For years, Waves’ SSL E-Channel and G-Channel strips set the standard for console emulation. Now, with SSL EV2, the game has been changed again. Find out how.
By Craig Anderton
When I first heard about SSL EV2—a new SSL E-series emulation—my initial question was “Why? What’s really different?” After all, Waves’ original SSL E-series and G-series channel strip plugins (introduced in 2006 and 2008 respectively) have become industry standards. Also, the workflow-oriented CLA MixHub includes an emulation of Chris Lord-Alge’s personal SSL E-Series console.
Well, testing and working with the SSL EV2 answered that initial question. We’ve all learned a lot since 2006—the year when Apple started its transition from PowerPC to Intel, Windows was still on XP, Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” topped Billboard’s Hot 100 and Intel released the Core 2 Duo. Back then, plugin designs were constrained by CPU performance. Coders could go only so far before running into a brick wall of available CPU power.
Fast forward to today, when advanced processors allow for more sophisticated and detailed emulations. When comparing the original and updated SSL E-series plugins, the SSL EV2 has a richer, more detailed sound quality, with greater high frequency transparency. Although the original plugins emulated an SSL, SSL EV2 (licensed by Solid State Logic) has essentially become an SSL.
However, this sophistication demands more from computers. According to Studio One’s Performance Monitor, 40 circa-2006 SSL E-Channel plugins require about 2% of the CPU’s power, while 40 SSL EV2 plugins require about 17%. Then again, a channel strip eliminates the need for other EQ and dynamics plugins, and you can always freeze/thaw tracks to save CPU. Or use a mix of the two plugins—SSL EV2 for the most crucial and prominent tracks, and the original E-Series plugins for background tracks.
Compared to the CLA MixHub, the SSL EV2 offers two EQ flavors, incorporates a new mic pre emulation and has a different sound. This isn’t surprising, because the MixHub models Chris Lord Alge’s personal SSL console. Being an analog console, and likely from a different production run, what would be surprising is if the sound was the same. There’s also a difference in the plugin philosophies. MixHub is about integrating channel strips into a specific kind of workflow, while SSL EV2 is about integrating channel strips via the traditional insertion into individual tracks and buses. However, SSL EV2 isn’t just a reboot—it’s more like a remix.
1. Definitive Differences
In addition to the increased definition, there are two different EQ types (Brown knob and Black knob—more on these later). Another addition is a new mic pre / line section, which replicates the original’s harmonic distortion and saturation characteristics.
There’s another implication. We’ve been working with digital recording for long enough that we all know going “into the red” is a really bad idea. But remember—SSL EV2 emulates analog gear. When analog ruled the earth, it was common to push the signal into the red not only because you could get away with it, but because it added “character” instead of digital distortion’s harshness. There’s some truth to the opinion that going into the red was the sound of rock in the analog era.
The SSL EV2 plugin also comes with 600+ presets, with 200+ from Grammy winners. Being able to tap into the expertise of engineers like Jacquire King, Stuart White, Joe Barresi, Dave Pensado, Lu Diaz and others may seem like overkill…but to understand why these presets matter, we need to look into the channel strip’s gestalt.
2. Why Channel Strips?
You don’t need a channel strip; you can implement the same functionality with individual preamp, equalizer and dynamics plugins. The reason why people want channel strips is convenience, workflow and sound. Once you have a perfect channel strip setup for vocals, bass, drums, piano or whatever, you can save it as a complete processor. The next time you want that sound, you load one plugin instead of several, and get back to recording. A major workflow improvement is not needing to have several plugin windows open. With a channel strip, you can move easily between parameters while editing within a single interface.
Then there’s the SSL “sound.” Consoles didn’t just build themselves, they required significant engineering decisions and tradeoffs. Everything was constrained by hardware. Unlike today’s plugins, analog consoles had to fit everything in a restricted space, yet still be useable by people with normal-size fingers. Furthermore, every element in the channel strip had to work together harmoniously. For example, the frequency ranges for the EQ’s four bands were limited—you couldn’t boost, say, 10 kHz with the low frequency band. Still, the bands needed to overlap—but by how much? Was it more important to have a wider range with lots of overlap, even though that made a control more difficult to adjust—or a narrower range with little overlap, that made it easier to dial in the sound? All these decisions had to be based on how useful the console would be in real-world recording situations, when the clock was running.
What’s more, analog filters aren’t perfect. They require design tradeoffs among filter properties like passband ripple, distortion, phase, overshoot, and propagation delay. The engineers designing consoles had to prioritize the most musically important EQ elements and commit them to hardware. You can’t change hardware by altering a few lines of code, so they had to get it right before going into production. Considering how many people revere the sound SSL consoles, apparently, they did get it right.
These reasons explain why even though it’s possible to assemble à la carte software plugins into any imaginable configuration, many engineers prefer working with channel strips when possible. SSL EV2 expands on the channel strip concept further, by incorporating two different EQ designs in a single strip.
3. Brown vs. Black EQ
Although people can hear a difference between the Brown knob and Black knob EQs, they often can’t quantify those differences. But if you can visualize those differences with frequency response graphs, then you can make decisions like “I want a rounder cut at 3.5 kHz, not a steeper one, so I’ll try the Brown EQ first.” Of course, your ears always make the final decision—but your eyes can help point your ears in the right direction.
Let’s load pink noise and a spectrum analyzer to see (and hear) what’s going on under the hood. Fig. 1 shows the settings used in the first set of spectrum analysis images and audio examples. The only difference between the two examples is whether the EQ Type is Brown or Black. All other parameters are identical.
Fig. 2 shows the result of feeding pink noise into the two SSL EV2 EQs.
The spectral response is revealing. First, the frequencies are the same on the interface panel, but not in reality. The Brown EQ’s 3 kHz is a little under 3 kHz, while the Brown’s 3 kHz setting is a little over. The 300 Hz low mid filter setting is on target with the Brown EQ, but around 200 Hz with the Black EQ. Also note that the Black EQ has steeper slopes for the cuts, which leaves more of the midrange intact. This implies that the Brown EQ is probably better for gentler tone-shaping, while the Black shapes tone more aggressively.
That’s what our eyes tell us. Now let’s listen to the pink noise with our ears.
It’s clear how the Black EQ’s midrange response makes a huge difference in the sound (and yes, I double- and triple-checked to make sure everything was identical except for the Brown/Black switch position). Even with identical control settings, the two EQs offer very different sonic characters.
The next comparison combines major boosts and cuts. Fig. 3 shows the control settings.
Fig. 4 again shows the result of feeding pink noise into the two SSL EV2 EQs.
Again, the difference in midrange behavior stands out. Based on these spectra, it’s easy to see why some people say the Black EQ has a more “aggressive” sound. The following audio examples reveal the EQ’s characters.
Let’s also look at the mic pre’s harmonic distortion feature. It’s a major enhancement and is one of the better saturation effects I’ve heard. Fig. 5 shows the harmonics generated at three different mic preamp settings.
The SSL EV2 is being fed with a 440 Hz sine wave at -30 dB. The top image shows the mic pre at 0. You see only the 440 Hz signal’s fundamental. The middle image shows the mic pre turned up to 10. 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics start to appear, although the levels are still quite low.
The bottom view turns the mic pre up to 30. Now the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics are becoming more prominent (around -48 dB), and many additional harmonics are being generated. The strong presence of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th harmonics is why many consider this distortion “musical.” It can be subtle, as in the middle image, or turned up considerably higher than the bottom image if you want to super-saturate a sound.
The audible reality matches up with what you’d expect from the graphs, so listen to the following audio example. The unprocessed version has 0 pre gain, the processed version has a setting of 15. The sound is bigger and more alive, yet doesn’t sound like distortion because the harmonics fall where they should, to produce the most musical results.
4. Dynamics and Sidechaining
Finally, we haven’t talked much about the dynamics, because the reputation of SSL dynamics processing precedes them. However, it’s worth noting that the SSL EV2 includes sidechaining, which multiplies the dynamic capabilities. Sidechaining—which allows one signal to control the dynamic response of a different signal—was a common feature with hardware. It wasn’t difficult to expose a connection within a dynamics processor, bring it out to a jack, and let other signals control the dynamics. Software has always been more complicated, because it requires a way to connect audio to dynamics processors within a DAW’s virtual console.
Fortunately, sidechaining is now common in software as well as hardware. Controlling dynamics has both utilitarian and creative applications. For example, with a singer/songwriter who plays guitar, the vocal can control the guitar’s compression so that compression occurs only while the singer is singing. Another common use is with audio-for-video or podcasts, where a narrator’s voice can compress background music or sounds to push them in the background when needed.
However, sidechaining also unleashes creative options. For example, the popular EDM technique of “pumping” drums typically inserts a compressor in a drum submix, and feeds a snare track (e.g., on beats 2 and 4) into the sidechain. By applying lots of compression to the drums with a relatively short release time, every snare hit “squashes” the drum sound momentarily. This can also give pads rhythmic qualities.
Gating also lends itself to sidechaining. You can trigger bass when the kick hits, or supplement the kick with an 808-style, “hum drum” type of sound by gating a low-frequency sine wave from the Waves eMo Generator plugin. Triggering pads or other sustained sounds with drums can lock tones to rhythms, but the SSL EV2 can also route the sidechain signal through EQ. So, with a drum sidechain signal you could use EQ to zero in on just the snare, the kick, or for that matter, a clave to do the triggering. Guitar upstrokes can trigger sustained organ sounds…you get the idea. Sidechaining can be a “tightening” process, but one that still retains any human qualities in the part creating the sidechain signal.
The More Things Change…
There’s an old French saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The SSL EV2 strives for the same goal as previous SSL plugins—the sound of an SSL, the convenience of a channel strip, and processors with a specific sonic character. Although those aspects remain the same, the changes are significant and there are plenty of tangible differences: a more open and richer sound, a choice of two very different EQs, nuanced mic pre saturation and sidechain options. So now we have an answer to the question posed at the beginning—those changes are why there’s a new SSL E-series channel strip emulation.
Musician/author Craig Anderton is an internationally recognized authority on music and technology. He has played on, produced, or mastered over 20 major label recordings and hundreds of tracks, authored 45 books, toured extensively during the 60s, played Carnegie Hall, worked as a studio musician in the 70s, written over a thousand articles, lectured on technology and the arts (in 10 countries, 38 U.S. states, and three languages), and done sound design and consulting work for numerous music industry companies. He is the current President of the MIDI Association. www.craiganderton.org.
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