Alan Branch lifts the lid on the upgraded version of the Swedish company’s hybrid mixing solution.
Rock ‘n’ roll scientists from Sweden (their words), otherwise known as Softube, have started shipping an upgrade to their award-winning controller, the Console 1 – a unique combination of hardware and software to epitomise the workflow of a traditional mixing console, providing hands-on control via physical knobs combined with Softube’s emulation of the world-renowned SSL 4000E console.
The upgraded Console 1 MkII comes with refined software, a near 50% price drop and probably one of the most exciting additions: support for selected UAD plug-ins. In addition there is increased DAW controller support, including full integration with PreSonus Studio One and Cakewalk Sonar. In this review I shall be diving in deep to see if the Console 1 MKII is the answer to a modern day channel strip controller for your DAW mixing.
Since the decline of traditional studios and console mixing, developers have tried to make computer-based mixing more tactile with remote controllers, although few have succeeded. But mixing is not just about how we control a mix, it’s also the sound that we respond to. A console mix could be pushed into overload or tape could be saturated, and today it’s widely accepted that analogue gear when mixing helps create some kind of magical “glue” – it could be the harmonic distortion, crosstalk or other real world circuitry, and however it’s dialled into the mix, it’s the combination of hardware-induced sonic goodness and tactile control that helps feed back to an engineer when making incredible mixes. Today we have some amazing software emulations that help the clean and clinical digital ITB (In The Box) mix capture the original warm sonic enhancement of analogue mixing, however we lack the tactile control when using a plugin, as turning an EQ knob is not the same as dragging with a mouse. Console 1 aims to provide that missing link.
Console 1 MKII is a USB bus-powered hardware controller – the hardware is a 427 x 186 x 52 mm well-built metal unit, wedge shaped so the top surface slopes towards you as a mixing desk would. Console 1 has 26 smooth endless rotary encoders (pots), and 40 momentary button switches, and these are supported by LEDs under the surface, arranged across five sections: Input, Dynamic Shape, Equalizer, Compressor and Output. The layout of Console 1’s section design is to bring the hands-on console feel to your DAW, using Softube’s SSL 4000E channel strip emulation with a few innovative enhancements called Drive and Shape control. Each section isn’t limited to the SSL plugin, and a variety of Softube and UAD plugins can be loaded into each section independently, plus four optional extra channel strips from Softube, the SSL XL 9000 K series, British Class A and Summit Audio Grand Channel. The latest update now supports a combination of over 70 Softube and UAD plugins.
Console 1 supports Mac OSX and Windows, and installation is done via Gobbler, a dedicated online update service making licenses, updates and installs straightforward. Licences are installed on the machine or an iLok. Console 1 has synchronised track selection, Solo/Mute, DAW Send, Pan and Volume with Studio One and Sonar, while other DAWs support Track Name and Number. However, dedicated support is changing so it’s best to check with Softube for the latest updates.
The only way to test the Console 1 is within a mix; its primary use is centred on main audio channel operation: track selection, shaping audio via EQ, controlling dynamics via compression and removing background noise via gates. A common workflow of a DAW ‘In the Box’ mix is a method of selecting EQ/comp plugins, templates or channel presets track by track and opening and closing plugin windows – this method works well especially after several mixes where key commands and favourite plugins start to form a solid workflow of shaping audio to work together.
While the traditional method of console hardware mixing like on an SSL is each channel is the same, the hardware is tactile, labelled, and dynamics, EQ and compression are quick to access. Both mix methods have limitations: a console may be expensive, limited or restricted in it’s use, while plugins in comparison have no tactile hardware, are not as quick to load and access all the same elements while differentiating between GUI’s can distract essential listening concentration. The beauty of the Console 1 is how well the design merges these two established approaches to mixing – one could say it’s simply a controller but looking at its combination of purpose-designed hardware and software, dedicated knobs and inclusion of Softube’s award winning emulation software, it would be too cumbersome and difficult to get the same workflow with separate software and hardware.
The updated Console 1 surface itself remains unchanged – the same high quality build remains despite the lower price tag, the knobs are firm to control and gives nice feedback when dialling in the finest of dB increments. Setting the Console 1 plugin to default in Logic is simple: insert the Console 1 plugin, save as a preset, then right click the preset in the library and click default. Each new channel strip will now have Console 1 pre-loaded and mixing work can now be done from the controller. Using the 1-20 dedicated track selection switches makes it very fast to go from track to track, while visually seeing metering and parameter control via the Console 1 overlay GUI. With a track selected, you can now use the switchable Shape, EQ or Compression sections, much like a console. Adjusting the sound using the default SSL 400E or loading an alternate plugin for each section was quick and incredibly powerful to use – Shape is the noise gate/expander section but is especially nice with additional transient enhancements such as Punch and Sustain.
The whole mixing process of track selection, EQ and compression changes felt easy and so responsive to the sound without making a single mouse movement. I still loaded additional plugins and added FX in the DAW as normal, but what I noticed when using Console 1 is not just the speed or logistical difference to controlling a mix with a mouse, but how much the thought and listening process is affected. It’s hard to explain but I’d say it made me listen more, or hear more, and you could say that’s the result of one’s visual sense not being consumed by a flashy GUI plugin but I think it’s more than that; it’s hearing the alteration of the sound with the turn of a hardware parameter knob, the combination of the physical movement and sonic response much like the feeling when controlling your mix balance with a hardware fader control.
If I had to find fault with Console 1 MkII I’d say the knobs are a bit smooth, I’d like to see more factory presets, especially for UAD plugins and possibly push knobs to reset parameters but Softube have said these and many more suggestions are all a work in progress. Mixing with Console 1 MkII is a fast and logical process, adapting to the hardware is surprisingly quick, as is loading in optional EQ and compression plug-in’s, but there are some well designed workflow features, like a dry/wet Parallel Compression control; using this to pump the sound of a kick or a bass line is incredibly powerful. There is an additional Order switch, so Shape, EQ & Compression sections can be rearranged, as well as an unlimited undo for every channel. Undo doesn’t give a history list and seems limited to while the session is open but it’s so quick to dial a channel back to the setting you had before. Console 1 is also USB-powered so no power pack to remember. In addition to that is track selection, track and I/O metering, input high and low cut filters, channel strip presets, custom presets, track copy, track grouping, filters to compressor and side chain options – these are just a few of the Console 1 features, all with dedicated controls that I’d love to squeeze into this review.
I have to say the Console 1 MkII is a true paradigm shift in DAW mixing. For many of us it’s hard to change one’s workflow, however the Console 1 MkII design means its quick to adapt too, fits well into an existing DAW setup and has a major advantage over a simple MIDI-mapped third party controller, especially when combined with an existing fader pack. DAW support has increased and worked well in Logic and Pro Tools with automatic track names and numbers, but the full support really shined within Studio One, allowing even further DAW mixer control like sends, pans and volume. Now supporting selected UAD plugins, mixing with Console 1 MkII with its included SSL or UAD API, Manley, Pultec, Chandler, Harrison plugins it’s almost a must try/buy! I think the Console 1 MkII gives great value for it’s hardware/software combination, the SSL plugin, transient shaper and superb-sounding harmonic character. I wish I had space to explain more but hopefully you can see why I think the Console 1 MkII is one of the most exciting gear releases for some time.
- The best of the digital and analogue worlds in a compact system’
- Compatibility with UAD Powered Plug-ins
- Emulation of Solid State Logic’s SL 4000 E console
- Addition of control functions for PreSonus Studio One and Cakewalk SONAR
- More visible LED markers
Alan Branch is a freelance engineer/producer. His list of credits include Jamiroquai, Beverley Knight, M People, Simply Red, Depeche Mode, Shed 7, Sinead O’ Connor and Bjork. www.alanbranch.com