Living with a Ghost
Sometimes in life, fate determines your destiny, and through a series of happenstance I’ve become known as the “Ghost Master”, or perhaps “Ghost Guru” to some. Yes, it’s true that I worked for Soundcraft for a short time in the mid-nineties as a console technician. It was in fact, during that short time that the Ghost console was released, and no one was more excited than me to see the first shipment of consoles arrive from England. However, my days at Soundcraft were soon numbered due to a shuffling of the deck at JBL Professional, the parent corporation. Within a few short months, Soundcraft would be relocating to Nashville, and although I was offered a position there, I chose to stay in LA.
Fortunately, I had time to plot an exit strategy that led me to a position at Martinsound, but that’s a story for another day. What was significant, was that JBL had an employee benefit program that allowed us to purchase company products at their cost. To take advantage of this opportunity, I finagled a loan and ordered some AKG mics, a couple pieces of dbx outboard gear, and placed an order for what would become the very first Ghost to take delivery in North America. By the end of 1996 Pearly Gates Productions (aka Pearl Music) was open for business in Hollywood and booking sessions using the equipment purchased from JBL, while walking out the door for the last time.
Fast forward…2015. A lot happened in those 20 years. Ten of those years were spent working at Martinsound where I eventually became the lead builder of Neotek consoles. Again, a story for another day. 2015, at Pearl Music Studio, the Ghost is due for maintenance, and making its demands audible. As I dreaded the thought of opening up the console, I felt inspired to set up the Cannon DSLR camera my wife Bonita and I bought as a mutual Christmas present. I had never shot video on it before and was curious as to how well it would work.
As it turned out, this job would be more than routine maintenance. I decided to do a bunch of the cap and opamp upgrades that I had performed on so many other consoles around the LA area as an independent tech. It also included replacing all the stock Rean connectors with better quality Neutrik connectors. I even had a few new mod ideas I wanted to try.
Since this operation would involve completely tearing the console apart and removing all the boards, including the master section, I thought that having documented video might actually save my bacon when it came to putting things back together. So, I set the camera on the tripod and proceeded to dismantle the console, all the while talking my way through it as if the camera were another person in the room. I later shot a separate section on the bench.
After everything was finished, with the Ghost running smoothly, I decided to edit the video and share it with whoever else may find it of interest. At last count, the three Ghost videos (3rd made in 2020) have a total of over 45k views, and regularly average over 2k minutes of viewing time per month. By YouTube standards, those numbers may seem modest, but when you consider there were only about 10,000 Ghosts sold worldwide over a 20-year period, that’s a somewhat limited audience. It has certainly prompted many 100s of inquiries to the Ghost Master, or is it, Ghost Guru?
Servicing the Soundcraft Ghost part 1 (2015)
Servicing the Soundcraft Ghost part 2 (2015)
Servicing the Soundcraft Ghost 2.0 (2020)
A Ghost Story
One dark and stormy night, I was sitting alone in my studio pondering the existence of the universe, when suddenly, there came a strange sound from the speakers. First a buzz, followed by a crackle, and then more buzzing. Yes, I thought to myself, it’s time for the inevitable task of maintenance on the Soundcraft Ghost.
Purchased new in 1996, when I was working for Soundcraft as a technician in LA, it was the first Ghost from England to be delivered in the U.S. The many features, which included automated mutes, machine control, and 2 bands of fully parametric EQ on every channel were unheard of at this price point and made the console very popular for many years to come. However, in today’s studio environment, the large format analog console has fallen prey to downsizing in a digital world, that favors small compact controllers. To justify it’s substantial footprint, there really needs to be something special about an analog console in a modern studio.
As I mulled over this, I thought of the many custom consoles that I had built for Neotek, and other consoles that I had modified for clients over the years. Some of the mods involved adding new functionality, while other mods were concerned with lowering the noise and distortion. What if I was to take everything I’ve learned about analog consoles and apply it to my Ghost? This would be the Ghost with the most, and truly something special.
Clever Engineers, eh, er… marketing guys
Now having spent many years as a technician cussing and fussing over other folks short cuts to the sales floor, I swore that someday when I finally design and build products of my own, I will always be mindful of the poor lowly tech that has to make repairs. After all, it might be me.
So how Soundcraft was able to keep the cost of the Ghost in reach to so many was to build it with the same technique used to make all small inexpensive consoles. Even though the Ghost has individual circuit boards for each channel, they are all attached to one large panel that makes up the entire top surface of the console.
With standard “professional” consoles, each channel strip is a self-contained module with its own removable metal panel, making for easy service. However, to make even the most basic repair on the Ghost (see picture), requires part technician/part acrobat with a little structural engineering mixed in. Definitely not a task for the timid or faint hearted do-it-yourselfer.
The Ghost with the most
The Ghost with the most as it sits today, nestled among the old and the new at Pearl Music Studio in Hollywood, CA.
The Medieval Racking Technique
This was the old method of opening the Ghost to perform any type of service. Of course, after the Ghost 2.0 mod this is antient history.
One man's adventure is another man's nightmare
At one time the Ghost was used for mixing, but these days most things are done in the computer. However, there are still a fair number of people I know that routinely run 24, or more outputs from their DAWs into their console tape inputs, to impart the character of analog circuitry on the mix. Even with 32bit floating point summing or 64bit fixed, some “Golden Ear” types claim that analog is smoother, has noticeably more depth.
The Ghost has an A Mix Bus and a B Mix Bus. In typical inline fashion, the A Bus is used for tracking, being fed from the mic pres and balanced line inputs. The B Mix is fed from the balanced tape return inputs. Both the A and B Mix Buses have their own summing amps and outputs, but the B Mix can also be fed into the A Mix if you need 64 channels on mixdown.
I still used the A Bus for tracking live bands, making use of the parametric EQ and flexible signal routing, but never had much use for the B Mix. So my plan was to use the B Mix Bus exclusively to provide 32 channels of analog summing for the DAW. This would involve upgrading all of capacitors and opamps in the tape return signal path of every channel.
The TL072 opamps were mostly replaced with OPA2134, and the 5532 opamps were replaced with LM4562. For every opamp removed, a gold plated machined socket was soldered in place before installing the new opamp. All of the caps in the audio path were replaced with Nichicon Fine Gold series audio caps, with larger values being used in many locations that would benefit from an improvement in low frequency distortion.
All of the summing amps in the console, including A Bus, B Bus, and Groups 1 thru 8, received OPA1612 opamp upgrades. These are surface-mount chips that need to be mounted on apdapter PCBs in order to plug into DIP sockets.
For the B Mix Bus, I installed a version of my summing bus gain mod that is used on several client consoles. There is an added 3-position switch in the master section labled B Bus -6dB in the up position, and B Bus -12dB in the down position. The B Bus is at unity gain in the middle position. These gain reduction settings come in handy when summing lots of channels in an active mix and things start to overload. Instead of turning down every fader or output, you can simply flip the switch for another 6dB of headroon without breaking the flow.
A mod was done to the group faders making use of the never used L+R switches. I often found the group faders to be in the way when working, being right in the middle of the console. They normally need to be set at the zero line, so I created a mod that when the L+R buttons are engaged, the group faders are bypassed and the gain is set to unity. This allows the faders to be pulled down and out of the way.
Group Summing Amp
Notice the surface mount chip (OPA1612) on the 8-pin adapter card (IC-8). The wires are part of the Group Fader bypass mod. There are also a few visible bypassed caps that were deemed non-essential.
The backside of the Group switch PCB, where the fader bypass wires connect.
The backside of the Group main board. The same mod was required twice for each Group module, as each module contains 2 Group channels. Eight mods total for the four modules.
The added B Bus gain reduction switch.
Every capacitor was addressed, as was every opamp in the entire Master section.
Dude! Where's my Master section?
Relax... it's over here.
Input section mods
Notice the sockets added to the opamps and the oversized upgraded electrolytic caps.
Ins and Outs
All 180 TRS Rean jacks on the console were replaced with Neutrik connectors. The jacks can be problematic as they age, especially the insert normals. Notice the upgraded mic pre DC blocking caps, along with the upgraded phantom power filter cap.
The backside of the PCB contains WIMA caps bypassing the 100uF electrolytics mic pre caps, for minimizing high frequency distortion. The added resistor on the top-right is part of the balanced-impedance output mod. Cutting the trace from pin-2 to ground and replacing it with a 75 Ohm resistor.
Sexy Mic Pres
The mic pres were an important consideration, but since I have custom made outboard mic pres, it didn’t make sense to modify all 32 channels, so I just modified the first 12 channels which I normally use for tracking.
Part of the mic pre mod was done on the In/Out card (see picture above) and the rest consisting of cap and opamp upgrades was done on the input module. Several opamps were tested on the front end, including the OPA1612, and OPA275, but this circuit proved to be most stable and noise free with the trusty old OPA2134. Even then, the biasing network tied to the non-inverting inputs of the 2134 needed tweaking to find the sweet spot where everything was happy. The end result is some clean sounding mic pres that rival a lot of outboard units.
Other mods included replacing the hard-to-locate talkback switch with a nice bright LED. The LED is illuminated when an internally mounted relay, that replaced the old talkback switch, is activated by remote switches that plug into added jacks on the backside of the console. I made up some cool little hand-held switches with LEDs that illuminate when the talkback is activated. Studio guests love these.
Of course we also visited the power distribution, which included upgrading all electrolytic filter and decoupling caps in the console to 105°C industrial grade, as well as rebuilding the rack-mount 300W power supply. I also removed the insidious headphone jack from under the armrest. This might be considered a nice feature on a $300 mixer, but inserting a contact-breaking connector in the main monitor path is not a good idea when you’re going for professional quality.
I was also curious about how much noise (i.e. digital hash) was added to the noise floor by having the Ghost computer mounted right in the middle of the console, next to all the summing amps and where all the ribbon cables tie together. The only way to find out was to put a +5V power switch for the computer on the back of the console. Other than switching mute scenes, the computer really doesn’t do a lot these days. So I have the option to turn it off at any time. By the way, it is audible when the monitors are cranked and you turn the computer on and off.
Well, there are probably more things that were done that I forgot to mention, but I think you get the idea. It was a major project that kept me busy for a while. Would I recommend this to others? I don’t know. It would have been extremely expensive to pay someone else to do this. I lost track of the hours and parts count, but I’m sure I spent upward of a grand on caps, opamps and jacks and other parts. I do know one thing for sure, this is no ordinary Ghost.