Review: Softube Console 1 MkII

An innovative hybrid mixing system becomes much more affordable
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The Console 1 MK II controller gives you the equivalent of a hardware console’s channel strip.

The Console 1 MK II controller gives you the equivalent of a hardware console’s channel strip.

The original Console 1 was an ingenious blend of hardware and software. The hardware offered a series of knobs and switches that allowed you to control an emulation of an SSL channel strip on any DAW channel. It gave you the benefit of tactile, console-style functionality, without the audio ever leaving the computer.

Though well-received, the unit had a street price of $999 and was, therefore, out of reach for many users. At NAMM 2017, Softube introduced Console 1 MK II, which has the same functionality but with significant improvements, yet the cost has been halved to $499.

Softube, a Swedish-based company, moved the Console 1 manufacturing to China, which is how it managed to lower the price so much. As an individual reviewer, it’s impossible for me to definitively judge if the manufacturing change has affected quality, but after testing it over several months, I can report that the updated model worked flawlessly and seems solidly built.

CONCEPT ONE

The first thing to know about how Console 1 works is that it’s not really a console in the sense that no audio passes through it, analog or digital. It is simply a hardware controller for the Console 1 plug-in, which is an emulation of an SSL 4000 E channel strip.

If you wanted to, you could directly control the plug-in onscreen. But that would defeat the purpose. That said, you’re not tethered to the hardware. Because its software component is based around a plug-in, you can continue to work on a project started with Console 1 without the controller being present, which is handy if you sometimes work on a laptop away from your studio. The hardware connects to your computer with a USB cable.

You can insert the Console 1 plug-in on as many channels as you like inside your DAW. (It’s designed to be CPU efficient.) However, you generally don’t interact with the plug-in’s GUI. Instead, you open what is essentially a helper application called the On-Screen Display (see Figure 1). It’s a large window that has parameters corresponding to the hardware knobs on the controller. When you make changes, you see them update in real time in the On-Screen Display.

Fig. 1. Console 1 MK II’s On-Screen Display provides visual feedback on the various processors, and it can be reduced in size to a meter bridge.

Fig. 1. Console 1 MK II’s On-Screen Display provides visual feedback on the various processors, and it can be reduced in size to a meter bridge.

All three elements of Console 1 MK II—the hardware, the plug-in and the On-Screen Display—are arranged similarly, in five sections: Input, Shape (which, in the SSL 4000E emulation, features gating and transient shaping controls), Equalizer, Compressor and Output. An external sidechain is available for the Shape and Compressor modules, and you can switch the module order if you want.

The latter not only has an Output gain control but a Drive circuit for adding everything from a little grit to distortion. Softube also included Solo and Mute controls, which work on any tracks instantiated with the Console 1 plug-in.

GETTING AROUND

When you open the plug-in on a track, you’ll see the name of the track show up (in most DAWs) in the channel list at the bottom of the On-Screen Display. The Console 1 track numbers correspond to the track numbers in your DAW’s mixer. For instance, if you instantiate the plug-in on tracks 1 and 3, those tracks will also be on channels 1 and 3 on Console 1.

A series of 20 track-select buttons line the top row of the controller. Pressing the one that corresponds to the track number you want to adjust makes that channel active for both the controller and the On-Screen Display. If your session goes beyond 20 tracks, press the “Page +” button and the track-select buttons will then correspond to tracks 21 through 40, and so forth.

WAYS OF SEEING

The On-Screen Display is quite flexible and offers a number of viewing options. In its default state, it is large and stays as the top window on your computer screen. If you have a second screen, you could leave it up all the time, but most likely you’ll want it visible only when you need it.

Anticipating this issue, Softube gives you an option called Auto Mode, where the display immediately pops up when you touch any knob or button on the controller, and then disappears several seconds after you’ve finished your adjustment.

Pressing the Display button on the controller lets you toggle through several options for the On- Screen Display. These include the full window with and without the frequency analyzer in the Equalizer; a Knobs view that replicates on screen all the controller’s knobs; a large meter bridge and a small one that doesn’t cover much of your screen.

Like the original Console 1, the MK II version comes with the SSL 4000 E software. Softube sells several other channel strip emulations that you can purchase separately (prices range from $225 to $299) if you want additional processing options. You can also use any of Softube’s other plug-ins that you own in Console 1, and Softube has added two different types of Universal Audio UAD plugin support, which will be covered a little later in this review.

MODULAR VIEW

The SSL 4000E channel strip that comes with Console 1 is impressive in both implementation and sound quality. The Punch and Sustain controls in the Shape module give you the ability to alter transients. The four-band Equalizer, which has semiparametric low and high bands and two parametric midrange bands, is good for typical track equalization (although not as much for surgical adjustments). The Compressor sounds very smooth, and the Drive controls let you quickly add excellent-sounding and easily adjustable saturation.

With Pro Tools, the output Volume and Pan controls are a little awkward because those changes happen inside the Console 1 plug-in (you must have a stereo or mono-to-stereo instantiation if you want to use the pan controls), and so you don’t see the changes reflected in your DAW mixer (although you’ll hear them). I found it to be a bit disconcerting when I had panned a track left or right using Console 1, but my DAW mixer showed it panned up the middle. (With PreSonus Studio One, Cakewalk Sonar, Cockos Reaper, and Steinberg Cubase, DAW pan, volume, sends, and track selection can be controlled directly from Console 1.)

The hardware volume knob on the controller works fine, but I wish Softube had been able to make it a Fader, instead. I’m sure there were issues of space and cost, but having no volume fader for the channel does detract a bit from the console experience.

BYO UAD

In addition to halving of the price, the big news when Softube announced Console 1 MK II for the first time was that it supports selected UAD plugins. Since then, its UAD support has grown. In December of 2017, Softube announced a software update that included a new feature called Apollo Central, which allows owners of UAD Apollo interfaces to control many of the functions of Apollo’s Console software from Console 1.

Now, your Console 1’s UAD plug-in support is multifaceted. If you have UAD hardware on your system, you can open many of the UAD Gate, EQ and Compressors plug-ins. They open inside either the Shape (gate), Equalizer or Compressor sections, depending on their type. Therefore, the support is limited to UAD EQs, gates, and compressors. However, those make up a large part of UAD’s collection, so you potentially have a lot to choose from. I say “potentially” because you also need to own the plug-in (or be running it as a 14-day demo) to be able to use it inside Console 1.

The available parameters for whatever UAD plug-in you’ve opened show up as knobs in Console 1, assuming there aren’t more parameters than there are knobs and switches on the hardware. For instance, if you open the UAD Manley Massive Passive plug-in in Console 1, you get only some of the controls. You don’t get Q controls for the low and high bands, or the center section, nor the ability to have separate left and right settings on a stereo instance.

The Apollo Central features allows you to control many of the functions of UAD’s Console app, which handles tracking and monitoring tasks for Apollo interfaces, including crucial channel settings like Volume, Pan, Mute, Send, and Rec/Mon. Also, you can open any UAD plug-in you own in the Console app’s channel strips.

AS THE KNOB TURNS

The verdict on Console 1 Mk II is a hearty thumbs up. Softube managed the impressive feat of cutting the price in half while increasing functionality. The change in manufacturing venue was a nonissue on the review unit I had. The build quality was solid and everything functioned as advertised.

If you want to inject a hardware console workflow into your recording without giving up the conveniences of mixing in the box, Console 1 MK II is a powerful and affordable option.

STRENGTHS
Reduced price. Hardware controlled SSL channel strip emulation. SSL emulation sounds excellent. Well-implemented. Easy to use. Supports many UAD plug-ins. Apollo Central feature.

LIMITATIONS
No fader for channel volume. Pan and volume may differ from your DAW. Not all UAD plug-in parameters supported.

$499
Softube.com

Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multiinstrumentalist from the New York area. Check out his website at michaelwilliamlevine.com.