Review: SSL UF8
This expandable 8-channel DAW controller promises smoother, quicker workflow.
It certainly doesn’t feel like yesterday, but I do recall reviewing the first ‘tactile control surface’ – the Mackie HUI – and being bedazzled by the concept and the engineering involved. The HUI was the first opportunity for ProTools users to gain actual hands-on control of their DAW’s software faders and knobs. The key attractions included touch-sensitive motorised 100mm faders, real knobs for adjusting pan and plugin settings, and enough flashing LEDs to put a frontyard Christmas lightshow to shame. It was a boon for mix automation, and at a time when audio production was wending its way from analogue consoles and outboard processing to ‘in-the-box’ workflows, HUI also offered a couple of mic preamp channels, monitoring and talkback signal paths, a transport control section and a good ol’ jog/shuttle wheel for editing.
The HUI didn’t enjoy as long a career as many imagined it should. Despite the incredible amenity, it was large and expensive, and married only with ProTools via a raft of MIDI sysex information dubbed Human User Interface protocol – hence ‘HUI’. But what HUI did achieve, was to set a standard for dozens of control surfaces to come. The new paradigm became: eight motorised touch-sensitive faders accompanied by a rotary controller (read: ‘knob’), and a display for each channel strip.
Mackie itself birthed multiple variations on the theme with the Logic Control, Mackie Control Universal, and the MCU Pro and ‘side-cars’ with additional banks of eight faders. Euphonix (now absorbed by Avid) touted the MC Control Artist Series, and one of my favourites – Tascam’s US2400 – an oddity in that it offered 25 faders, faded into the sunset as Tascam discontinued driver support. Of course, Digidesign melded the concept into the 002 and 003 interfaces, accompanied by the big guns: Digidesign’s Control 24 and C24.
For me, and I suspect for many, the major drawcard with a control surface is motorised faders – ‘flying faders’ in the old (Neve) money. Firstly, it’s liberating to ignore the mouse, evade some RSI, and take control over more than one fader at a time – simultaneously, should you like. Secondly, touch-sensitive flying faders make automation duties easier than custard and rhubarb.
Recently, joining the fray, is Solid State Logic’s answer to tactile DAW control, the UF8. SSL has a reputation for military-grade design and building, to which the UF8 holds true. The unit is built from steel throughout the rear housing with a 2.5mm aluminium fascia, then sternly black torx screws hold everything firmly together. It’s professional-grade stuff, built to take years of continuous poking and prodding. Unlike most of the control surfaces mentioned earlier there’s nothing plastic-fantastic about it at all.
The UF8 can sit flat on your workspace, or there’s some chunky aluminium legs included which can be attached in multiple positions to fine tune an angled sitting position, or there’s an optional rackmount kit. I do wonder if the UF8 would be upset being set into a recess for a cleaner more consolidated workstation aesthetic, as there’s holes throughout the rear and front vertical chassis sections – hopefully these aren’t for cooling (I can’t imagine these particular electronics requiring much heat dissipation).
Beneath, is a recessed ports section, housing connections for power, USB-C for the host computer, and a USB-A ‘thru’ port where you could plug an iLok or similar, or daisychain three further UF8s for a 32-fader surface. SSL provides two 6.5mm jacks for footswitches. By default these are set to play and record, but the interfacing software, SSL 360°, allows pretty much any parameter to be assigned.
NEED TO KNOW
Advanced DAW Controller
TOUR ‘ROUND 360°
Installation of the SSL 360° software is quick and painless, and the tutorials for interfacing with various DAWs, in both PDF and video formats, are comprehensive – a straightforward setup. Currently the UF8 is fluent with ProTools, Logic Pro X, Cubase, Nuendo, Ableton Live and Presonus Studio One. Other DAWs could feasibly be integrated as the UF8 uses Mackie Control and HUI MIDI formats. SSL assures further integration templates are in the works.
Uniquely, the SSL 360° application allows several control layout ‘Layers’. Three layers can be set to different DAW applications and you can quickly flip from one layout to the other at the touch of a button. Clever.
For a little SSL icing on the UF8 cake, the company includes two plugins from the SSL Native collection, namely: full licences of Vocalstrip 2 and Drumstrip plug-ins, SSL Native’s highly regarded vocal (it’s also great for speech/VO work) and percussion production tools. Giving you a range of professional quality processors suited to music, audio and post-production tasks
EARLY ADOPTER: ADRIAN HALL
UK-based mixer, Adrian Hall, is an early adopter of SSL’s UF8 advanced DAW controller, which he uses alongside the SSL UC1 and typically uses it for multiple banks of subgroups while mixing. “I have both the UC1 and the UF8 right in front of me, and I use the faders on the UF8 all the time. For me, it is really the build quality that makes the UF8 stand out,” he says. “On other controllers I’ve used, the faders are a bit grindy, they don’t pick up what you touch, or you have to give them a workout. The resolution of detail on the UF8 faders is incredible, even more subtle than I can hear. They really feel like those of an analogue console.”
LAYING IT OUT
First up, faders. Smooth and responsive to touch without any of that ‘zippered’ feeling experienced in cheaper fader surfaces. The 100mm travel is precise and gratifying. Each fader is complemented with Select, Cut (‘mute’), and Solo buttons.
To the right of the faders are ‘Selection Mode’ buttons that alter the Select button to record enable or to Zero each channel strip.
To the left is a dedicated ‘Flip’ button to throw the faders to panning duties.
Moving up each channel strip are rotary encoders which double as pushbuttons, defaulting to pan with the pushbutton action dedicated to returning pan to centre position – standard fare for any controller.
Above each is an impressively large LCD TFT display offering scads of information. This alters according to selected modes, of course, but includes panning position, track names, plugin parameters, send and bus selection and send levels. There’s even ladder-style level displays for VU levels from each track.
The topmost section of each display indicates what the above soft-keys operate: Send selection, plugin and instrument selection, solo, marker points etc. These soft-keys are also where transport controls are set, which I find a little short sighted as I’d have preferred to see dedicated transport buttons. Bear in mind, these soft-keys can be reprogrammed via the SSL 360° application to whichever DAW function you wish, and there’s a dedicated ‘360°’ button to the left of the UF8 that immediately calls up the app onscreen when pushed. A second prod minimises the app to the dock in MacOS, or the Task Bar in Windows 10. This programmability alone sets the UF8 uniquely apart from so many other control surfaces – rearrange the soft-keys to affect whatever you wish, including key-commands set for tasks within the DAW.
Some front panel buttons are dedicated, however, such as the lower left automation mode buttons: Read, Write, Trim, Latch, Touch, and an Off button. Bank switch buttons to the lower right are dedicated and are accompanied by a larger rotary encoder marked ‘Channel’. This will skip through channels individually rather than in banks of eight, yet has another useful property when hitting the nearby ‘Focus’ button. When ‘Focus’ is engaged, any variable parameter your mouse cursor is positioned above within your DAW can be adjusted using this encoder. Mixer settings, plugin parameters, whichever – it’s quite clever.
Below this are four navigation buttons for moving between tracks and/or regions/clips, with a centre button that when engaged alters the navigation buttons to control zoom. And here’s my only complaint with the UF8. Most folk use their mouse or trackball with their right hand, yet the ‘Channel/Focus’ encoder and navigation buttons are on the right. If you’re positioning your cursor over DAW parameters with your right hand and wishing to adjust those parameters with the UF8’s Focus encoder, you need to reach across the entire control surface to do it with your left hand, or constantly flit between mouse and Focus encoder with your right. It feels so unergonomic. I’d have preferred to see the Selection Mode buttons, Channel/Focus encoder and navigation buttons swapped from right to left with the Send/Plugin and Automation buttons repositioned on the right. Mouse in right hand; Focus Controller and navigation buttons on the left.
The UF8 is without doubt a top-shelf control surface, and you’d expect nothing less from SSL. The MIDI-over-USB functionality is quick and responsive, the faders are silky-smooth, fast and chatter-free, and integrates solidly with the DAWs I used it with, namely Logic Pro X and ProTools in both macOS and Windows 10. I’ve not come across a controller that allowed me to leave the mouse or trackball behind completely, but the UF8 comes closer than others. A masterstroke from SSL.