The Focusrite Room's Studio Console, one of ten built

One of just ten built (unit #5) and of only four known still to exist, a Focusrite Studio Console is the centrepiece of a new recording room in John Aquilino’s Platinum Underground complex in the Phoenix area.

The console was originally installed in BOP Studios in South Africa, itself a pioneering world-music recording destination, and its recent recommissioning brings one of the world’s few surviving Focusrite Studio Consoles back into operation, ready to make music, and music history, once more.

The Focusrite Room is a unique 1,500sq-ft control room, part of a 6,000sq-ft recording complex. ‘Bringing Number Five back was a life-changing event,’ says studio owner and long-time Focusrite aficionado Aquilino, referring to the nickname the desk has acquired. ‘When I was a teenager, instead of a poster of Farrah Fawcett on my wall, I had a picture of a Focusrite Studio Console, so you could say I’m a pretty big fan of the brand and its technology. Now, this console is ready for the next chapter in its life.’

Located near Johannesburg, BOP (Bophuthatswana Recording Studios) had set out to become a world-class music-production facility in one of the world’s most remote, yet creatively fertile, locations. South Africa was thrust onto the global music stage with the release of Paul Simon’s Graceland album in 1986, which opened the world’s ears to the music and musicians of that part of the world, with some of that LP having been recorded at Ovation Studios in Johannesburg, by Simon and engineer/producer Roy Halee.

BOP Studio A in South Africa, former home of the Focusrite Studio ConsoleDespite the country being under the oppressive thumb of Apartheid at the time, BOP Studios, financed by a combination of private investment and state and local pension funds, opened in 1991, offering a venue in which African and Western artists and musicians could interact and collaborate. The console was installed in BOP’s flagship Studio 1, and it operated alongside consoles from Neve in Studio 2, and SSL in Studio 3 – an SSL 4000G+ with Ultimation and a Neve VRP96 console with Flying Fader automation. All three were the largest mixing consoles of their kind installed at the time.

The studio’s architect was the late Tom Hidley who used identical Kinoshita monitors in each studio in a ‘Non-Environment Room’ acoustic setting. The studio’s accommodation, meanwhile, was ‘resort-level’.

Visiting artists included Laura Branigan, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and the Soweto String Quartet. Disney’s The Lion King soundtrack was also recorded and produced at the studio. But political and economic complications posed significant challenges to keeping the facility viable, and it has been closed for much of the past 20-plus years.

However, the Focusrite Studio Console was remarkably intact when Aquilino discovered it. He organised a team including his partner in the studio, Ken Hirsch of Orphan Audio, as well as guidance from Phil Dudderidge, Chairman of Focusrite Audio Engineering, who had acquired Focusrite from founder Rupert Neve in 1989. The team went to BOP in September 2019, where they purchased and disassembled the console over the course of ten days, and shipped it back to Platinum Underground, where Aquilino had already designed (with Hanson Hsu of Delta H Design) a new room to be built around it. Constructed 30ft below ground, Platinum Underground opened in 2016, and was designed by the late Vincent Van Haaff. The Focusrite Room is above and to the side of the earlier part of the complex.

Unsurprisingly, the relocated console needed refurbishing including a complete recapping and new switches, as well as the replacement of 4,600 LEDs. The restoration process was begun by Joel Gette of Thermal Relief Design in Las Vegas, before the desk was moved to its new site in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa for its full and complete restoration and recommissioning by Ken Hirsch and his team at Orphan Audio.

Once inside the studio, additional HVAC, with a custom plenum and silent-running fans, had to be installed to keep the console at a constant 72-74°F. The console’s original two 7ft-tall power racks have been replaced with just 3ft of modern, high-efficiency supplies designed by Hirsch. The ancient GML automation has been replaced with the Tangerine Automation Interface for GML Automation from THD Labs, which integrates with the console faders on a fader-by-fader, bucket-by-bucket basis, with all control information sent over a USB bus to the computer.

Installing the Focusrite Studio Console‘The automation is now seamless and transparent between the hardware of the desk and the user’s DAW,’ Aquilino explains. ‘Any user can come in to the studio, fire up a session, load up this plug-in and just go, and not have to worry about using archaic, proprietary software.’

The Focusrite Studio Console came back to life late in 2022, and was used for a series of local productions with Aquilino – an engineer for artists including Metal Allegiance, Sacred Reich, and SoulFly – at the helm.

‘I needed a great team to make this happen, like TRD, everyone at Ken’s shop, and of course, Phil,’ he says. ‘But the result is the kind of console that made classic recordings. You cannot duplicate this in today’s business; the console’s cabling is silver wire – kilometers of it. There is nothing like it anywhere. And now, it’s an amazing console in an amazing space.’

Remarkable as the resurrected console is, it is noy the only Focusrite technology in the facility. Aquilino says that the studio is in the process of implementing Dante connectivity between both the new Focusrite Room and The Platinum Underground’s existing SSL control room, large tracking room, and isolation booths, complemented by RedNet A16R and HD32R interfaces throughout both studios.

‘This will allow us to smoothly move projects between spaces, as well as increase flexibility of session management,’ he explains, adding that having both vintage and contemporary Focusrite gear in the same facility is the best of both worlds.

The studio also has 12 Focusrite ISA 215 dual rackmount mic preamp/EQs, for a total of 24 channels of original ISA 110s (each 215 contains two of the original ISA 110 mic preamp/EQ circuits in each box). Finally, Aquilino chose S5H monitors from Adam Audio – part of the Focusrite family – for the mains in The Focusrite Room. ‘They are absolutely amazing speakers. Just stunning sounding,’ he says. ‘They are the perfect complement to #5. Incredible depth, amazing detail, and the imaging is spectacular.’

The Focusrite Studio Console had a deep impact on many people’s lives and careers and is much loved by the engineers, producers, and musicians who have experienced it up close. Using Rupert Neve’s original design of the ISA 110 EQ processor as inspiration, the console is regarded as the pinnacle of British audio console innovation.

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