SSL XLOGIC E-SIGNATURE CHANNEL
So you want some of SSL’s famous sonic circuits in a single rack unit eh? Just sign here…
Text: Brad Watts
It’s hardly news that much of the world prefers Solid State Logic consoles for mixing records. That inimitable SSL crunch has provided the flavour for thousands of rock and pop records over the years. Unfortunately, such a console is hardly a modest outlay and is one that’s well out of reach for all but the most successful facilities. In order to gain access to such extravagant audio hardware, many folks nowadays opt for a pair of channels from a favoured console: a pair of Neve, API or similarly vintage channels, customised to function purely as a front end to a DAW – which is a far more economical way into the ‘sound’ of this gear than forking out for an entire console. Plus there’s the advantage of being able to mix and match preamps and channels to suit particular material. Sadly, an SSL channel strip isn’t the easiest of contraptions to modify in this way. The electronics are complex and the sheer size of a single SSL channel makes these kinds of retrofits an unsuitable alternative. It’s from this angle that SSL has decided to shoehorn some of their well trodden technology into smaller rackmount packages. The XLogic series of modules encompasses many of SSL’s technological highlights. Circuits such as the G-Series compression, E-, G- and K-Series EQs have all been funnelled into units far smaller than the monster consoles they originally inhabited.
On test here is the E-Signature Channel; a rebuild of SSL’s E-Series heritage. In 1979, SSL released the 4000E and within a few years most hit-creating studios had an SSL-equipped room. Think Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Police, INXS, Roxie Music, David Bowie, Madonna, Yes, and of course, Peter Gabriel. What set the SSL E-Series apart from the plethora of analogue consoles available at the time (apart from the actual sonic signature) was the ability to transfer session data between studios on floppy disk and their Total Recall automation system. At the heart of this recall system was the E-Series channel strip, complete with dedicated gate and dynamics processing alongside the four EQ bands.
Throughout the ’80s the E-Series consoles provided the mixing bed for countless hits, with much of the period’s pop sounds taking advantage of the comprehensive dynamics processing available. Indicative of the time also was the sound of the talkback or ‘listen mic’ compression – the compression circuit of which sounded jolly good on drums (and as was mentioned in AT last issue, has now been modelled as a plug-in). Initially the consoles were modified to use the talkback compression across channels but in later revisions the circuit was supplied as a standard feature. The concept gave rise to that good old ’80s gated drum sound; an effect that every multi-effect attempted to recreate by various means throughout the 1980s. The E-Signature unit includes this (in)famous ‘Listen’ compressor, with its single knob control for ‘less’ or ‘more’. It’s a brilliant little compressor with the ability to crush the absolute living daylights out of a signal. These days its probably a little more tasteful to use it for fattening up snares or room mics rather than putting it across the entire kit, but then again, who knows… that Phil Collins drum sound may resurface this century. Crazier things have happened in the topsy-turvy world of pop music.
So let’s take a tour around the new E-Channel starting with the input and mic preamp section. Two completely independent mic preamp are available: the first is your classic transformer design and uses the same Jensen transformer as the original, the second preamp choice switches in an electronically balanced design and utilises SSL’s variable harmonic drive circuitry. This emulates traditional vacuum tube designs and, with a single knob, adjusts the balance between second- and third-order harmonics. It’s not surprising to see this second emulation preamp, as the original E-Series preamps aren’t known for their tracking credentials. Instigating the emulation preamp circuit involves hitting the drive ‘on’ button and adjusting to taste. Personally I preferred the transformer preamp but that’s not to say the harmonic drive wouldn’t come into its own within context. Both preamps use the same gain, 22dB input pad, phase and 48V controls. The phantom power ramps up and down, avoiding any nasty pops and thumps. Both preamps provide 70dB of gain. A line level input exists as a TRS jack input and offers ±20dB of gain. This utilises its own electronically balanced circuit and gain control – a lot of options for a single preamp and consequently far more versatile than the original.
Next up there’s the single threshold control for the amentioned Listen compressor and a bypass switch. Following this section is the E-Channel’s compressor proper, with Release, Ratio and Threshold controls. The compressor usually operates in an ‘over-easy’ mode but this can be switched to a peak sensing or ‘hard-knee’ mode. Fast attack times can be instigated to 3ms for 20dB reduction as opposed to the usual 30ms. Release times may also be switched between linear and logarithmic envelopes. As with the original, the high- and low-pass filter section and the EQ can be assigned separately to the dynamics section for de-essing. A ‘key input’ button switches the dynamics sidechain to accept signal from the rear panel’s key input. In all, it’s quite a comprehensive compressor, capable of various styles of voicing. The following gate section comprises release, threshold and range controls. A fast attack button lowers the attack time to an incredible 100µs per 40dB. Engaging the ‘EXP’ button swaps the gate functionality for a 2:1 expander circuit. Both the compressor and gate sections provide a five-segment LED meter representing gain reduction.
Again, in common with the original, are the high- and low-pass filters. Turning the filter knobs completely counter-clockwise bypasses the filter with a LED illuminating as soon as the filter is turned clockwise. Both filters normally offer a 12dB/octave slope but the high-pass can be switched to 18dB/octave. An input button patches the filters immediately after the input section and before compression.
The actual equalisation section provides a couple of SSL EQ styles. The first is the original EQ supplied with standard E-series consoles and provides four bands, high and low shelving along with two parametric (LMF & HMF) mid band equalisers. The shelf filters can be switched to a bell response curve but normally operate as 6dB/octave shelf filters. The two mid-band parametrics normally operate as the standard E-Series EQ offering ±15dB gain. This design is commonly referred to as the ‘brown knob’ EQ. Pressing the ‘BLK’ button switches these two parametrics to ‘black knob’ EQ. This circuit was developed in conjunction with George Martin for an SSL console specifically for Air Studios of London circa 1983. This circuit provides ±18dB gain, a slightly different control law and, as mentioned, switches the high-pass filter to the 18dB/octave slope. This is the EQ mode used as an E-Series option on later SSL consoles such as the SL and XL9000 series. Each band also provides a ‘CT OUT’ option, allowing the circuit to behave more akin to older (pre SSL) parametric EQ designs.
As far as usability goes there’s not a lot you can’t do with these filters. From super surgical to simply adding a slight bump here and there, the E-Series EQ is frightfully powerful. You can carve large chunks out of a sound without the sound falling flat on its face or tweak the minutest detail of a sound. A quick play and you’re soon rediscovering what the top-notch mixers have known for years; this EQ works and sounds great. Want to turn that vocal into that silly telephone effect and still have it sound fantastic in a mix? This is all the EQ you need. The final stage of the E-Channel is simply output gain and metering with a seven-segment LED meter switchable between input and output monitoring.
Signal routing, like any SSL device, is comprehensive, with the filters, dynamics section and equalisation able to be placed in any conceivable order. A further six variations of patching is possible within the sidechain processing order. Like the consoles, anything is possible. Out the back of the unit you’ll find standard XLR I/O, XLR key input and line input jack. A further jack connection provides a link function for linking the compression circuits between two units. In keeping with modern requirements an optional digital output card is also available and provides output at sample rates up to 192k.
In real terms there’s little one can fault with the E-Signature Channel. For anyone wanting this particular professional touch there’s little to compete with the trademark SSL sound and workmanlike approach to operation and functionality. My only disappointment is the incredible price. At $6350 (and that’s without the digital output card installed) I can’t see too many E-Channels walking off the showroom floor. In all honesty, I’d have expected almost two units for that price. Over twelve thousand dollars for two SSL channels? I’ll be scouring the second hand market for some SSL EQ before I’d be buying into the E-Signature, as much as I’d love to own them. For those with the funds to throw around you can hardly find a more useful and professional channel strip.