35 years on, Michael's engineering and design creations still stand out. He's continued to build consoles under the Zähl banner and has even brought his designs to the 500 Series format. Continue below to read our recent conversation with Michael Zähl and learn more about the past, present and future of his classic gear.
Tell us a little bit about how Zähl first got started.
We started building custom equipment for Conny Plank Studio in the late 1970s. He always had very special ideas, and one day he came to me with the idea to build a mobile recording truck. He couldn’t find a suitable mixing console on the market so we decided to build one ourselves. Conny had a very clear concept in mind for what he wanted.
That was my first big project. I was in charge of the whole production and worked with many different people at Conny Plank Studio. When the console was finished, it was a huge success. Everyone was very happy with it. When other people saw what we were doing, business started to pick up. My customers all came from word of mouth so it was a very easy business plan.
At the time, Conny had an MCI JH528 with mix automation. I think he bought it in 1976, and at the time it was one of the best consoles available. But as the years went by, Conny wanted to expand his studio with more functions and channels. We had built a 16-channel sidecar extension for his MCI, but the automation was rather slow so he was looking for something else.
Conny was a very individual guy in his productions and equipment. He had looked around and couldn’t find exactly what he wanted, so the idea came up to build our own console. He had this clear concept of what we should do. He wanted 56 channels plus echo returns. He also wanted to be able to work on his own [without any help]. Even though he was a very tall guy, that meant we had to design the console with a very narrow bridge.
We had the circuitry available from all of our custom equipment, so we just had to choose which filter stages should be included. At the time, it was important that the console had very low self-noise. Conny also wanted it to have a versatile sound that was suitable for all sorts of music.
Conny liked to add special effects with outboard gear – usually very drastic outboard gear. He liked to have the main image pumping in a certain way. So, we left transformers out of the design. At the time, the circuitry was available to build inputs and outputs that behaved like transformers but were purely electronic.
When it was finished he had a compact, low-noise, very transparent-sounding desk with up-to-date mix automation.
Can you tell us a little bit about the custom mixing console you designed for Can Studio in the 1980s?
That was built soon after the first mixing console we made. It was a 24 bus in-line console with 32 channels and mix automation. It had a beautiful wooden surface with aluminum front panel and real wood veneer on top. It looked very nice.
The circuitry was rather simple, yet very effective. It was extremely low-noise and transparent-sounding thanks to the special layout for the internal audio ground rail. I learned that from an engineer who I had been close with. For many years, that desk was the real heart of the studio.
After Can Studio closed the whole place was turned into a museum. Up until last year, it still operated as a real studio. That console did its job for many, many years. Now we’re waiting to see what will happen to it in the future.
What inspired you to create your latest console, the AM1?
All my consoles are inspired by the users and customers. With Conny, he had very clear plans for what he wanted. With the AM1 it was Mark Ernestus in Berlin that was the determining factor for what was included. We met and talked until we couldn’t stop anymore and the idea of the AM1 was born.
His background is electronic music, while my background is the conventional recording studio. I started when I was young and he started later in life, so the AM1 is also a merge of what different generations want in a console.
Originally, Mark just wanted me to design a console for himself, but I wasn’t able to spend three years developing a console for one person, so he went out and found enough people who were willing to pre-order the console that I could start working.
Mark also designed front panel layout, the color scheme, writing, and positioning of elements. We both wanted AM1 to have a lot of functionality. It’s a very dense piece of equipment, but it looks very relaxed and the layout is very self-explanatory thanks to Mark.
For me, it was a great experience. We knew we wanted AM1 to be top quality, so we sat down and really evolved my circuitry and found the best up-to-date components available. It was clear that we weren’t doing a vintage design, we wanted a very modern console.
We also created the very special CV channel, which is a bridge between the mixing console and analog synthesizer world. That opens up a whole new chapter. It’s a great option for creative people. I’m very proud of this unit because it’s very unique in terms of design and circuitry.
Our aim was to be strictly analog without being vintage. It’s not strictly made for analog studios, but also studios that use workstations. Even a small 8 or 12-channel version makes perfect sense in this context. I always say it’s made for users who want the best of analog and digital side by side.
EQ1 is very universal. It’s not made for a specific use or specific material. It helps you emphasize what you want from the original signal without creating artifacts.
It consists of two completely different architectures. There are two mid-EQs on one side, with a high and low-EQ on the other side. The high and low-EQs are active filter designs, but very close to a passive filter. The mid-EQs have overlapping frequencies so you can use each band where you need it. They’re actually interchangeable. The high-mid can work in the high, and the high can work in the high-mid, so you can choose the character you want.
You can also use both the high-mid and high EQs in the same frequency band to build your own complex filters. The same goes for the low-mid and low filters. Each frequency band has a dedicated bypass switch, which helps to quickly hear what each band is doing to your sound.
Each pot also features a sensor that completely removes a frequency band from the signal path when the pot is centered at 0, which helps reduce noise and provide clean signal reproduction. EQ1 also features a true hardware bypass.
Each band features a switchable gain range from +/-15 dB to +/-5 dB for making fine adjustments. The dedicated low-cut filter features a very soft, musical slope. These features have made the EQ1 a common choice for single signals, mix inserts, and mastering studios.
I think about people who work mainly in the box but have a few pieces of high-quality outboard gear for special tasks. Instead of connecting a signal processor directly to their converters, these engineers might connect through the IM1. This opens a multitude of options, such as parallel processing, mid-side processing, and stereo-based FX. The IM1 also features a switchable impedance, which is important if you’re inserting vintage equipment.
We see the IM1 used in analog studios as well. Many engineers use it to expand the options of an insert. And of course, we sell it to mastering studios.
Tell us a little bit about a typical day at the office.
Well, there is no typical day. I could be involved with anything like development, production, component purchasing, or communication with customers. I want to know what sort of repairs are coming in and so on. I usually have a plan for the day but I don’t get to anything on the list until the afternoon. Most days I’m in late which is the best time to do development work.
How would you describe the company culture at Zähl?
We’re straight working people. We have to be focused on what we’re doing. If there are any faults in our work we pay a high price. It might sound serious but the atmosphere here is relaxed. I think one important reason is our way of approaching mistakes. Mistakes happen to everybody, so there’s no reason to blame people when they happen. Instead, we are rather eager to find our mistakes.
In this atmosphere, everybody contributes their knowledge and helps improve the product. And since we’re a small company, everybody can see how their work contributes to the end product.
Our turnover has increased, but not that much. We’re still a very small company with the same exact idea behind us. However, the environment has changed a lot. When I started, I drew my circuit diagrams and construction drawings by hand. I designed pieces of gear by hand. Measuring equipment back then was rather basic. We assembled each component in-house.
Nowadays, all plans are designed with the help of powerful software, and some of the electronic components are outsourced. In-house, we still assemble many components, install the cabling, and complete the final testing.
I believe this makes us much more effective and allows us to achieve higher quality products.
What’s coming up in the future for Zähl?
Since I just finished developing the CV channel, I’ll wait until April or so to decide what to work on next. We have multiple options; we could do another 500 series unit, another module for AM1, or another product that’s still confidential.
If you’re interested in learning more about Zähl or purchasing any of their gear, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.