TOFT ATB SERIES
A budget priced 8-bus analogue console might seem like a hoary ol’ chestnut, but this one hits the bullseye.
Text: Calum Orr
Malcolm Toft has been designing analogue consoles for over 30 years now. Widely known throughout the pro audio sector for his exceptionally fine consoles made under the Trident – and more recently MTA – banners, Mr Toft’s reputation well and truly precedes him. Many notable artists such as David Bowie, T-Rex, Queen, Oasis, Coldplay and Radiohead (to name a few) have made many a famous recording using Trident consoles.
Malcolm Toft might have sold Trident way back in 1988 but he continued to make consoles as MTA (or ‘Malcolm Toft & Associates’), as well as microphone preamplifier and compression rack modules. His most recent release is the new Toft ATB console, which – without overstating it too much – appears to have ushered in a new era of affordability for any studio or individual on a limited budget who requires a high quality analogue console solution for tracking and mixing. It’s also a ‘homecoming’ of sorts for Malcolm Toft’s original 80 Series console EQ design.
The baby of the range on review here is a little over six grand for 16 channels. That’s right, 16 channels of preamps and EQ based on the classic Trident 80 series range, not to mention the benefits of a console design philosophy from someone who understands mix bus headroom.
I was fortunate enough to have the 16-channel ATB console in my studio for over a month recently, and to say I became used to having it around is an understatement. During its stay I quickly became accustomed to its wide dynamic range and extended headroom. I figured I was getting carried away with how good the sound was at one point, so I performed some A/B tests with my 16-channel Allen & Heath MixWizard. I can categorically say the Toft ATB cleared the floor with the MixWiz in an ice hockey stick meets puck kinda ‘fa-pow!’. The superlative audio quality, quiet operation and comprehensive routing options make the ATB range a winner for both recording and mixing. I’m prepared to take a guess that there are probably many in operation already, both in studios and touring around in road cases. Then again, maybe I’m just projecting!
The ATB adheres to a traditional ‘in-line’ design, i.e., tape/DAW returns have dedicated volume and pan controls on each of the 16 channels. This is a luxury on a console of this size in this day and age. The in-line design will be a very attractive feature to those still hanging onto their 16-track tape machine. As it was, I used the monitor returns for the outputs of my Fireface/DAW. This freed the input channels for miking instruments and voices and for DI’ing keyboards and the like. Unfortunately the ATB doesn’t have a ‘listen from monitor returns only’ button – i.e., mute all ‘live’ input channels.
Although the ATB series console has assignable subgroups for sending signals to a recording device, each of the input channels also has a ‘direct out’. Inserts are also provided on each channel as well as the subgroup and master outputs.
The ATB channel strip, from top to bottom, has a 48V phantom power switch, I/P ‘reverse’ switch (for ‘flipping’ the tape return into the main channel signal path), line/mic switch, phase inversion, EQ, EQ bypass switch, six auxiliary sends (Aux 1 is set as pre fader, while Auxes 2-6 can be set as either pre or post). There’s a pre-fader solo button, mute button, pan pot and 100mm ‘long-throw’ ALPS faders. Again, the flexible monitor returns can be used as further inputs for a total of 56 inputs at mixdown (or 72 on the ATB 24 and 88 on the ATB 32). I personally never pressed the ATB into anywhere near this kind of summing task, although during one mix session I had 34 inputs and the ATB really did sum them beautifully.
I would happily describe the channel preamps in the ATB as ‘boutique’ in quality. Each one produces a sturdy sound with a classy finish equal to many modern and vintage classics. Not once did I consider the results harsh or weak. The preamp has a quoted gain range of 70dB, which provided plenty of clean gain for even the quietest ribbon mics. I really liked the sound of the pres, and to have 16, 24 or 32 of them (depending on what frame size you buy) is a real luxury. The ATB consoles are a bargain on the strength of their mic pres alone. So when you then add what is essentially Trident B series EQ to each of these channel preamps, the console’s great value suddenly comes into stark relief. No other manufacturer provides this level of quality at such a reduced price point.
Think of the Toft ATB like this: at $250 a pre and $250 an EQ, that unracked vintage unit on eBay you’re probably contemplating, which doesn’t have any warranty and needs a complete re-capping, starts to look and smell like a hairy old dog you don’t wanna mess with.
The EQ is of such a high quality that I even experimented with it on some mastering and it stood up to the task well. I suppose it’s a little unconventional to use console EQ in this way, but it worked! Malcolm Toft claims: “the Toft ATB Console packs the same powerful equaliser that was used on the Trident Series 80 boards.” I have to say that I got pretty used to having that legendary EQ around and I reckon the 32-channel version would do me for most projects!
The 80 Series EQ is a four-band affair that offers real musicality. The two mid bands are semi-parametric with sweepable frequencies between 100Hz and 1.5kHz (on the lower mid band) and 1kHz and 15kHz (on the upper mid band). The high frequency band is a shelf that kicks in at either 8 or 12kHz while the bottom shelving band cuts or boosts at either 60 or 120Hz. Finally, the EQ section has a bass roll-off switch, fixed at 80Hz.
I managed to get a whole variety of EQ tasks done quickly and with great results on this 16-channel Toft. The 80 Series ‘replica’ EQ is flattering on most program material, can easily pinpoint frequencies for adjustment, and its smooth, responsive nature across all frequencies was, quite frankly, a joy. After using the EQ during several different sessions, I grew to appreciate how ‘cutting edge’ it must have been when it came out in the ’70s.
The EQ can also be switched from the input channel to the monitor channels via the ‘EQ to Mon’ button and there’s also a monitor Mute button. Furthermore Aux sends 5 & 6 can be switched for use in the monitor path. This makes it easy to set up fairly elaborate cue mixes and provides extended routing options during mixdown.
At this point I want to expand on a couple of shortcomings I found with the ATB series. Firstly, I was disappointed the FX returns and Aux master sends didn’t have solo buttons – I found it a source of frustration when I was trying to set balances. Furthermore, it would’ve been great to be able to send the headphone mix some echo or reverb via aux sends on the FX returns. You can do that by routing the headphone mix through the group submasters, of course, and I understand the ATB’s space limitations (there’s a lot of controls in a fairly tight space here) but the frustration remained.
The solo button on each channel is an AFL (After Fade Listen). It is ‘monitor only’ so it won’t harm the recording or mixing signal paths during a take. It is possible, however, to change the AFLs to PFLs (Pre Fade Listen) internally so the desk can be used in a live situation.
The Toft ATB abounds with other facilities. There are eight mix buses with outputs, an additional eight monitor returns in the centre section (great on the 16-channel review model for returning Outputs 17-24 of my DAW), eight stereo FX returns plus direct outs and inserts on every channel including the groups and the masters. The group masters make it a cinch to set up any parallel compression duties the mix might require and easy as pie to print the outcome back into your DAW via the group outputs. Last, but not least, the Toft ATB has great metering facilities. Two ballistic VUs and LED metering for the master output, ‘signal present’ and ‘over’ LEDs on each of the channels, and LED metering for each of the sub-group outs – nice!
TOFT OF CLASS
I could finish this article with something like: ‘enter a new era of affordability in high-quality, small-format console design’ but instead I’ll just say: audition this desk if you’re in need of either several input channels to tape/DAW or you’re simply looking for a great mix console with ample headroom for high quality summing duties. By buying a Toft you’ll save a heap compared to going down the ‘rack front end’ line of enquiry. Of course, the ATB isn’t quite as portable as a couple of 1RU boxes. While I could lift the 16-channel version on my own, it wasn’t without some huffing and puffing. The extra weight is mainly in the wood cheeks, solid metal construction and the all-metal knob livery. Although it might be heavy, the well-built exterior really does instill a solid sense of quality. The Toft ATB series consoles really are a modern console design with a ‘consoles of old’ look, feel and sound.
Unfortunately, on the ATB desk I reviewed, there was a minor hiccup with the fader on Group 2 failing on arrival. On the desk’s return to Front End Audio, Rob Squire advised me the fader was replaced and the problem was solved. I guess the console had been subject to serious amounts of freighting prior to my receiving it for review, but it should be noted. Reliability is everything in the console game and I hope this incident was the anomaly it was reported to be.