Review: SSL SiX Desktop Mixer
SSL’s SiX offers two input channel strips with mic preamps, EQ and compression, along with two stereo line input channels, mix bus compression based on their legendary G series technology, comprehensive monitoring controls, up to 12 channels of summing/mixing, and more.
For most professional engineers the name ‘SSL’ (Solid State Logic) conjures up a heady blend of sonic excellence and commercial success, based on their legendary large-format consoles. The SSL sound was, and to a large degree still is, the sound of big-time hit records across the world. If you’re listening to current commercial Hip Hop, RnB, Rap or Pop, there’s a good chance you’re listening to the sound of an SSL console.
With manufacturing based in sunny Oxfordshire, England, the price of entry was never cheap, but over the years the company has done its best to cater for well-heeled owner/operators with the streamlined yet powerful Matrix line. For the budget-conscious, the X-Desk and Sigma models offered stripped back feature sets with high-calibre back-end summing. With the rise and rise of the DAW-based home studio and the drop in recording budgets across the industry, SSL have responded by establishing a second manufacturing base in China, allowing them to bring a new suite of budget-conscious designs to market. The SSL SiX ‘mini-mixer’ (I have to call it that because it’s too petite to refer to even as a ‘mixer’) is an interesting offering that has been brought to market below the magical US$2000 mark, and aims to give the masses a taste of big-time SSL magic.
POCKET ROCKET SOCKETS
First impressions are always telling, and I found myself immediately warming to the SiX despite its diminutive size and Sunday pub aesthetics. For starters, it fitted perfectly on the flat space in front of the patchbay of my somewhat larger console. A bit of knob twiddling, fader throwing and button pushing quickly confirmed a nice build quality with all controls feeling solid under the fingers and the full 100mm throw on the faders being a reassuringly ‘pro’ feature. Small pots for EQ, panning and input gain make accurate recalls problematic, but otherwise there was little to complain about with the general layout. The six main input channels (two mono, two stereo) all have informative LED metering, and small LED meters help gauge the operation of the compressors on the input channels and on the master bus. Larger square buttons take care of channel mutes, master dim and cut, while in the EQ and master sections the smaller buttons are pretty tightly packed. A quick scan around the board reveals some pleasant surprises such as PFL buttons on the main channels, an Alt monitoring chain, and a secondary ‘B’ bus with independent volume control. The more you look the more you find, and these are pro-level features you wouldn’t expect to see on something this size. The master section is surprisingly rich in resources and, amongst other things, is an extremely capable monitor controller and signal routing system.
At just under 27cm wide and 30cm deep, and weighing in at a hefty 3.5kg, the SiX is a petite but solid unit with a lot going on in a small space – although it’s easy to ‘read’ after working with it for a little while. The dark grey colour and wedge shape certainly won’t give owners or clients that ‘big studio’ feeling, but it’s a tidy and sensible form factor for the applications it’s set up to do.
The SiX’s THD and signal-to-noise specs put it in the upper echelons of audio performance. Although people may have varied opinions about an SSL made in China, my general impression is of a well-built unit that’s ready to go to work anywhere, anytime.
The row of I/O across the top of the board necessitates visible vertical cabling but also helps identify basic I/O and preamp status. It includes XLR mic and line/Hi-Z inputs for the two mono SuperAnalogue channels, each endowed with separate switches for mic/line input, phantom power and high pass filters. There are two pairs of balanced TRS inputs for the stereo channels, another two pairs for external inputs, a headphone output and a power indicator LED. An extra XLR input for a talkback mic (not included) with switchable phantom power, its own gain control and a minimalist ‘on/off’ style Listen Mic Compressor (LMC) rounds out this easily accessible panel.
On the recessed back panel there’s a small power switch and a five-pin power socket from where the supplied (but awkwardly short) power cable connects to an external plastic PSU with an IEC socket at the other end. This cost-cutting appendage aside, the rear panel also offers generous I/O options including TRS pairs for the two stereo foldback cue outputs, the main and alternative monitor outputs, and the Bus B output. The main mix bus outputs are on a pair of balanced XLRs.
Two DB25 sockets take care of insert points for channels and the main mix, with the main mix bus output and monitor output duplicated here. This further flurry of I/O really ups the flexibility of the SiX and, together with the well-endowed master section, means it is quite capable of being your studio hub – taking care of reasonably complex headphone set-ups, multiple monitors and input sources.
Thoughtful features like independent talkback buttons for the two foldback channels, a dim switch with its own level pot, and insert points for the mono channels and main mix bus really extend the range and flexibility of the SiX. The inserts invite outboard analogue processors into the mix chain and draw the SiX deeper into the conversation when it comes to summing solutions – although I immediately wished for inserts on the stereo channels to open up the possibilities even more. The absence of a mini-jack input, the cheap PSU and the poor accessibility of the power switch are my only minor gripes in what is an otherwise impressively compact and feature-laden unit.
NEED TO KNOW
So what is this ‘SSL magic’ we speak of? Is it the sound of the channel EQ with its powerful tone-sculpting capabilities and pleasing top-end fizz? Could it be the wallop of the famed mix bus compressor? Perhaps it’s the channel dynamics, or the happy accident that the talk-back compressor begs to have drums smashed through it? Maybe it’s the musicality and high headroom of the mix bus itself? I suspect these are all questions that the boffins at SSL asked themselves repeatedly when designing the SiX. Going by its layout and feature-set, it seems they’ve decided that the ‘SSL magic’ is, in fact, all of the above. By means of some clever abbreviations to their classic designs, and a good deal of research and development, the SiX offers an unusually rich feature-set for something that looks alarmingly like the mini-mixer your local covers duo sets up at the pub on Sundays.
As I pulled the SiX out of its nifty 21st Century style packaging I found myself wondering what corners had been cut in the process of delivering all these features at this price point, and whether the SiX could perform well enough to be taken seriously as a genuine mini-heir to the SSL throne.
FROM LITTLE THINGS…
Once I’d got my head around the SiX’s capabilities my first proper use was in its mixing/summing mode, where I ran a six-channel split from my DAW into the primary inputs. It’s worth noting that by routing the external inputs and Alt inputs to the main mix bus a total of 12 channels can be summed at mix down, although for the purposes of my test I kept things pretty simple. Establishing a basic balance between my splits (drums and bass in one stereo input, keys and guitars in the other, and vocals split between the two mono channels) I had a chance to listen to the unit’s mix bus and was greeted by a clean and wide open soundstage with plenty of headroom.
Next I set about exploring the EQ and dynamics processors onboard. Just to be clear here, the SiX’s EQs and compressors are not fully featured iterations of SSL’s classic large format designs. The EQs on the SiX’s two mono input channels are stripped back high- and low-band affairs, inspired by the classic E-series designs but way less comprehensive. The focus here has clearly been to get the most bang-for-buck out of the smallest footprint, so the only rotary pots on the EQs are for applying up to +/-15dB of gain adjustment at set frequencies. Cleverly though, SSL have added switchable shelf and bell contours with different frequency centres (60Hz and 3.5kHz in shelving mode, 200Hz and 5kHz in bell mode) meaning you actually have two bass and two treble frequency options.
The channel compressors use an even more minimalist approach with signal-dependent attack and release parameters, auto make-up gain, and a single threshold control that works at a gentle 2:1 ratio. While this new design leans heavily on the SSL compressor designs of yore, here all finer dynamics choices have been taken out of the operators hands. I’m not one to turn up my nose at any SSL processor, however minimal it may be, so I got stuck into playing with my simple mix and found a good deal to like in the SiX’s presentation of the sounds. Clean high-headroom soundstage? Tick! Tasty high and low frequency boosts from the EQs? Tick! Smooth gain control from the compressors? Tick! Classic big-console SSL sound? Well, towards that goal I found myself reaching for the mix bus compressor.
Here I was greeted by another ‘inspired by’ design with basic threshold and make-up gain controls. I was a little disappointed to find that the ratio was set to 4:1 (my SSL comp go-to is 3:1) and of course there’s no attack and release characteristics to tune to the source. Having said that, the compressor (based on the famous G-series design) imparts a sweet and musical character to sources when used carefully. As per SSL’s usual modus operandi, the compressors can be heard going to work quite noticeably even when the gain reduction meters are barely ticking over. The SSL compressor I often have strapped across my mix bus can be metering around two to three dB of gain reduction when, to my ears, it’s doing an awful lot more than that; the SiX’s compressors certainly follow that blueprint. The trick here is to use your ears rather than being guided by the meters, and make sure the compression is adding musicality to your mix rather than squishing the life out if it. A 3:1 ratio would perhaps have given a slightly greater working range and flexibility but, as always, it’s a case-by-case situation and, of course, one person’s ‘too much’ is another person’s ‘not enough’!
After tweaking away for a while and swapping channels to try out drums and other sounds through the channel EQs and comps, I came out with a range of really pleasing mini-mixes and felt like the SiX had added quite a lot to the sounds. The EQs added nice clarity and sheen to vocals and drums, while the compressors offered muscularity and weight to bass and kick drum sounds. While the gains in quality were not night-and-day, there was definitely an added musicality to the results and there’s no doubting the quality of the mix bus itself. When using the SiX transparently I was able to pull up a clean and dynamic mix that sounded more glued together and ‘expensive’ than my equivalent in-the-box mix. When working the compressors and EQs harder I could hear the pleasing harmonic enhancement in the top-end that is an integral part of the ‘SSL sound’ and, while I struggled at times to dial in the trademark bus compressor’s thick wallop without unwanted artefacts, there was still a nice degree of ‘glue’ and general mojo going on.
It is unrealistic to expect a small cut-down mixer like this to rival its large format brethren that have no-compromise designs and features up the wazoo, but to my ears the SiX delivers enough sonic quality to make the price of entry seem very reasonable. While the SiX may look a bit toy-like, its performance suggests otherwise.
The EQs added nice clarity and sheen to vocals and drums, while the compressors offered muscularity and weight to bass and kick drum sounds.
My next test for the SiX was a workout as a tracking tool. I recorded an entire piece of music using just the SiX’s preamps and DIs to see what kind of sonics I could pull from it and how multiple tracks sounded when stacked together (always a good test of a preamp’s character). While the purest signal path is obtained by taking the output of the channel insert send with no processing engaged, I also used the channel’s EQs and compressors on the way through to see how they performed in a variety of real-world roles.
First up was a strummed acoustic guitar miked with an SM57 and given just a tiny tickle of top-end shelf boost and channel compression. Next came finger-picked secondary guitar parts where I switched to the bell shape for a slight treble boost and added some bell curve low-end to catch the low melody parts. These guitars all sat together nicely and had a sweet immediacy to them. The guitars sounded real with just the hint of sonic enhancement I was aiming for. The modest tickle of compression really helped smooth the dynamics of the tracks out without being particularly noticeable, and the EQs let the high strings ring out without any harshness up top.
Next up was a minimalist two mic drum set-up with a Neumann U87 in a front/overhead position and an AKG 451 pencil condenser to the side of the snare facing across the rest of the kit. Here I experimented with mic positions and channel EQs, and after a while I got the mix bus compressor involved as well to try and achieve a vibey and fairly compressed drum effect. Eventually I got the sound I was looking for with the U87 sitting far enough out front of the kit that it caught the kick drum as well as cymbals and toms. The 451 caught the snare and hats and the overall effect was quite exciting in a sixties kind of way. The mix bus compressor definitely does wonderful things to kick drums and other percussive elements, and, depending on how you work it and the EQs, there’s a whole range of effects available from subtle to totally blown out. The lack of attack and release controls means that if you hit the compressor hard the dynamic control can feel out of whack with the timing of the source, but in smaller doses the effect is nice, and when you get it right the SSL musicality is on full display.
Of course at some point I had to give the talkback mic a shellacking via the Listen Mic Compressor on drums (à la many a classic ‘80s track) and I tried dynamic and condenser mics in this role with bombastic results. It’s a very energetic sound and the lack of tweakability means its either going to be pretty great or pretty wrong. There’s plenty of fun to be had with this tool if you like it crunchy and larger than life. An investment in a gooseneck mic adaptor might be a good idea if you want to use the talkback mic input for actually talking.
Moving on to bass, I went straight into the DI input and found the sweet spot with the channel compression and a little top end boost for greater clarity. This was a real no-brainer application for the SiX, and the bass sat in the track very nicely indeed.
Sitting back and listening to all these elements together a few days later, I felt the results were satisfyingly musical. SSL’s preamps rarely get a mention when engineers start name-checking gear, but I’ve always found them to be super musical, balanced and coherent; the SiX’s preamps are no exception. The top-end EQ boosts gave the track a forward tone that was nonetheless very sweet up top and had that bit of harmonic fizz I’d been aiming for. The midrange was rock-solid and well-balanced, while the bottom end packed a satisfying punch. With no additional EQ, compression or shenanigans in the mix, the track actually felt quite polished and had an ‘almost-mixed’ feeling that surprised me. This result confirmed that with a bit of familiarity the SiX would certainly be capable of pumping out high quality recordings, making it a great addition to any existing DAW system. Despite the limitations of two preamps and the cut-down processing features, there’s an undeniable sprinkling of SSL fairy dust under the hood. The SiX opens up some tasty sonic terrain to explore.
LESS IS MORE
Working with the SiX is a bit of a mixed blessing (excuse the pun). On the one hand what’s here is extremely useable and delivers quality results, on the other hand it’s very hard not to find yourself wanting more. My letter to the SSL design team would go something like this: ‘Dear Boffins, can I please have just a few more controls on the mix bus compressor, another couple of preamps, maybe some midrange EQ, a couple more stereo channels (and while you’re at it add some EQ there too), and something to tweak on the channel compressors?’ I remember thinking very similar things when reviewing API’s The Box, which was a 16-channel desk with four preamps, and this perhaps exemplifies the fact that no matter what we have under our fingers, we always want more.
A better question to ask then is what kind of audio tasks is the SiX best suited to? The streamlined design immediately calls to mind smaller spaces such as compact studio writing rooms or small broadcast set-ups. In these scenarios the comprehensive I/O and pro-level master section with its configurable routing systems means the SiX can patch into larger systems or be an all-in-one solution. In a home recording situation where space and/or budget is tight, and for voice-over and podcasting work, the SiX would also shine as a dual purpose tracking and stem mixing solution that wouldn’t sacrifice sonic quality despite its small footprint.
In a slightly larger studio environment where there are more outboard processing choices but no dedicated console, the SiX presents an intriguing halfway house where its simple stem processing and mixing system compliments its abilities as a versatile studio hub and high quality monitor controller. In a live rig the SiX again ticks a lot of boxes in terms of portability, I/O and quality of signal path. The SiX could also find a home in churches, schools and other educational facilities where a compact but high-quality all-in-one audio solution is required.
Apart from the minor gripes mentioned earlier, it’s very hard to find fault with SSL’s SiX. As the saying goes, ‘you get what you pay for’, and in this case you’re getting quality and impressively extensive capabilities for a relatively small outlay. When you consider that a high-spec monitor controller alone costs somewhere north of $600, and then you add two great preamps, some simple but tasty EQ and dynamics, up to 12 channels of summing/mixing, a pro-level master section, the party trick that is the talkback mic compressor, and then put the SSL name on it, the SiX starts looking like a very attractive package. My only note of caution is that some owners might find they outgrow the channel count and form factor after a while. Consider your needs and the kind of work flow you want to move forward with. If you buy into SSL’s mini-offering the best thing to do is embrace its design philosophy and keep things simple. Fast workflow and high-quality results in a small package are what the SiX is built to deliver; if that sounds like your bag, SSL’s pint-sized new offering may well be a perfect fit.