WAVES SSL 4000 COLLECTION
The ground swell of interest in SSL plug-in emulations is growing fast, and the 4000 Collection is proving to be one of the biggest waves in the set.
Text: Andy Stewart
One thing SSL consoles have never been short of over the years is comprehensive individual channel EQ and dynamics. Come to think of it, SSLs have never been short of anything much. And while they may not offer every sonic flavour known to man (and what board in history ever has?), the ‘sound’ of a large-format SSL console is unmistakeable, and ubiquitous. SSLs are generally fantastic to work on, have functionality up the wazoo and are undeniably one of the kings of the analogue domain. Of course, anyone concerned with the production of quality audio recordings knows this, but unfortunately, only a very small percentage of us ever learn it from first-hand experience – even though we’d all like to.
Assuming then you don’t have a dedicated control room, a large crane, several hundred thousand dollars (give or take half a mil’) and your own service department, with which to invest in an old (or new) SSL console – or alternatively, a hefty recording budget to hire a studio that does – you might be considering (along with the rest of the plug-in fraternity) some of the new-generation ‘SSL channels’ hitting the market. These plug-ins are vastly cheaper, lighter and easier to look after than the real deal, and they don’t shoot your quarterly power bill into the four-figure stratosphere either! (If you’ve ever been one to stare at a meter box and see the disk with the little black mark on it spinning round and round, check it out the next time you’re in a building housing an SSL console; it’s a blur!)
THE SSL ‘SOUND’
An SSL console can be brutal, radical, super sweet or crunchy, depending on your intentions, and, by and large, an E-, G-, J- (I’ve never used a J) or K-series console can take your sounds wherever they need to go with little fuss. They’re in some ways like an F111 aircraft: savage, awe inspiring, complex and deadly in the wrong hands. The question is, can the same be said of the new Waves SSL 4000 plug-ins that aspire to break this same sound barrier?
Well, right off the bat, anyone who hasn’t heard the new Waves native SSL 4000 Collection will be asking this same question (as I did): ‘Do these plug-ins sound anything like a real SSL circuit or do they just have a pretty SSL interface?’ Certainly from a sonic (and aesthetic) point of view, the new Waves SSL plug-ins sound pretty remarkable to my ears. I’ve mixed quite a few albums on various SSLs over the years (and I owned one for a while there too) and I’d have to say that when I first encountered the Waves SSL E-Channel strip I was quite taken aback. The EQ’s tone, look and functionality were all instantly recognisable, and unlike so many plug-ins I’ve used, I was immediately at home with the interface. I was especially impressed when I switched in the compressor and expander/gate to discover a whole world of plug-in ‘attitude’ that’s so often lacking in the digital domain – my eyes widened as I tweaked a pair of drum room mics, transforming the slightly timid drumming on offer into a battering ram. The fast attack switch (1ms) on the compressor (one of my favourite switches on an SSL console), in particular, does a great job of emulating that bombastic SSL sound, which crushes the life out of any transients that dare to pass through. This switch is, in many ways, indicative of genuine SSL equipment; engaging it transforms the behaviour of the compressor from chalk into cheese, or perhaps more accurately, passivity into aggression. It’s a little switch with a big attitude.
The compressor itself is otherwise soft-kneed, which, by default, automatically adjusts itself in response to your source material. And like the original, it can be placed before or after the equaliser section. What’s also cool about this compressor (and one of the many smart aspects of an SSL console) is that makeup gain is applied automatically to maintain a steady output level, so messing with the compression settings doesn’t send your fader levels up the garden path – beautiful. These automatic features are why an SSL compressor has so few knobs.
The expander and gate (located immediately below the compressor on the plug-in window) are very controllable too – not twitchy or clicky by any means either. Both do a fantastic job of isolating front-end mics from their ambient surroundings; the expander in particular is brilliant at smoothly and seamlessly ‘drying out’ a ringy room mic or shutting off the spill around a close mic (and it’s especially handy if heavy use of channel compression has lifted up the background ambience). In fact, this was just about my favourite aspect of the channel strip. It should also be noted here that the dynamics section of the plug-in defaults to pre-EQ, and engaging the ‘CH OUT’ switch moves the dynamics directly to the output, making it post-EQ (I’ve noticed recently that many users I know have a tendency to assume that the EQ comes first in the ‘signal flow’ because it’s on the left, but this is not the case [see the Signal Flow box item for details].
The E-Channel EQ – which is a four-band parametric with variable ‘Q’ on both mid bands and 18dB/octave high- and low-pass filters – is also very powerful. Again, the emulation sounds very reminiscent of the real McCoy and is more than capable of manicuring or savaging your incoming tone, depending on your needs. The overlapping frequencies (LF: 30Hz – 450Hz; LM: 200Hz – 2.5kHz; HM: 600Hz – 7kHz; HF: 1.5kHz – 15kHz) work well together and provide a great deal of control. As is the case with a real E-Series console, the midrange is the focus of proceedings, although a little tends to go a long way, so be warned! Being quite a fan of filters, I’ve already found myself using the E-Channel plug-in regularly just for its high- and-low pass filters; great for all kinds of tonal manipulation and often the most overlooked aspect of any comprehensive channel EQ. There’s also a ‘split’ function that enables the filters to be placed directly before the dynamics processors in the chain. The four-band parametric section can also be fed into the dynamics sidechain for things like de-essing duties: to clarify this by way of an example, prior to engaging the ‘DYN-SC’ switch, simply rip out the bottom end with the LF shelf (or a high-pass filter), boost 5 – 8kHz until the sibilant frequencies are horrendously exaggerated, then simply engage the sidechain switch. The horrific EQ you’ve created will now no longer be audible at the output, but will instead be dedicated to tripping the compressor whenever the singer enunciates an ‘S’.
Other handy features on the ‘E’ strip include input and output faders (the former a rotary pot, the latter a long-throw fader), metering of either input or output as well as numerical representation of peak level and fader position (which is handy at times). There’s also a polarity (phase) inverter and an ‘Analog’ switch that apparently boosts the harmonic distortion content, but which I’m yet to really hear do anything much at all – I suppose if I was forced to comment then I’d say that it colours the midrange slightly, but I’d hate to be blind-tested over it.
The G-Series EQ differs from the E-Channel strip in that it obviously only emulates the EQ stage of a G-Series console (the SSL EQ292 to be precise). Personally I thought it was a little odd that Waves didn’t create a full G-Series channel strip plug-in, but there you go. Regardless, the G-Series EQ has two major differences to the E-Series channel EQ. Firstly there’s no low-pass filter and, secondly, the two midrange controls have much wider sweeps. The low midrange on the G-Series has a frequency divider switch, which allows this EQ stage to descend all the way down to around 67Hz, while the upper-midrange frequency selector has a multiplier switch that allows it to reach right up beyond 20kHz. This effectively gives the two mid bands control over virtually the entire frequency spectrum, with the exception of the sub-harmonics.
The other principal difference between the G and the E EQ is that the G-Equaliser’s curves exhibit a slight dip before a boost and a slight rise before a cut, which makes the G-Series EQ sound a little more ‘musical,’ i.e., not as savage or indeed ‘accurate’ as the E. Other features of note are a phase switch, a master output ‘pot’ and a trim button that indicates the remaining headroom before digital clipping. Nice one. Overall, the Waves SSL ‘G’ EQ is, sonically, remarkably similar to a real-life, flesh ‘n’ blood G-series console.
LAUDED MIX BUS COMPRESSOR
Last, but not least on the agenda, is the Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor plug-in. Based on the sonics of the renowned master bus compressor of the SSL 4000 G console, the Waves emulation again does a great job of mimicking this legendary compression circuit. The SSL compressor is quite a beastly thing in the analogue domain, and that tendency has translated well across into the Waves digital format. The SSL bus compressor is probably amongst the most damaging of all compressors in the wrong hands. It’s powerful, chock full of artifacts (most of them good) and is in no way inclined to be transparent. In fact, neither version makes any real attempt to be invisible; quite the contrary. And certainly if you’ve got the four main controls, of attack, release, threshold and ratio, set up inappropriately to the mix information, expect it to be fairly merciless.
Once you grow accustomed to the sound, however, you’ll start hearing it everywhere you go. And what’s more, the SSL buss compressor is a great educator; while it doesn’t allow you to get away with sloppy settings, it soon reveals what’s going right and wrong with your setups. It’s a ‘stepped’ device (which means there are only so many ‘garden paths’ you can travel down before you pick the right one) offering only three different ratios (two, four and 10:1), six attack times (0.1, 0.3, 1, 3, 10, 30ms) and five release times (0.1, 0.3, 0.6, 1.2 and the ‘Auto’ setting, the reactions of which are determined by the duration of the program peak). The only continuously variable controls are make-up gain, threshold and the sixth knob… ‘Rate-S’… which brings me to the final noteworthy feature of this compressor: the ‘auto fader’.
In this day and age the auto fader on an SSL bus compressor might seem like a bit of an anachronism, but it’s still eminently useable, even in a DAW environment. The auto fader performs two essential functions: fading in and fading out. Variable from 1 to 60 seconds, the fader can be engaged with a single mouse click to fade out, or with two clicks, to fade in, but it’s really only useful when this plug-in feature is automated. By automating it in your DAW, controlling the point at which a song begins to fade out (or in) is a piece of cake, and the fade time can then be simply adjusted by either twiddling the ‘Rate-S’ knob, or single-clicking it and typing a numerical (seconds) value into the window that appears next to it. This feature works beautifully and is very handy for quickly auditioning fade out points and durations – very cool indeed. There’s hours of fun to be had with this knob, which also mercifully stops you drooling, slack-jawed, on your shirt as you stare mesmerised at the fade-out curve you’ve otherwise drawn in your DAW automation.
THE LARGE FORMAT PLUG-IN?
Having said all this, just one last thing… don’t think that by buying these new plug-ins you’re actually getting an SSL; you’re not. There’s no question that these plug-ins are great to use and sound very much like the hardware they purport to emulate. But make no mistake, there’s far more to an SSL than the channel strip and mix bus compressor – the routing, analogue summing, master section, monitoring and headroom features being but a few of the other facilities and sonic ingredients. Going into detail about all this, however, is well beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say, an SSL console is a comprehensive and extremely complex series of analogue circuits, and sitting at the helm of one during a recording or mix session bears little resemblance to the experience Waves plug-ins offer you. I mean, when you get tired and you want to put your feet up, where are they gonna go? Oh, and one last thing… I’d love to see Waves do an SSL E-Series Recall computer plug-in next… emulating the shenanigans of the original SSL PC, which utilised eight-inch floppy disks and a blue screen. And maybe an ‘Asteroid’ emulation as well, for everyone to play whenever the computer plug-in mimics a crash followed by three hours of ‘down-time’!