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Review: Solid State Logic Nucleus DAW Controller/Worksurface

Ideal for the modern DAW-based studio with limited need for mic inputs, the Nucleus is a cut above typical controller-type devices.

There is no doubt that many smaller, DAW-based studios would absolutely love to get the classy Solid State Logic name front and center in their control rooms (without the space and budget traditionally required for an SSL desk, of course). SSL’s Nucleus facilitates just that.

Yet the Nucleus is not your father’s SSL. And what it is precisely may be hard to summarize: a DAW control surface, a USB audio interface, a SuperAnalogue front end, a monitoring controller, and a plug-inbundle- sporting central command center for your DAW-based professional or project studio. As a result, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Features

Front and center, at least visually, are the Nucleus’ 16 100mm motorized faders; each resides in a channel strip with a solo button, a cut button, a select button, a rotary encoder, a 14-character scribble strip, a record enable button and a LED meter. The center section contains the prominent jog wheel, transport controls, mode buttons, numerous DAW commands, master metering, two mic preamps, controls for no-latency monitoring and monitor level control.

The rear panel contains a four output USB hub (Type A) and one Type B socket, an Ethernet jack, S/PDIF I/O (optical), two quarter-inch headphone jacks, a handy iPod input (stereo 1/8-inch mini-plug), stereo monitor outputs on XLR or RCA (-10 dB), inputs/outputs and send/return insert loops for both mic pres (the insert loop can be inserted on your L/R mix as well) and an external stereo input on XLRs. Also on the rear are the power switch, locking IEC cable socket that connects to the auto-ranging 90-250V AC supply, quarter-inch footswitch input, SD card slot and a 9-pin D-sub terminal input (SSL diagnostic use only).

In Use

Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t work the substantially sized Nucleus surface (70 cm x 40 cm) into my workflow or work area. Catalyst Recording is centered on a Mac Pro/MOTU Digital Performer DAW, yet mixing happens via a 24-channel, custommodified Soundcraft Ghost console (and workstation full of outboard gear), effectively eating up all the suitable real estate in my control room. So Mike McGinnis, of post-production/composition house Concentrix Music and Sound Design here in Charlotte, NC, came to mind as someone who might be able to fit the Nucleus right into his work and rig. I called him up, and he jumped at the chance to audition the Nucleus in his busy production environment.

Mike’s rig at Concentrix consists of Apple Logic and Steinberg Nuendo DAWs via an Apple Mac Pro tower with a Mackie Control Universal 8-channel HUI, some Amek 9098 mic preamps and a Grace m201 mic pre, interfaced to the world (in stereo or 5.1 surround) via his TC Electronic System 6000. In setup, we took the Mackie HUI out of service, slipped the much bigger Nucleus in its place and connected directly to his Mac Pro via Ethernet and USB.

We installed the Nucleus Remote software and the USB Control Panel software and drivers, then told the computer to look for a Mackie controller and a Mackie Extender (which is how the computer sees the Nucleus and its 16 faders) and created a “profile” for this DAW. With that, we were up and running. Up to three DAW profiles are controllable with the Nucleus. Once running, Mike reported no crashes in his three days working with the Nucleus. Mike commented that the Nucleus felt “sturdy, solid and well made” while its jog wheel has just the right heft and drag to it; he loved its quick, precise action. He particularly liked the large and very readable scribble strips compared to his Mackie’s, although the meters seemed a little small. He reported the faders had a good feel (even though we’d both prefer aluminum over plastic).

The monitoring section was very clean to both our sets of ears. Mike reported that the preamps sounded excellent on vocal, acoustic guitar and electric guitar overdubs. It’s “a nice, clear sound, similar to the 9098s,” he explained, “but more colored than the Grace m201.” These mic pres are the real deal SuperAnalogue ones, mind you: with 75 dB of gain, an input pad, high-impedance switch, 80 Hz HPF, phantom power, polarity reverse and a selectable insert loop for your favorite outboard gear.

Yet as nice as the Nucleus sounded and functioned, we still had some quibbles. Mike reasonably wished for some positional indicator on the Nucleus, either a bar/beat counter or a time-code display: something to keep from having to look for the counter on the DAW screen. We both felt a built-in talkback mic was sorely missing from a device that should be the heart of your studio (you can always patch one into your DAW session, but I feel that’s inelegant, at best). I also felt that the headphone outputs didn’t provide enough volume, raising the need for an external headphone amp. Further, alternate monitor switching would be nice (although the -10 dB outs may suffice), as would good ol’ AES I/O, too.

Finally, the Nucleus doesn’t do surround … and that’s a shame, as the post houses that could be a perfect fit for the Nucleus (like Concentrix) require it. This, however, would radically change the price and the product itself; perhaps this feature’s absence defines the Nucleus as simply being more for the music project studio?

Although I haven’t mentioned the Duende Native Plug-in bundle that comes with the Nucleus, it certainly deserves attention. This bundle has been previously reviewed and is worthy of its own detailed inspection. Suffice it to say, the EQ and Channel Strip has both “E” and “G” EQs, the Stereo Bus Compressor has literally captured the sound of an era (like the original in big SSL center sections). Overall, the bundle adds significant function and value to the Nucleus package.

Summary

SSL’s Nucleus is ideal for the modern DAW-based studio with limited need for mic inputs. The ease it provides in DAW control far surpasses mousing around, and its scrub wheel is a cut above typical devices. Its software is stable and is coupled to an efficient, ergonomic work surface with the right controls in the right places, plus easy shortcut customization.

And yes, the absence of a talkback mic, sufficient visual display and surround capabilities are personally disappointing, considering the Nucleus’ $5k price tag. My first reaction was that the price is too high, but once I added up the cost of two eight-channel fader HUIs, two really nice preamps, a monitor controller and a premium plug-in bundle, I realized that the price is only slightly on the high side.

The center of the Nucleus glows with a backlit “Solid State Logic — Oxford, England.” It is mighty impressive and very convincingly implies the serious audio quality within. Just how much that is worth is up to you.

Price: $5,149
Contact: Solid State Logic | solidstatelogic.com

Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Charlotte’s Catalyst Recording.

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