If you’re like me — someone who has 17 brands of EQ, 41 types of dynamics processors and 10 analog harmonics emulators in your DAW — you probably don’t need another EQ or compressor plug-in … that is, unless it’s Unique Recording Software’s Classic Console Strip Pro, part of a new school of plug-ins that does things very unlike the old way of doing them. Actually, the CCSPro is like the old way of thinking: from an analog domain perspective. URS truly went back to the drawing board and made the $1,199 CCSPro go where no plugin has gone before; and, of course, the virtual world is vastly more flexible than the solid state.
When it comes to my wishlist DAW (Desk of Audio Wizardry), I’ve always wanted something akin to “skins” — I want to decorate the walls of the GUI I stare at for exactly one-third of my waking life. Taking that a step further, I’d like to be able to make Pro Tools look like a Neve, an SSL 4k E or an API.
Various companies make great emulations of each of the above classic console channels, and these can be inserted within the virtual mixer. But no DAW has yet to offer plug-in integration to the extent where one could select groups of channels and say, “Drums will be SSL; electric guitars, Neve; acoustics, API;” etc. I dream of in-depth DAW maker/plug-in manufacturer collaborations for creating console configurations. I’d love to be able to think, “I’d like to mix at Abbey Road today,” and, at the touch of a button, the mixer is loaded with Chandler EMI channel compressors, EQs, and line amps and stereo bus compressor. What if you could take an existing session and load a mixer preset — input transformers, compressors, EQs, line amps in busses, and master bus inserts? Luckily for me — as well as anyone like me — Unique Recording Software’s Classic Console Strip Pro’s CCSPro gets us awfully close to that.
Emulating different input stages, tape sources, compressor sections, EQ sections and filters, and summing busses, CCSPro architecture allows for newly developed input stages, EQ and compressor models to be added with future version updates. This is not unlike adding to your impulse response library. The URS Classic Console Strip Pro is the first plug-in that would allow users to replicate the architecture and affecting gain stages of a classic console, or a hybrid console of one’s own creation.
My first exposure to URS plugs was on a friend’s PT|LE system in 2004, when I saw a GUI that looked suspiciously like a favorite API graphic EQ on the screen. I’d had plenty of experience with the real thing, and I was skeptical because it was at a time when certain manufacturers marketed plug-ins purported to emulate the operation of the classic hardware originals, when, often, the most impressive similarity was the design of the GUI; frequency corners, points and slopes or compression knees applied to a digital EQ algorithm do not an effective emulation make.
Studio, project studio, postproduction
TDM, RTAS, AU, VST, Macintosh and WinXP; sample rates 44.1 – 192 kHz; 30 selectable input stage algorithms; 60 selectable compressor/limiter starting points, pre- or post-EQ; five selectable EQ algorithms for each fully sweepable parametric band channel filters; pre- or postcompressor or sidechainable deesser and ducker; interactive signal flow display section
$1,199 TDM and $599 Native
Unique Recording Software, Inc. | www.ursplugins.comI didn’t really go in-depth with those first URS recreations, but I had a good feeling about the URS Classic Console Strip Pro before I even downloaded the license. It wasn’t the email from their very helpful sales director Bobby Nathan, explaining the painstaking care and constant testing period of a year-and-a-half. It wasn’t his admission of improved proprietary methods for analyzing the original hardware versions. It was just a feeling. Actually, it was more than a feeling. We’re in a new era of plugins, thank God. Lately, I’d had enough positive experiences with analog modeling plugs — such as Waves SSL, Crane Song Phoenix, Massey and Guitar Rig — that I believed URS could have something special on offer with the Classic Console Strip Pro. And I found I was right.
It would be possible to compare (not that I’d want to undertake it) each of the CCSPro’s input stages, compressors and EQ types to their real world doppelgangers. According to URS, the company did exactly that, and tweaked the programming until a golden-eared expert panel could not distinguish between real and emulation. On the one hand, that’s an important motivation for the prospective buyer and a reference point for those who have experience with the analog originals. On the other hand, any option, or thousands of options, is only meaningful if it performs well for you.
Here’s one for the true engineers out there: How many total options do you have if you multiply 30 input stages x six compression types x five EQ models? I’m pretty sure the answer is around a little more than a lot. The input stage of a console is the gain stage where the tape or echo return first hits the desk. Lots of times, on the large and all discreet consoles, this is a transformer. The CCSPro provides choices of input transformer, tape or a combination to make your tracks sound like they were recorded to tape and mixed through a console. Would you prefer 15ips or 30ips? Two-inch or half-inch tape? American- or British-style transformer? How about tubes in your signal path? The CCSPro answers each one of these questions with a very capable feature.
With three of five inspired by famous English console EQs, there’s a whole lot of love for the UK in the CCSPro’s EQ section. The two American EQ offerings entice us to Pultec onto a dark desert highway of vintage tonal possibility. URS can’t use the actual names of the original equipment after which they are modeled without paying some hefty license fees. But, in the case of the EQ, URS’s method of describing the era and country of origin makes those names a giveaway.
Here’s my own decoded guide:
1951 Program EQ – Tube = Pultec
1967 Console EQ – American 4-Band = API
1970 Console EQ – British 3-band Class A = Neve 1073
1972 Console EQ – British 4-band Class A/B = Neve 1081
1980 Console EQ – British 4-Band = SSL 4000E
(I admit I had to do a touch of research to verify my suspicions.)
The compressor models reveal their inspiration with dead giveaways: “Stressor” (can you say “Distressor?”) and “Tube Child” (you don’t mean “Fairchild,” do you?) and so on.
How are these compressor models created? There’s a nuance to the statement I made before about the six compressor types; the six main types are created by combining various input stages with certain settings on their “custom-designed versatile channel compressor.” Versatility comes from the variability attack, release and knee characteristics. This is how they arrive at “60 compressor/limiter starting points” — this is where we get a peek around the curtain at “The Wizard.” It would not only be technically daunting to make exhaustive models of every possible setting on 60 known compressors and limiters, but how does one program continuous variability into the plug-ins’ execution of those models? The URS solution is to create a platform through which key compression characteristics can be offered as a highly flexible user experience.
Every other plug-in manufacturer could take a page from URS’ innovative implementation of routing and bypass of individual components. It’s easy to see the order in which each stage comes and bypasses them individually or as a group from one centralized location.
I highly recommend reading through the well-thought out and clearly written URS CCSPro information page (available at www.ursplugins.com) for an overview of what you’re getting (and getting into). They even list specifications as if the CCSPro were hardware. But this is a hardware unit of your dreams, going far beyond the flexibility a single piece of hardware could ever do in the real world. I say this because the CCSPro’s overwhelming number of options might have the capacity to, well, overwhelm. Before taking my first try with the CCSPro, I purposely did not educate myself on or research the functionality of this plug. If I can’t understand the nuts and bolts of an EQ/compressor plug-in, in a few minutes, there’s something wrong. And URS’s extreme number of options has proved, so far, to be creatively enabling as opposed to overwhelming and therefore disabling.
I spent a half-hour auditioning various settings on just a kick drum. Reassuringly, every new option amongst the input stages, the compressor and EQ models each sounded obviously different than the next. It’s pretty easy to A-B when A and B are distinct. A, B and the rest are also, as it turns out, useful sounding. I messed around with my own settings and got to a place I was happy with. Then I saved my setting and loaded up “Kick Huge.”
Manufacturer’s presets are a funny thing; most of the time the source used to create the preset bares no resemblance to what you’ve got to work with, which makes the preset useless. Sometimes the preset gets you pretty close and, most importantly, lets the user in on the line of thinking behind ways to most effectively use the options at hand.
UPDATEAs this review went to print URS announced its free 1.1 update for CCSPro on Mac OSX PPC and Intel. New features include an Input Stage Lock Function, which allows the Input Stage to be Locked from being changed by the Compressor Starting Points, and seven Auto Release Algorithms digitally recreating the most popular Vintage Compressor Program Dependent Release and Auto Releases modes (eliminating pumping and breathing compression artifacts).
— Tony WareI tweaked “Kick Huge” for a bit and ended up with a kick sound that is 10 times fatter and punchier than the one I started with. There’s one significant feature missing, though: a gate … and I know most of these consoles didn’t have gates, but it would round out such a dynamics powerhouse as the CCSPro. Highly functional gates are a dime a dozen though, so I instanced a Digi Expander/Gate Dyn3 and achieved exactly what I needed.
If it sounds great on drums, maybe it’s not going to sound good on anything else, right? Wrong; I was pleasantly surprised to the contrary. An “IronA” American class A transformer input stage followed by a FET 20 compressor model with a high-pass filter in the side chain and a wide bandwidth bump at 178 Hz with the 1972 EQ model, and a smaller presence boost at 2.6k with a 1970 British EQ model did the trick as a great enhancement to an already-well recorded vocal. I played with the mix of the input transformer and found that 100 percent was just the right amount. I love that you can take it to 200 percent, which is like nine more than 11. Or, you can start at 0 percent and blend in just the amount of input stage effect desired. In mastering, I found that a little goes a long way.
One of the most telling measures of an EQ’s quality is the high frequency response. I made a 10 dB boost at 8 kHz with the SSL-type 1980 EQ, and a 2 dB boost at 16.7k with the Neve 1073-type 1970 EQ on overheads; I tracked with Royer R121s that sound present and silky without the least bit of harshness. The URS CCSPro did an amazing job of adding cutting clarity to a guitar group without becoming unpleasant (and in a way my Waves SSL couldn’t get away with).
Thank goodness I just happened to be mastering the new Kid Dakota record while reviewing the URS CCSPro. I used a couple of different input stage models, bus compression, and a touch of EQ on several of the songs; the tube stages proved their weight in virtual gold for several of the mixes by giving me tonal and dynamic enhancement I could have never replicated with all my EQs, compressors, and harmonics generators.
In the case of the URS Classic Console Strip Pro, any sonic criticisms I have levied against plug-in emulations of hardware just aren’t fair. For whatever they may lack in digitally cloning analog sounds, they make up in their powerful flexibility and economics. There was never a Neve 1073 with total recall and automation on every knob and switch. I’d be lucky if I could buy a couple bands of EQ from a 1081 for the price of the whole URS Classic Console Strip Pro.
After mixing just one song with it, I consider the CCSPro indispensable to my mixing goals. If you had to have just one EQ and compressor plug-in for mixing, the URS CCSPro may be the only one you need. Is it wise to fall so hard so fast? Could mastering reveal its flaws? On several songs in my mastering session, the CCSPro did what no other plug-in, or combination of plug-ins, can do. In this world, when you find a tool that keeps on bringing solutions, you get attached to that tool.
I tried A-B-ing what I understood to be the URS’ preset version of the Waves SSL bus compressor, as the Waves SSL channel strip EQ was the first time I had ever enjoyed EQing in the box after seven years of trying. It seemed in the end the Waves SSL was “more huger” and punchier. But the URS EQs are just as satisfying as it offered a broader palette of tones. And I could make a strong argument for the URS being a better value through its offering of a greater number of inspiring sonic possibilities than the Waves SSL; I don’t see a Stay Level, or Tube Tech, or 1176 complete with all-buttons-in preset on the Waves SSL. On top of that, it’s exciting that, despite its myriad tonal possibilities, the Classic Console Strip Pro represents only a portion of the entire range of compressor and EQ models in the URS lineup.
If any have read my reviews for Pro Audio Review of the Phoenix or Tape Head plug-ins, you know I love them. But — of course — nothing sounds like tape but tape (just like the back of my ATR Magnetics TShirt says). A console is a console and an emulation of one inside your DAW is emulation. The URS CCSPro just happens to be an inspiring emulation.
Some mean to reassure the purchaser of their DAW bundles’ value by offering with it “thousands of dollars worth of plug-ins for free.” You know, trying to fool us with a mass-of-crap plug-ins just isn’t going to fly any more. I’m specifically talking about plug-ins whose only worthwhile attribute is their visual similarity to the analog equivalent.
The Classic Console Strip Pro is in a totally different league, written for experienced artists who know what the real thing, created to educate up-and-coming audiophiles about the lineage of digital recreations, and all the while it delivers delicious sonic results. The Classic Console Strip Pro steps up as a product that is wonderful sounding and incredibly versatile with room to grow, designed right in.
Mac G5 dual 2.0, Digidesign Pro Tools HD3, M&K 1611P, ears (2).