As a live and studio engineer, with experience using both digital live and studio consoles, I was more than excited to finally try out SSL’s new live console. The company’s well-known and respected live product manager, Jason Kelly, gave me my personal introduction to the console at SSL’s Oxford HQ.
Under the hood
Before you even see the new Live, the specifications make interesting reading thanks to SSL’s new Tempest processing platform, which were designed from the ground up for the sole purpose of powering this desk. Depending on the number of stage boxes and external devices used, there can be up to 976 inputs and outputs connected with 192 internal audio ‘paths’ all running at 96kHz and 64 bit floating point – easily one of the highest spec counts in this price range. Running at such a high bit depth and sample rate allows the console to have a staggering amount of internal headroom, Jason tells me it’s in the region of 3000dB.
All preamps on board and in the stageboxes are SSL’s SuperAnalogue pres including analogue high pass filters. After that point, all audio remains in the digital domain by 96kHz, 24-bit A-D converters until it finds its way to an output. There is a good selection of local I/O with 16 analogue ins and outs and four pairs of AES/EBU. (This can be expanded to twice the amount if required.) Each AES/EBU connection has an independent fully variable sample rate converter. External remote I/Os are connected with coaxial MADI or an optional SSL Blacklight connection which carries 256 channels via a single optical fibre. Each coaxial connection can either be run with a redundant connection or each port can be utilised as an independent connection.
SSL has also made great use of the extra data embedded within the MADI stream. All the available SSL remote stageboxes are auto sensing and appear automatically in the software routing pages on the desk. Another benefit is the extra gain data for when two or more consoles use the same stagebox. The ‘master’ console with the control over the analogue preamps also transmits any changes in the analogue gain to other Live 500s. The operator then has a channel-by-channel option to enable gain sharing where the slave console can digitally trim any offset needed in real time.
Instead of having set templates or a given number of digital busses and auxiliaries available, the Live 500 offers the user a total number of audio processing paths to distribute in whichever way they need.
There are 144 full processing paths and 48 ‘dry’ paths. This is then further broken down into some restrictions for total numbers of input channels, stem groups, auxes, masters, and matrixes. However, with a maximum of 96 full auxes and 24 dry auxes as well as 32 in and 36 dry out matrixes, there is plenty of scope to make the mixer work as you wish.
The overall design of the control surface is well organised with clean and simple lines. The main focus is the 19in centre touchscreen, which SSL claims to be one of the brightest on the market. The main screen is also the first to support major multi-touch gestures, which we have all become accustomed to thanks to the iPad.
Around the main screen are three fader tiles with 12 100mm fader strips containing rotary encoders and colour changing backlit buttons. Each strip has 14 segment level meters with separate compression and gate meters. Each fader tile is independent with five scrollable layers containing five recallable banks. Each bank can be set to anything from input channels to masters allowing the console to be set up any way you like. One feature I like is that each channel has a Query button that then spills out all of the channels associated with it. This can quickly help to solve simple routing issues, or allow for direct and simple send adjustments.
In the master tile there is a focus fader that can be assigned to any channel for right-handed fader riding and more hardware-based parameter editing. The focus fader works with the control tile that uses a smaller 5.7in touchscreen with a number of hardware controls for more traditional operation. The controls are set out in dedicated effects, EQ, and dynamics sections. I should make it clear, however, that all parameters can be altered from either the control tile or the main large touchscreen. Although the control tile is more natural to use it’s really special to be able to edit an EQ via multi-touch gestures on the large screen.
Driving the mix
For the purpose of this review, Jason set up SSL’s live multi-track recorder with video footage from one of Peter Gabriel’s concerts. The last Peter Gabriel tour used three SSL Live consoles – one at FOH, one for Peter’s personal monitors, and one for the band’s monitors.
Everything soon fitted into place once I got my head around the console’s unique configurations, best distributed the full processing and dry channels, made my fader tile layers, and learnt about routing. Once you’re in the mindset of any new console it doesn’t take long before you find yourself getting used to the controls. There is a feeling of fluidity between the multi-gesture touchscreen UI and the control surface with its distribution of processing power. It feels effortless to jump straight to parameters and edit them, including inserting new effects without any drop in audio. The idea of having a single screen with large graphics that are easy to manipulate by touch is so simple but effective.
The Live exhibits its SSL heritage in two ways: Firstly, it uses all of SSL’s digital algorithms from EQ through to reverbs. It has the simulated analogue EQs, compressors, and the famous bus comp and effects, which all sound great. I tried out the bus comp in the only way I knew how from regularly using an analogue one and, to my surprise, Jason remarked, “So you’ve used one before then?” It hadn’t occurred to me, as I was just punching in some standard settings, but sure enough it behaved just as expected (and on a touchscreen too).
There are also a few very neat sonic features SSL has introduced with this console. There is a new ‘tube warming’ feature on the channel compressors, which is out of this world. Before you apply any other processing on the channel, or even edit the compressor’s threshold, the simple action of enabling the tube warmth is really distinct. I’m now left waiting for the plug-in version to have in my DAW in the studio.
Another unique feature is the addition of an all-pass filter on every full processing channel. All-pass filters are not something you regularly see but they make perfect sense. With so many potential phasing issues when working live I can see these simple to use all-pass filters being considered as a closely regarded secret by many engineers.
Even though the Live holds all of the heritage and prestige that comes along with the SSL name don’t be fooled into thinking it misses out on the benefits of digital audio. It wasn’t until I had been mixing for a while that I realised the amount of processing power the console has. Inserting effects and changing the order of the signal processing paths on each channel is simple and fluid, unlike some other live consoles. With this architecture, SSL is now also introducing something called stem groups, which are very much like normal subgroups but with the capability of full processing and effect inserts like standard input channels. Additionally, unlike normal sub-groups, stem groups can be routed to other stem groups or auxes to allow for flexible mixes.
Around the corner
Along with the release of this new hardware is, of course, the first release of its software, which has been completely purpose built by SSL and isn’t based on any commonly found operating system. This has given SSL the ability to fine-tune every aspect of the digital domain for audio. As this is still early days, there are a number of updates already planned for release with some exciting new features. For now, SSL has been focusing hard on making sure the system is as stable as possible.
One additional feature that is still in development is remote control for the console and expansion features. As yet we are not sure of how this will be implemented, or what it will entail, but it’s important to know that there have been plans for such features from very early on in the design process.
The new Live console from SSL certainly lives up to expectations. It encapsulates everything I’d hope to see from an SSL console in terms of quality, build, and sonic reproduction. At the same time, it has a few tricks to excite even the most experienced engineers and surprised me with the fresh approach to digital processing. This is a truly remarkable pro audio release.
Simon Allen is a full-time sound engineer and record producer. After a stint as senior engineer at City Studios in Cyprus where he headed up the new music studio, he can now mostly be found at Woodbury Studios in Hertfordshire.