Let’s be honest: Who hasn’t wanted to own or work on a big SSL the size of a battleship at some point in their career? Sure there are acoustic issues having such a behemoth in the studio, and the in-the-box guys will tell you that plug-ins have replaced the need for hardware, but you’d be hard pressed to deny that SSL has defined the sound of modern pop, R&B, rap, and rock music. And there are two reasons most of the top mixing engineers are working on SSLs: the sound, and the flexibility. With compression, gates, and EQ on every channel, SSL has forced every other large format console manufacturer to rethink their own designs and allowed the mixing engineer unprecedented control and routing flexibility, as well as total recall.
SSL‘s newest console, the XL 9000 K series, boasts the new SuperAnalogue circuitry, which includes extended bandwidth, short signal paths, oxygen-free cabling, and a host of other technological advances that has many engineers singing the praises of sonic transparency. And the introduction of the XLogic series has put the SSL sound within reach of many more studio owners than the SSL console allowed. Besides which, the X-rack is a four-space modular rack that can host eight modules, much like a dbx 900 rack, or an API 500 series rack. Currently, SSL is shipping the dynamics module, the mic amp module, and the channel EQ module. I was sent a rack containing eight dynamics modules so my review focuses on that module and the host rack.
OK, the X-rack is surprisingly light, but sturdy. My trusty UPS delivery man dropped the box over the fence into my yard, about an eight foot drop, but the rack powered up and has worked fine since day one. Whew. The knobs look like the same knobs found on large SSL consoles, as do the buttons. The extra large power button is located on the front, and provides a nice blue light upon power up. The only other controls on the host rack are one selector knob for choosing memory locations and three small buttons for saving, copying, and setup functions — but more on that later.
The back of the rack contains XLR connectors for in, out, and key inputs; MIDI in and out for total recall dumps; and two RS422 connectors for the SSL AWS 900 attachment. Each dynamics module has controls for compression ratio, threshold, and release, as well as the fast attack button and key input. On the gate, there are controls for range, threshold, hold, release, expander button, fast attack, and link. I should also note that every knob is continuous, no detents. In addition, there are LEDs for the gate and compression levels.
The first thing I tried the X-rack on was vocal tracking. My wife has a very sweet voice — she sounds very young, and there’s just not a lot of aggression there. The SSL compressor changed all that. With just a few dB of compression, her vocal was super aggressive and very in-your-face, without sounding squashed. While setting up the sound, I was quickly reminded of my one SSL pet peeve since the J series console — lack of faceplate markings around the knobs. For instance, the compressor ratio knob has markings of 1 and infinity at each end of the knob’s throw. The threshold has markings for +10, 0, and –20, and the release has markings for 0.1 and 4. Of course we should all be using our ears when setting up compression and EQ, but it’s nice to have starting points.
Next up, drums and bass. For me, this is usually where the SSL shines. I’d hesitate to use more than a couple dB of compression while tracking with the SSL compressors, but for mixing I’m not afraid to really dig in. I was able to dial a pretty hard knock into an otherwise dull sounding kick drum without losing much low end. I’d love to tell you that I started at 4:1 or give you more detailed settings, but the lack of faceplate markings makes that difficult.
Nonetheless, the SSL compressor really turned this kick drum into something usable. Plus, I’ve always loved the SSL comp on snares. I generally crank the ratio all the way to the right, the infinity setting, with a fast to medium release depending on the material. I’ll then dial down the threshold until I hear what I want. The result is a super fat snare with tons of attack and sustain. Same results on the bass. I spanked it pretty hard, and the shape of the bass completely changed for the better: very aggressive mid-range, but I did have to dial a bit of the low-end back in on my Daking console. The drum room and overhead duties also shined with the X-Rack, turning an otherwise anemic recording into a very exciting, explosive sound. The fast attack button with a high ratio and slow release is the ultimate drum room mangler.
I’m not big on gating things, but I put the X-Rack gates through their paces and was generally pleased with the results. On the snare, I could dial out extra hi-hat hits and some kick drum bleed. The range is only –40dB; I wish it went to –80dB like the Drawmer DS-201. To me, the gates are very usable but mostly for light duties. With the limited range, you can still hear some bleed. Though this tends to sound more natural, you can’t get complete silence on, say, a live drum kit. I easily dialed down some weird resonance on tom tracks. Probably my favorite use of the SSL gates is on R&B programmed drums. Setting the range all the way to –40dB, and carefully setting the attack and release times really cleans up programmed drums plagued by hiss and ground issues.
If you do any work with bands and record labels, recalling mixes is a fact of life. I’ve got piles of paper with settings from mixes done years ago — just in case. The X-Rack could make things a lot easier with its ability to recall settings. Once you’re happy with your settings, just dial up an empty preset and hit the save button, then confirm by hitting the selector knob. Recalling the setup is just as easy. Dial up the preset you want and press the knob. Each channel that needs a change has a blinking “Sel” light. Matching settings is as simple as turning a knob until its corresponding LED goes out. The red LED means turn the knob left, green LED means turn the knob right. Buttons with their LEDs lit during the recall need to be pressed. It couldn’t be easier. All of my setups came back perfectly and I was able to recall the entire rack in just a couple minutes.
But do you need this?
I do. I recently went “old school” and bought a console with terrific EQ and routing possibilities, but no onboard dynamics. The X-rack fulfills my need for more compression and gates in a nice compact package. The total recall is an amazing bonus, but even without it, the X-Rack would be a great addition to any studio. The rack performed perfectly in both recording and mixing applications, providing the sound we’ve all heard on hit records. I’m excited to try the other modules as well. I didn’t get to try the AWS connection, so I’m still curious to check that out. If they can keep the prices down, I think SSL will have a hit with this one, and with its modular capabilities, people can buy individual modules when they can afford them.