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Review: SSL Duende

SSL have finally done it. They’ve planted themselves fairly and squarely in the centre of the marketplace with a product that is sure to set tongues wagging.

By

8 April 2006

Duende. Huh? Until I’d taken delivery of SSL’s first DSP offering, I had no idea either. Apparently the concept of ‘duende’ (pronounced ‘do-en-day’), owes its etymology to the Spaniards, and symbolises the human force behind creativity, most especially the musical art form. With the word’s recent migration into the English vernacular, the New Oxford English Dictionary claims duende to be a ghost or an evil spirit while equally being inspiration, magic and ‘fire’. The Random House Dictionary translates the meaning to be a goblin, a demon and a spirit, or alternatively, the human attributes of charm and magnetism – charisma if you will. The Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, when delivering his ‘famous’ lecture: The Theory and Function of Duende, is quoted as saying: “Thus duende is a power and not a behaviour, it is a struggle and not a concept.” You’re no doubt getting the gist by now. Duende is the very essence of musical creativity and a darn good (or completely bizarre – Ed!) name for some SSL console-style processing that will integrate snugly with your DAW.

SSL FOR MORTALS

An external DSP-based processor initially seems a strange move for a company that traditionally specialises in large-format consoles. In fairness, SSL has gradually been addressing the needs of those of us who are less well heeled with the release of its AWS900 console (which is nonetheless still over six figures!) and to a greater extent its outboard offerings. But, even then, the XLogic range is still out of reach of most. Now we have Duende, which brings the SSL within hovering distance of us groundlings.

So what is Duende? Well, simply put, it’s a Firewire-based DSP system sporting channel strips and mix bus compression from SSL’s C-series digital consoles. The C-series is itself modelled upon SSL’s analogue designs, specifically the E- and G-series consoles, and who better to emulate SSL circuitry than the SSL technicians themselves… And it’s this legacy that brings about the guts of Duende; the same algorithms and technology that make the C-Series such a favourite of the broadcast and production industry.

The Duende unit is a single 19-inch rackmount device that hooks into your system via Firewire. There’s not a lot to say about the front panel other than it has a power switch and the words ‘Solid State Logic’ on the right-hand side. It’s a similar affair to TC Electronic’s PowerCore and Focusrite’s Liquid Mix – you simply connect the unit via a Firewire 400 cable, install the software and go for it. The unit will run from bus power or using the supplied wall-wart adapter. Two Firewire ports account for the only connectivity to the box, which leads me to believe you could gang these units up, but, as things stand, there’s no provision for daisy-chaining multiple Duendes. However, I’d be confident betting this will be possible with future software revisions. It’s also recommended that, if you are running a Firewire-based audio interface, you should employ a separate Firewire bus for the Duende unit – not just another Firewire port but a completely separate bus on a third-party PCIx/e card. Currently, support extends to OSX 10.4.4, with Windows drivers expected around early October this year. The software installs AU and VST versions of the plug-ins with ‘wrapper’ software to access the plugs as RTAS devices. According to SSL, this wrapper technology is courtesy of FXPansion’s VST > RTAS software but you’d never know it, as it’s integrated within the Duende installer.

32 CHANNELS ALL DAY EVERY DAY

So what will Duende do for you? How does 32 channels of SSL E or G series EQ combined with compression sound? Mighty attractive if you ask me. These are emulations of the channel designs used to mix just about every pop tune since the 4000 E-series was released in 1981. In terms of their usefulness, you can be as surgical or as gentle as you like with the EQ section – E-series for hacking into stuff, and G-series for gentle sound shaping. The two centre bands are fully parametric designs and overlap between 600Hz and 2kHz. The top and low-end controls can be configured as shelving EQ or bell curves. Separate low- and high-pass filters add further strings to your EQ bow. The filters can be placed before or after the main EQ section, or in the sidechain path of the dynamics section. A single button switches the EQ curves between E- and G-curve setups.

The dynamics section, which includes the gate and expander, is an extremely capable design. The compressor offers peak and average sensing – stick it on ‘peak’ to crush a signal into oblivion. Additional input and output level controls over the strip are included along with a polarity reversal button. Like the real deal, the signal path can be altered to place EQ pre or post compression, or place the EQ into the side-chain path of the plug-in. These are the features of the channel strip plug-in – in both mono and stereo incarnations: simple, honest-to-goodness SSL EQ and dynamics. You can instance up to 32 mono versions of the channel strip (at up to 96k) or 16 stereos. I have a minor quibble with the way the stereo plug-ins are instanced – each of the four DSP processors will power eight mono plug-ins. If you have, say, seven mono plug-ins running and instance an eighth stereo plug-in, that instance will slot into the next available DSP chip. That’s just how real DSP has to function.

MIX BUS COMPRESSOR

The second Duende plug-in is almost worth the price of admission alone – it’s the Mix Bus Compressor. The esteemed SSL stereo mix bus compressor has been strapped across the mix bus of countless recordings. People pay thousands to access the characteristics of this compressor – when you consider that just a few years back you’d have to buy an SSL G-Series console to get one, the Duende starts to look like a terrific option. Seriously, it’s known as the compressor that makes your recording ‘sound like a record’. Like the EQ, the Mix Bus Compressor can be instanced as a mono plug-in. Both plug-ins are operationally as close as possible to the real thing, in that there are no EQ displays or the ability to type in values. Adjustment is a matter of using one’s ears (although, settings are displayed above a knob when in use).

ROUND TRIP

As with all external DSP solutions you need to be mindful of the delays induced by the round trip out to the processors and back again. I happily used Duende in Logic Pro 7.2.2 and ProTools HD 7.0. ProTools HD reported the delay as 644 samples for the channel strip and 640 for the bus compressor. Logic handled both plugs with a constant delay of 2048 samples regardless of my I/O buffer settings.

WINNER?

As for the sound? Well, I didn’t have an SSL on hand to A/B the unit (like I did a couple of issues ago… dammit) but the Duende certainly had me more than fooled and I’d really like to own one. There’s enormous comfort and reassurance to be had knowing you have 32 SSL channels strips available to you at all times. Then SSL throws in the mix bus compressor to boot – a genuine bonus. The obvious alternative to Duende is Waves’ foray into SSL emulation – which does a very good job but there’s a few things to remember about the Waves product. Firstly, the Waves plug-ins are modelled on a 4000E-series circuit from 1983 and the dynamics section on Duende sounds more like a 9k Superanalogue design rather than the VCA circuit of the 4000. Secondly they’re native processing plug-ins, while Duende provides those 32 instances all day, every day. Also, the Waves package uses different instances for E- and G-series EQ – Duende offers both formats in the same plug-in. The final difference is more visceral – as good as the Waves emulations are, they aren’t made by SSL.

Incidentally, if like me, you can’t afford a Duende, head over to www.mixbuss.com where you’ll find Peter Gabriel (now one of SSL’s main shareholders) has put the samples online for his ’80s super-duper hit, Shock the Monkey. Remix the track to Mr Gabriel’s liking and you could win a Duende.

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