The Mini is mini, measuring around 6.7" x 6.5" x 1.7", and sports an on-off switch, two 6-pin FireWire ports (one for pass-through), and jack for an included AC adapter in case of an underpowered FireWire port. It’s compatible with Mac PPC/Intel (OS X 10.4.4 or 10.4.8 or higher respectively), and Windows XP SP2; the plug-ins are AU/VST compatible, with a wrapper for RTAS. Setup is easy: Install software, hook up box, check website for updates, go. You can double the number of channels (32 mono/16 stereo) for $399 via an online upgrade.
The plug-ins dutifully appeared in Sonar 7, with mono/stereo versions of Channel Strip as well as timed demos of their optional X-Comp ($499), X-EQ ($599), Bus Compressor ($399), and Drumstrip ($399) plug-ins. Rather than cover the optional plugs, let’s look at the Channel Strip, which is based on the EQ and dynamics from the XL 9000 K channel strip. It includes high and low pass filters; four-band EQ with two parametric stages and high and low shelving EQ (both with “bell” resonance); compressor/limiter; expander; phase invert button; and input/output controls. EQ curves can emulate the G-series (bandwidth varies with gain) or E-series (constant bandwidth). You can switch dynamics pre- or post-EQ, and there’s sidechaining for dynamics and gating. All plug-in parameters are automatable.
When used on a stereo bus, I was immediately struck by the EQ’s ability to add upper mid and high-frequency emphasis without being screechy or brittle. The shelving “bell” function is superb for adding “air”: Dialing in 13.4kHz with about 3dB of gain gave a gorgeous presence. Although I was disappointed the low frequency parametric stage didn’t go below 200Hz (I often add a little peak in the kick drum range for dance mixes), the low shelf’s Bell function provides the same basic function.
The demo Bus Compressor did a better job of bus compression than the Channel Strip, but the strip excelled on individual instruments. For bass (synth or electric), selecting Peak detection over RMS and adding a generous amount of limiting gave a commanding, powerful quality. On drums, compression (using RMS detection, program dependent attack, and a very fast release) really tightened up the sound. With an electric piano sound that hogged too much bandwidth, a 4.6dB cut around 500Hz created more room, but retained the lows and highs admirably.
The Gate/Expander does what you’d expect, but there are some “effects” uses, like emphasizing bass attack. As to vocals, I preferred the E-series curve for EQ, and the compression sounded very natural. It’s surprising there are no presets provided, but SSL is working on presets that will be available for download.
FireWire outboard DSP competitors include TC PowerCore and Focusrite Liquid Mix. Liquid Mix gives more EQ/dynamics options for roughly the same price, and the PowerCore platform provides more variety (amp sim, synth, processors, etc.). However, “the SSL sound” is a big factor, and the Mini’s EQ and dynamics fit a very wide range of material—while providing a welcome alternative to whatever similar plug-ins come with your host. Interestingly, Duende Mini adds character without obscuring a sound’s essence; while highly effective, it can tread lightly if needed. And although eight stereo channels may be limiting, you can render tracks to audio files, thus freeing up DSP.
Bottom line: If you wish you had an SSL, the Mini’s price point goes a long way toward helping you realize that wish. This impressive, useful hardware/software combo can indeed add another—and highly coveted—flavor to your recordings.
PRODUCT TYPE: External DSP “hardware plug-in” connected via FireWire.
TARGET MARKET: Smaller studios who want the SSL sound (as well as liberate some CPU power from their host computer).
STRENGTHS: The Channel Strip is versatile, useful, and very SSL. Easy installation. Compact size. Sounds good with a wide variety of sound sources.
LIMITATIONS: Expansion options add up price-wise. Currently includes no presets.
LIST PRICE: $995