LAFAYETTE, NJ – Located one hour outside of New York and boasting magnificent countryside views, Ponderosa Studios is a retreat recording facility where artists can stay on location, enjoy the accommodations, and concentrate on making great recordings. The 2,600 square-foot studio is outfitted with top-flight gear for analogue and digital recording, most recently upgrading the control room with the addition of an SSL XL Desk.
The studio serves a wide variety of clients across a diverse range of musical genres including folk, country, reggae — even Armenian opera and metal. Studio Manager/Producer/Engineer Tom Askin cut his first record in this same room in the mid-1990s before it was PonderRosa Studios. The space lay unoccupied for several years until Askin had the opportunity to make it his new home. "The original facility was purpose-built as a recording studio," Askin begins. "It ran successfully for roughly 18 years and then the space lay dormant for a few years, waiting for resurrection. All that remains from the old studio are the pine walls, top to bottom, the remainder of the facility has been completely redone."
Askin notes that they did the initial redesign of the studio but held off on their choice of analogue console for roughly a year while doing research into what would be the best analogue console for PonderRosa. "We wanted to break in the room, not rush and be sure we made the right decision, Askin says. "Then I saw an email announcing SSL's XL Desk. We looked at it and thought 'gosh this desk is perfect for our space.'"
"While we were gearing up toward getting an analogue console we were working 'in-the-box,'" continues Askin. "That's why we arranged the control room desk the way we did, with a variety of outboard mic preamps as the front end, and then we were mixing in-the-box at the back end. We found immediately how great using the XL Desk for tracking is: the built-in mic preamps on channels one through eight are remarkable — especially for a lot of the work that we're doing for rock and jazz. We've got a wide pallet to choose from, depending upon the genre of music that's coming through — but even if it's one of our engineers who specialises in speed metal — we found we're using the XL Desk preamps. I was thrilled to see that and to hear the outcome as well."
Engineer Dave Mombert, whose specialty is alt and indie rock explains, "It's a genre where less is more. The focus is to get really good sounds on the way in so that you don't have to do too much when it comes time to mix. Before the SSL arrived we were working only through the outboard pre's and then into Pro Tools. The XL Desk turned a lot of our workflow on its head. Some of the preamps that were used as standards for certain instruments like piano have now shifted over to the preamps in the console."
"For me personally," reveals Engineer John Locher, "I don't do a lot of live tracking with my hip-hop or R&B sessions. Often the guys come in with stems of production that were done using a keyboard workstation or an MPC. To bring those high-quality samples through the XL Desk automatically improves the sound and adds a shine that you can't get by just running them through Pro Tools. Then adding some harmonic distortion from the preamps on the desk is great."
Locher is referring to the Variable Harmonic Drive circuit available on the XL Desk's microphone preamps. Once the VHD circuit is engaged, the user can add a mix of second or third harmonic distortion to the signal. "It's not even about the change in sound but change of feel that it gives to the sound, the warmth," maintains Locher. "I believe that we as engineers hear a higher level of detail than everyone else. When I add VHD, the artist may not realize it but if I shut it off they react like there is something missing. It's that initial warmth that the SSL brings to the sound. It changes the texture and makes a sound finalised, complete."
Engineer Rich McGoldrick identifies VHD as "one of my favourite features of the desk. When we were tracking drums and piano before we had the SSL we would get great sounds using our outboard preamps. Once the desk came in, just cranking that harmonic distortion brings out so much colour. Pro Tools plug-ins are very good at emulating an analogue sound but you just can't get the same thing that you can from the console. Getting the XL Desk was a big game-changer."
"I love our XL Desk," Askin summarizes, "not only from a sonic perspective but honestly also from a business perspective as well. Just before David Arnold from Pro Audio Boutique came up to do the install with us, I had delivered the master mixes to an artist for a five song EP. I told them 'hang on to these mixes. I'm going to deliver an alternate set of mixes in a few weeks for you to review.' I didn't tell them why. When we finished the install I re-summed the entire EP through the XL Desk, sent it to them and waited. Their reaction was 'we don't know what you did but the depth, the colour, the width and texture is amazing.' We've got a lot of real estate open for the artist to make it very comfortable here – so we were looking for that footprint that could provide everything that we're trying to do sonically, yet fit into the studio — and SSL has delivered it."
You can watch the full Ponderosa Studios SSL video interview here: