Highly recommended to anyone who needs a top-notch, hands-on channel strip!
Pros – Innovative design for a perfect hw-sw experience – SSL sound with extra touches
Cons – None really
It took me some time, but after a trilateral email exchange (with Softube and the responsive local distributor, hi Christian!) I’ve finally been able to get ahold of a precious test item of Softube’s ‘next generation mixer’. Given I’m not exactly a mixing engineer though, I’ve let my friend Maurizio Borgna (among his F.O.H and mixing credits: Agnes Obel, Dustin O’Halloran, Niagara, etc.) put Console 1 through its paces. Here’s his report…
Due to constantly evolving technology, mixing techniques have changed quite radically in the last 10-15 years. Having worked as a sound engineer since the early 2000s, and coming from an ‘analog’ background, I’ve been among the first ones to face the problems of mixing in the box (ITB).
The crisis of the music industry and the high maintenance costs of a purely analog studio forced me to opt for a hybrid rig (I still can’t imagine a 100% ITB mix, my analog heart keeps beating).
One of the biggest problems I have been facing is not being able to ‘put my hands on’ the device I’m using, especially when we’re talking of a channel strip (where you usually have a preamp, an EQ, a dynamic section). Thankfully, Softube seems to have listened to the wishes of many users like me, releasing a VERY interesting product.
Console 1 not only offers a great software emulation of one of the most coveted and popular desks (SSL4000), but also provides a dedicated controller. This brings people like me back into the comfort zone – hands on knobs and less time spent looking at the monitor (‘Old school, bitch!’).
The controller At a first glance, Console 1 looks sleek and well built, with a very good compromise between weight and size (it fits in my backpack). The metal case is sturdy and the knobs are pleasant to the touch, even though bigger than the ones on a traditional mixer. All buttons have a sweet click-action. Another welcome perk: the unit is USB powered. Installing the software is pretty straightforward (machine-based iLok license, no USB iLok dongle is required), and in less than 10 minutes I was up and ready to test this little jewel on a mix provided by Michael, my assistant.
Going hands-on I’ve used Pro Tools for this test (Console 1 works with any major DAW on Mac or Windows). Loading Console 1 on an insert you’ll get a plugin window where you’ll choose a channel name. Unfortunately on PT channels are not automatically recognized, so you’ll have to remember to give a name to the plugin (review updated: PT 11.2.1 supports track name transfer – but not number, read about other DAWs here). Once these little details are taken care of, it’s amazing how intuitive and easy it is to get used to Console 1 (it’s worth mentioning that in most DAWs, the DAW track names are transferred automatically to Console 1). As soon as you touch one of the knobs, the plugin window appears on screen. What you see on screen is exactly what you have at your fingertips. After a few seconds of inactivity, if you are in automatic mode the window disappears. However, you can always call up the window by pressing ON in the display section.
The layout The first section features the Input Gain, the Hi/Low cut filters, the Sidechain (super-helpful!), ‘Filter to Compressor’ and phase inversion. Then you get the Shape, where you can control a great emulation of the SSL4000 gate, with the hard gate option, Release, Sustain and Punch (the latest two are not to be found on the actual SSL channel strip). These two sections are extraordinarily useful to recover or ‘rebuild’ the sound of an instrument lacking color or drive. The feeling I had playing with gate sustain and punch was definitely analog-like (try them on kick and snare, highly satisfying!).
Next up is the EQ (in 4 bands: Low, Low/Mid, Hi/Mid, High). The SSL4000 EQ has been quite faithfully emulated, and the ability to ‘exaggerate’ the boost of low and high frequencies yield a surprisingly pleasant and harmonically rich result (truly rock, as in real SSL4000); highly recommended on bass and electric guitars.
Following the EQ, we have the Compressor. The SSL4000 compressor is always easily recognizable for its ‘snappy’ sound, and its quick and intuitive workflow. Softube has created a very faithful replica, with the addition of a Dry/Wet control that allows users to easily achieve a parallel compression – a truly helpful add.
Last but not least (actually the coolest feature for us, after the Shape), the Drive. Here Softube has really exceeded the competition, recreating the effect you get with a real console – that extra touch of analog saturation that makes everything more interesting and analog. The first knob controls the amount of drive to be added before the actual output stage, while the knob below controls the saturation character. Moving the knob to the right we get a sharp, bright saturation that adds harmonics to the medium-high frequencies. To the left, we get the opposite result, helpful in adding warmth to harsh sounds.
In the upper part of the unit, we have 20 channel selection buttons and two page up/down buttons. Another two buttons enable us to duplicate/copy the channels’ settings and the Order button (another cool addition that you wouldn’t find on an analog strip) controls the signal flow of Console 1 with three truly useful configurations (Eq-shape-comp, shape-cmp-eq, shape-eq-comp). Smart people, these Softube guys!
The last small button controls the routing of the external sidechain (to shape/to compressor). These two options alone should be enough for you to realize how versatile and feature-rich this little jewel is.
Conclusion After spending some time with Console 1, I must say I was very surprised from the analog quality of its software, especially thanks to the Drive and Shape sections. Working with the knobs is a joy, they respond really well and they’re solid and pleasant to the touch. The Shift button is another clever feature. When pressed in combination with other buttons, it allows you to use convenient features, like loading a different strip (for instance, the SSL9000, already available), the channel history when the Undo is needed, as well as enabling the Fine Adjust (classy!). Needless to say, Console 1 is not a full DAW controller. This means that for me, mixing just using this unit could be limiting. Furthermore, the lack of faders could make you focus too much on the compression stage, without paying enough attention to the automation, resulting in a lack of dynamics. That said, I was really very pleased by the software’s performance and especially by the fact Console 1 finally allowed me to focus on the sound coming from the speakers rather than ‘losing my sight’ on plugins’ parameters. Highly recommended to anyone who needs a top-notch, hands-on channel strip! The guys at Softube (BTW, I love their FET Compressor) have done a commendable job at emulating the E series channel strip, especially if you think of the convenience factor and the huge number of extra options added. One last note: It would be awesome if Softube would add a soft case, so to make Console 1 more safely portable.