How to custom build a mixing console
The aim here is to describe the background, processes and steps involved in the mission of undertaking the custom build of a mixing console, starting by taking an original manufacturer’s console (or consoles) as the core donors of materials, then augmenting these with new (often custom) items to create what is effectively a “new” console with original modules. Whilst the processes are the same for any type of console, the focus here is on SSL 4000 & 6000 types.
The starting point is working out what the customer wants; in the case of a 16 channel with centre monitor area flanked by narrow buckets, it is easy because the build is the same as a console that has already been previously made:
- All the processes involved are known,
- The special parts requirements are known,
- The custom designs are done, known and proven,
- The frame configuration is known,
- The wiring in known.
- The hard work of design and proving a configuration and materials specification has already been done.
Now for the detail that applies to all console builds…
The items that we have to work with fall into two categories:
- New materials that we buy-in for the work; parts, circuit boards, custom metalwork, etc,
- Second-user SSL materials – console, buckets, modules, meters, etc.
With the new materials we have control over most of the processes with the notable exception of lead-times from suppliers. With the SSL items (modules, console buckets, meters, etc, actually, everything that you see on an original SSL console, we have no control over these items – other than adapting where we need to, we have to work with what is available. These are finite resources. Often the new consoles are created by using materials that remain after donor consoles have been reduced in size. For example, an original meter panel printed 73 to 80 will be re-painted and re-printed for meters 1 to 8.
As with any engineering project, there are “right” and “wrong” ways to approach the job. After many years of console design, build, service and installation work, the team of guys and girls – a core group of 5 of us – who do the work have honed the methods.
The “wrong” approach, in our experience, is to take in a console or parts of a console, dis-assemble, clean, service, and re-build straight away. This is the path to failure and grief. Whilst visible results of what looks like a new console are available very quickly, there are a huge number of traps for the unwary. We know of these through hard-won experience. The amount of wasted time on re-work, re-build, dis-assembly to make a minor change, then re-assembly can rapidly mount up. A small trap can cause a few hours of re-work, a really bad trap can result in days of additional, unplanned, costly work.
One example is that whilst all SSL 4K & 6K consoles essentially look the same, what is not widely known is that not all SSL console frames are mechanically the same. The number of bucket joining screws along the top edge of the bucket side-panels has at least 4 variations that we know of. Worse than this, each known variant has different locations for the screws. Combining buckets from different eras of SSL’s manufacture and different mechanical designs can be problematic.
A better approach, the “right” approach, is not to rush-in to start building a console, but to use prior knowledge in combination with project management and planning. Adopt a clear, logical process of work. In the mechanical trap example above, a simplified version of a better process is to check all mechanical aspects, confirm which buckets are compatible, adapt those than can be adapted, build the console frame.
The number of people involved in a console build varies. Each person has their own particular specialities, with most team members being multi skilled.
There is also an order of events that is appropriate to work with. Whilst it is true that many of the huge number of smaller jobs can be carried out in parallel, and numerous assemblies can be pre-built and tested, the majority of the “visible progress” activity falls into three areas – frame build, frame wiring and console test. The background preparatory work leading-up to the frame-build can be several weeks in duration and in this time there is seemingly little to show, but when the frame build starts, huge visible progress can be made in as little as a few days. Whilst not all customers fully understand this method, it has been proven to be the best way to do the work.
Mechanical lead-up to frame-build:
To be able to build a frame, we need to have completed these core steps:
- Selected a compatible set of buckets.
- Disassembled any buckets that are to be reduced in width,
- Assessed compatibility of buckets and factor this into the mechanical work,
- Cut the extrusions of any reduced-width buckets (a contracted-out activity),
- Thoroughly cleaned all bucket metalwork and extrusions,
- Measured, marked and added any holes required for custom extrusion positions,
- Added any holes required for non-standard cable access,
- Drilled & tapped any holes required for joining of otherwise non-compatible buckets,
- Removed all burrs and sharp edges from new holes,
- Re-assemble all buckets and extrusions, adding in tap-strip of the correct lengths and types into the correct slots in the extrusions as part of the bucket assembly process.
Once these steps are complete, the buckets can be screwed together to form a frame.
The exposed edges of the bucket side-panels can now be filed, sanded and polished to present an aesthetically pleasing result. This time-consuming and dirty work must be carried out when there are no PCBs or wiring in the frame. Cleaning out of metal particles is essential. The end result of the detailed sanding and polishing is aesthetically the difference between a re-built console frame looking new or looking rushed and amateurish.
At the same time, external (contracted out) mechanical work is being done: manufacture, painting and printing of custom panels can involve two or three suppliers based on their individual specialities.
Electrical work associated with the frame includes the following items and can be undertaken whilst mechanical work is being done, or whilst waiting for delivery of contracted-out work:
- Cleaning and servicing of SSL frame PCBs such as fader backplanes, channel backplanes, meter distribution and meter driver PCBs.
- Make-up and testing of channel audio wiring looms.
- Make-up and testing of the two audio looms for the 651 master module
- Make-up of ribbon cables for meters, bucket linking, bus links to the 651, etc.
- Make up of power looms,
- Make-up of any PCBs that are not available from SSL donor consoles or that are beyond repair. Fader backplanes are often victims of spilt coffee or soft-drinks and the damage caused is extensive; these PCBs are replaced with new-build boards from our suite of replacement boards.
- Make up of specialist PCBs such as power distribution, meter distribution, phase meter driver.
- Make up of the console connector panel (fitting of connectors & power distribution PCB) in readiness for its installation in the frame.
Test and service a power supply unit for the console.
The mechanically assembled frame can now be secured onto the underframe assembly with its legs and feet. Electrical work can proceed with fitting the channel and fader backplanes, along with the connector panel and pre-made wiring looms. Prior to power-up, all wiring is tested.
When the 651, channel modules, faders and meters are available, these can be installed and tested. (They will have already been pre-tested on the tech-bench so will be known to work on their own). The test done in the console frame is to prove the console system performs as required for its configuration and custom facilities.
Channels, meters and faders are then removed so as to fit the armrest, top-trim and side-panels. All of these are typically covered in soft vinyl or leather and therefore subject to being easily damaged – their fitting is one of the last processes. Modules are now replaced and a basic final set of electrical tests is carried out.
Finally, all cover panels are fitted and the console inspected in readiness for shipping.
That gives a reasonable overview of the birth of a new console.