sony Oxfords in the world.

So why wasn't it a commercial success? I think there were two main reasons. Firstly, it was very different to every other large console at the time. For a studio that hires rooms to freelance engineers it was too much of a risk. A freelance engineer isn't likely to want to work on a console that is very different from what they're used to, so it was safer to stay with the well-known analogue SSLs and Neves, or digital consoles that operate in a similar way. It did better for owner/user studios though, for example in Peter Gabriel's writing room at Real World. Secondly, Sony was never really a console company. It could never match the kind of support that is expected from the likes of SSL and Neve. They did their best to set up a structure for 24-hour support, but never quite made it work.

Having said all this, I still think that it's a fantastic console. The sound quality is fantastic, the user interface is great once you've got used to it, and there are many tricks that help make things easier for the user.

So if it's so good, why are you replacing it?

There are a few main reasons why we're replacing it.

Firstly, we have a rolling upgrade programme for all the large facilities that mean that they are updated every 10 to 15 years. Studio 1 was replaced about 10 years ago, and Studio 2 about 5 years ago. Hence, it's time to update Studio 3.

Secondly, the way the industry works has changed since the Oxford was installed. Rightly or wrongly, due to the convenience and flexibility of DAWs, most mixing is now done 'in the box'. With ProTools, Logic and Pyramix in Studio 3 already, it's already possible to work this way. However, this just causes the Oxford to be used as a big monitoring controller, which is a heck of a waste.

Finally, it's just getting a bit too old. It has mostly been incredibly reliable in the time we've had it. Sure, there have been some intermittent problems caused by ageing capacitors (especially in the screen driver boards). However, it now has an intermittent fault which causes it not to boot once or twice out of three. Not so bad, you might think. Until you find out that the remaining Oxford at Real World developed this same fault, until around last Christmas, when it refused to boot ever again.

With no official support from Sony anymore, Real World called in everyone they could to look at it and try to get it going again (including Alan, our legendary studio support engineer). Unfortunately the consensus was that the failure was terminal. In addition to this worry, the DEC Alpha computer that co-ordinates all the components of the console is irreplaceable. There is a software key that ties the console software to the components of the DEC. Sony, in their wisdom, destroyed the machine that makes these keys, once they stopped making the consoles. Hence, if a major component of the DEC fails, there's no way to get it running again.

This all adds up to too much worry. If we lost the use of the Oxford during the term, we'd be severely up the creek. So, as much as I still think it's a great console, I'm afraid that it is time to retire it while we still can, and get something shiny and new to replace it.

And that's a story for another day ...

by Russell Mason