Solid State Logic (SSL) forever changed the face of multitrack recording and mixing in 1977 when the then-tiny company from Oxfordshire, England debuted the world's first inline mixing console with computer automation. With its outstanding signal clarity and modern, punchy-sounding EQ, the SL4000 model set the standard in music-recording studios virtually overnight and, according to Billboard magazine, has been used on almost three quarters of all U.S. No. 1 singles ever since. Two unique features helped set it apart from past consoles: a complete dynamics section on every channel and a master-bus compressor in the console's center. Engineers and producers quickly latched onto those features for building punchier drums and more in-your-face vocals, guitars and basses.
Developed under license from SSL, the Waves SSL 4000 Collection includes the SSL E-Channel, the SSL G-Equalizer and the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor. With 4000-series hardware reference components directly from SSL, Waves engineers spent more than a year analyzing, modeling and measuring every behavior and distinctive sonic characteristic, including harmonic distortion and time constants in an effort to achieve exact emulation. According to Waves, in many cases the plug-ins produced an impressive -35dB of phase cancellation when put side by side with the SSL hardware. The numbers can often look great on paper; how it sounds is what's important.
Despite its mammoth proportions as an inline design, the classic SL4000 console is extremely easy to navigate and operate. Essentially, many of the same channel strips operate as live inputs and tape returns and can be freely grouped. Additionally, a center section contains the automation computer and master-bus compressor, which trailblazed functionality similar to what is used for mix sections of today's DAWs. Using the channel compressors, gates/expanders, filters and flexible routing paths to and from each module was akin to loading up and arranging DAW track inserts with your most indispensable plug-ins. The ability to patch into the SL4000's master-bus compressor and control its sidechain from an internal submix allowed sound engineers to discover unique, history-making applications of this console technology, which furthered the mystique around that punchy SSL sound.
For years, workstation users have sought this unusual flexibility and signature sound, but conventional dynamics and EQ plug-ins just didn't produce the unique SSL color. So, it's a logical step for Waves to have pared down the classic SSL-integrated workflow and famous master-bus compression into a plug-in collection that can work as flexibly as the original console, if not more so.
The plug-ins can be mono or stereo, making them suitable for processing mixdowns and stereo loops or slapping across stereo buses. Their true stereo operation keeps the channels separate, thusly consuming roughly twice the DSP (or CPU) resources.
If you're thinking of using the SSL 4000 Collection in a native format, you'll want to run it on nothing much leaner than a top-end Mac G4 (preferably a G5) or a Pentium 4 2GHz PC, so as to afford room for other plug-ins and processors once you've constructed a virtual SSL mixer. I tested the collection on a Mac dual-1.8GHz G5 with 2 GB of RAM running OS X 10.4.5, Pro Tools/DAE 6.9.3, Logic 7.1 (as an alternate host) and Pro Tools|HD 2 Accel hardware with a 192 I/O acting as the main monitoring and input signal interface. I downloaded the latest v.1.1 update of the collection and gave it a spin in TDM and RTAS native modes in Pro Tools and TDM and Audio Units modes in Logic Pro. The software requires an up-to-date operating system on the Mac and Windows XP SP 2 for PC.
For those who have not yet experienced it, a Waves product authorization is an arduous journey. Protected by the iLok system, you must already own a USB iLok key because online download purchases don't come with one, nor do the retail boxed versions. Next, rather than sending simple licenses (formerly known as assets) to your iLok.com account, Waves requires you to authorize your key through a series of challenges/responses on its Website through its own authorization installer application. The process is twisted and winding, far too complex to describe here. It involves more than 10 manually executed functions as described in a 17-step authorization guide found online (the instructions that came in the box are half-baked and misleading). Since you're authorizing a physical iLok device and not your hard drive, the benefit is that it's a one-time process, and it means that you can install the collection on as many computers as you want. You just have to take the iLok with you to the machine that you're using. All said and done, the installation went off without a hitch, although I did have to thoroughly study the directions more than once. Three short PDF manuals, one for each plug-in, come with the installation CD and are available on the Waves Website.
The SSL E-Channel emulates the entire E-series channel strip, which consists of a dynamics section, an expander/gate, a filter section and the famous SSL EQ. Though early SL4000 desks shipped with what became known as brown-knob EQ circuitry, the equalization section of the SSL E-Channel is based on the renowned Black Knob equalizer module (the 242 EQ) developed in 1983 with the help of legendary producer George Martin. Black EQ features a steeper highpass filter for tighter control of low frequencies and enhanced cut and boost ranges with a smoother EQ curve and flexible routing.
The equalizer is 4-band parametric. On the Low (LF) and High (HF) bands, you can choose from shelf (16.5 dB/octave boost or cut) or bell shape (18 dB/octave boost or cut with a fixed Q of 2.5). Their range is from 30 Hz to 400 Hz and from 1.5 kHz to 16 kHz, respectively. The Low-Mid (LMF) band ranges from 200 Hz to 2.5 kHz, with an adjustable Q of 0.1 to 3.5. Gain varies from ±15 dB when Q is set to 0.5 to ±18 dB when Q is set to 3. The High-Mid (HMF) ranges from 600 Hz to 7 kHz, with the same adjustable Q and similar gain range.
By default, the EQ sits after the channel-dynamics section and prior to the filter section, but it can be routed to the dynamics section's sidechain with a press of the DYN S-C button. There's also an EQ bypass button; clicking on it does not result in a flat signal; rather, it has a signal that mimics the flat response of the SSL channel-strip hardware. The lowpass (12 dB/octave) and highpass (18 dB/octave) filters are located at the top of the channel. Normally, these filters follow the same path as the EQ section. However, the Split button lets you position one or both of the filters before the dynamics processors, and Split plus DYN S-C can put the filters in a dynamics sidechain along with the EQ for simple de-essing and other frequency-controlled dynamics processing.
The dynamics section features a soft-knee compressor/limiter and an expander/gate modeled off the SSL LS611E. Like its hardware counterpart, it can go before or after the equalization section, and makeup gain is automatically applied to maintain steady output levels. The compressor's adjustable fast-attack switch lets you choose between the default auto-sensing function that responds to your source material's wavefront or a fixed 1ms attack time. The compressor's ratio/slope goes from 1 to infinity (limiter); threshold is variably adjustable from +10 dB to — 20 dB, and the release time is adjustable from 0.1 seconds to 4 seconds. The adjacent expander/gate section features a variable range from 0 to 40 dB, a variable threshold of — 30 dB to +10 dB, a release from 0.1 to 4 seconds and the same selectable fast-attack provisions as the compressor. A Gate button toggles from expander to gate. Although the same gain-change circuitry is used for the compressor/limiter and the expander/gate, two dedicated level indicators show activity on each one.
One of the best parts of the SSL E-Channel is that it delivers the characteristic sound of the original's Class A VCA chip. Cranking up the input trim knob (± 18 dB), located in the bottom master section of the plug-in, enables a kind of wonderful signal saturation missing from other channel-strip plug-ins on the market. A nearby phase reverse (Ø;) button inverts the input signal and, as with all of the plug-ins in the SSL 4000 Collection, the E-Channel features a special Analog on/off button that when engaged, it emulates the analog variance behavior as measured in the original hardware. Finally, a short-throw fader controls the output level of the channel strip as displayed in an 11-segment LED level meter. Total latency of the channel strip is one sample.
The user interface of the entire collection is aesthetically spot-on with the original hardware. Small differences do come from such newly added features as the Analog on/off button and, with respect to the SSL E-Channel in particular, the EQ and dynamics sections are side by side rather than inline to better conform to computer screens. Otherwise, the SSL 4000 Collection looks and feels just like the real deal and should please old-school mixers who were brought up on SSLs and newbies.
WHERE YOU AT, G?
When the E-series consoles were updated to the G-Series, so too were the EQ sections. The SSL G-Equalizer plug-in is modeled after the rack-mounted version of SSL's G 292 EQ, containing no integrated dynamics and only a highpass filter. This 4-band equalizer functions like the E-Series EQ, but it is capable of creating a much more extreme EQ than the E-Channel strip, thanks to wider Q settings and greater ±20dB maximum gain on the two mid bands. Because of that, G-EQs are known for being more aggressive and meaty in the mid — which is great for coloring electric guitars — and the plug-in really shines in that area. The engineers even managed to nail the automatic preboost dipping as you narrow the Q, followed by gain raises as you make the Q wider. This compensation is a distinctive sonic trademark of the G-series EQ.
A ÷3 button on the LMF allows you to divide the centered frequency by three, while a x3 button on the HMF does just the opposite. The HF and LF bands are shelving only (±18 dB), with no bell-curve option.
Veteran SSL users know that combining both EQs across the board (E-series Black EQ was offered as an option on G-series desks) provides a nice balance of high detail and character, so the DAW plug-in environment is ideal for this type of experimentation. I often called up both on a single channel and used some frequency bands from the E-Channel and others from the G-EQ; other times, I would use only the E-Channel's filters and dynamics, bypass its EQ section entirely and run that output through the G-EQ. Either way, it's a flexible scenario. However, I don't understand why a G-Channel wasn't included (or at least a G-EQ toggle option in the E-Channel) so that you'd have integrated dynamics with which to sidechain.
The G-Master Buss Compressor features the same interface as the legendary unit found in the 4000 and 9000J series, including a smooth and accurately implemented VU meter expressed in dBu, not dBfs. Again, the only addition is the Analog button, which sometimes feels like a placebo while other times considerably enhances the great sound of the modeled IC input and twin VCA gain-reduction amplifier design.
Controls include a continuously adjustable knee Threshold (±15 dB), Attack (six switchable rates: 0.1, 0.3, 1, 3, 10 and 30 ms), Release (0.1, 0.3, 0.6 and 1.2 seconds or automatic), Ratio (2:1, 4:1 and 10:1) and a continuously variable Make Up gain, ranging from — 5 dB to +15 dB. SSL's coveted Autofade feature is also included, with an adjustable fade in/out rate from 1 to 60 seconds.
Like the hardware version, the plug-in doesn't provide console saturation controls. Instead, hitting the right balance of parameter settings to get things sounding good and then adding a little extra juice to the makeup gain produces lovely saturation. Traditionally, the bus compressor was used across the master bus, but it's also ideal for taming piano dynamics or adding punch to drums and percussion in cases where the E-channel dynamics aren't aggressive enough. In fact, the G-Master Buss oozes character the more careless you get with it, to the point of becoming a fantastic sound-design and tone tool. The harder you push it, the thicker and rounder it sounds, unlike many other plug-ins that crap out and turn brittle when pushed. Used subtly, it truly glues groups or an entire track together and can make any mix sound huge.
FOR THE REST OF US
The difficulty in releasing plug-ins that aim to emulate classic gear is that it raises the bar higher for user expectations. The best emulators would give you 100-percent cloning. Waves SSL 4000 Collection comes awfully close to this perfection, but not quite.
The E-Channel compressor did not feel entirely like an SSL to me. It's certainly capable of putting a thwack in your kick and a snap in your snares, but on more complex material, such as piano and acoustic guitar, it seemed to lack fullness and the throbbing sound typical of SSL channel compressors. I tended to patch in the G-Master for those. The channel EQ is well-modeled and somewhat stronger in the mids than in the shelves. Adding extreme levels of EQs, the signal remains very musical and doesn't strain your ears. You can easily pull out those brilliant airy highs, powerful mids and colon-busting lows down around 30Hz that you feel more than you hear — something SSL desks are known for in hip-hop and techno circles. Though wonderfully aggressive with attitude aplenty, things never get muddy, and high-end sheen is never brittle or grainy sounding. In fact, the E- and G-Equalizer are the smoothest algorithms I've heard in any EQ plug-in. The sound of the SSL fast-attack gate has been perfectly modeled in the E-Channel; when you turn the gate up really high on a sustained sound, such as crash cymbal, you get that familiar zipper effect as the gate cuts in and out. The low-cut and high-cut filters are a little ringy but have nice character for sculpting beats or rounding off frequencies in a musically gentle manner.
Competition to this collection comes mainly from discrete plug-ins such as the URS S Series EQ and URS 1980 comp/limiter (modeled after the SL4000 EQ and bus compressor, respectively) and McDSP Channel G in SSL mode. In comparison, I much preferred the sound of the SSL 4000 Collection in all cases. It's more tonally neutral where the others seemed artificially exaggerated.
I was surprised to see that I could pull off only 18 stereo TDM instances of the E-Channel per Pro Tools Accel card at 24-bit/44.1kHz and only 12 RTAS instances before the CPU reached 95 percent. In mono, those numbers are approximately doubled. By comparison, I racked up 240 mono instances of URS S-Series per Accel card. Thankfully, I got nearly eight times the mileage with the G-Equalizer, so it appears that the dynamics section of E-Channel is a real processor hog.
Waves retail prices are notoriously high, so actual street prices are considerably lower. Regardless, the SSL 4000 Collection can dramatically improve your mixes with little effort or learning curve, and it can give you that big room sound that you've been craving while mixing on a computer. These plug-ins will be an integral part of every mix I do for the foreseeable future.
To hear audio demos of the SSL 4000 Collection's processing, go to
SSL 4000 COLLECTION > $2,000 TDM EDITION; $1,000 NATIVE EDITION
Pros: Outstanding sound quality. Very good emulation of the original hardware characteristics. Full of personality. TDM, RTAS, VST, Audio Units, Direct X and MAS supported.
Cons: Pricey. Authorization process a hassle. E-Channel is a processor hog.
Mac: G4/1.25 GHz; 512 MB RAM; OS 10.4.3 or later; CoreAudio-compatible or Digidesign TDM hardware; Pace iLok key.
PC: P4/1.7 GHz or AMD Athlon XP 1800; 512 MB RAM; Windows XP; ASIO-compatible or Digidesign TDM hardware; Pace iLok key.