Review: Waves SSL 4000 Plug-in Collection by Alex Oana

As the de facto popular mixing standard since its introduction in 1977, the SSL 4000 has trained generations of listeners and engineers what a record should sound like.
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To begin this review, please make the connections between the following years and landmarks in time:

1984 — During the last chorus of “Almost Paradise,” 14-year-old gets up courage to lower his hands to partner’s hips before end of junior high dance. 1988 — Peter Gabriel scores Scorsese’s controversial take on life of Jesus. Thousands give/receive massages to same otherworldly soundtrack 1999 — Cher’s “Believe” wins pop Grammy 2006 — In Los Angeles hillside home studio, analog-weaned engineer enjoys DAW EQing for the first time

The layman would say music is the common denominator. The engineer knows it’s the SSL 4000, the recording console that has channeled more emotional juice than perhaps any other in history. As the de facto popular mixing standard since its introduction in 1977, the SSL 4000 has trained generations of listeners and engineers what a record should sound like. It is a sound so important and a tool so effective that I entertained buying a used SSL 4k console for $60,000 until I realized I’d need also to hire a full-time assistant and a part-time tech to keep it running. Today, Waves has endeavored to channel these 30 years of collective emotion into a more manageable 256MB of data. Waves they have made.

Nine years ago, around the time he started mixing his own projects in Pro Tools LE and just after Tom Lord Alge — one of the most notorious SSL 4000 devotees — had mixed seven songs to my three on Spymob’s Epic Records debut, my drummer friend Eric Fawcett (N*E*R*D, Spymob, Lee-Hom Wang) wondered aloud why no one had yet offered SSL processors in plug-in form. In 2004, Digidesign aped the SSL stereo bus comp with its visually similar “Impact” plug-in (“Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” — G.W. Bush). The real impact came at NAMM in January 2006 where Waves announced its SSL 4000 Collection. The announcement went beyond buzz; the Waves SSL Collection hit the market less like a piece of software and more like an answer to a collective prayer.

To this date, Waves plug-in offerings had been widely respected, pioneering examples of the clean, modern, utilitarian ilk: the epitome of the early sound of the DAW movement. Surprising then, Waves would be the one to crack the vintage code of such a notoriously analog character, yet at the same time reassuring, because of Waves’ reputation, of precision and excellence. Waves is part of a groundswell of plug-in companies offering authentic recreations of time-tested analog favorites. We — the end-users — are lucky that a company as trustworthy as Waves jumped on this trend.

The question flying over emails, instant messages, message boards, and cellphones was this: “Did they do it? Did Waves manage to clone SSL DNA?” Because there would be giant implications if they did; the post-DAW hit on sales of analog multitracks was shocking enough: would a perfect digital copy of one of analog’s poster children spell certain doom for analog equipment as we know it?

Features

The two vital elements of SSL 4000 console alchemy are the channel strip — which includes dynamics and E or G series equalizers — and the stereo bus compressor. For its collection, Waves has represented the above with the E-Channel, the G-Equalizer, and the G-Master Buss Compressor. [And could someone please put in print, once and for all, how to properly spell “bus” when referring to a console? OK, I will. It’s ‘b-u-s.’ — Alex.]

The E-Channel is the most powerful and feature-filled part of the package, whose components include HP+LPF, EQ, comp, and gate. The steep high and low pass filters can be in the audio chain or used in the side chain of the compressor or gate. The compressor is great for adding punch in auto mode and ruthless as a dynamics conformer in fast attack mode. The expander/gate is by far the most musical and immediately usable digital exp/gate I’ve ever used. I don’t know how they figured out back in 1977 to make it listen so effectively to transients, but it just works. According to Waves, the EQ section of its SSL E-Channel is based on “the renowned Black Knob equalizer, developed in 1983 with legendary producer George Martin.” It sounds so great, you can really dig yourself into or out of a gorgeous hole. Having all this power in one place, on each channel, at the mixer’s fingertips for the first time back in 1977 changed the sound of music forever. Today, you can have it on each channel of your DAW and change your world forever.

The famous G Series EQ, known for even more aggressive capabilities than the E, is offered as a stand-alone equalizer plug-in. I don’t know if it’s right to single out one of these three components as most identifiable with the sound of pop music, but the stereo bus compressor just might be able to claim the crown. Commonly known as the “glue” that holds mixes together, it’s as familiar and important as the sound of FM compression. I’ve done several mixes now where I’ve chosen the Waves SSL Stereo Bus Compressor over my Alan Smart hardware comp — the latter a unit widely accepted as a more “hi-fi” version of the hardware SSL stereo bus comp.

Fast FactsApplications
Studio, project studio

Key Features
Developed under license from Solid State Logic; up to 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution; mono and stereo components; supports TDM, RTAS, Audio Suite, VST, AU; PC and Mac compatible

Price
$1,000 list

Contact
Waves | 865-909-9200 | www.waves.com

Regarding ratios, frequency ranges, bandwidth, and gain stages: It’s a big, fun sandbox to play in. Having mixed on an SSL 4056 at Mastermix on many occasions, I was excited to see how much the Waves collection also looks like the real thing, right down to dirty smudges on the faceplate of the stereo bus compressor. In terms of functionality, those brilliant Israeli plug-in designers reaped the rewards of those brilliant English console designers’ innovative concepts for a clear, logical, functional layout of controls; everything is in its right place. If you’ve never touched the console, the 30-year-old ergonomics still make good sense and take only a few minutes to get used to.

In Use

The first time I used the Waves SSL E Channel was the first time I enjoyed using an EQ in the box: the first time I had an emotional response. I actually smiled and, though I was by myself, exclaimed something aloud, an experience no doubt repeated by hand-on-mouse hopefuls around the globe. You can crank the top end all the way and it just keeps sounding sweet and more exciting. The entire Waves SSL Collection sounds amazing and easily stands above 99 percent of plug-ins out there. Much like SSL itself, Waves has set the gold standard to beat. Waves SSL is one of a handful of plug-ins I need to do what I do. For a full mix, I regularly put only the E-Channel on all but a couple channels. Between my Pro Tools HD|3 cards and RTAS power, I can insert as many as I need at 44.1 and 48 kHz. I have to be more judicious above that sample rate as the processing power gets tapped quickly and card slots aren’t used to 100 percent capacity before another is required for the next instance. One instance in which digital is less flexible than analog.

All the anecdotal evidence about this collection that passed through my ears amounted to this: Waves nailed it. No discernable differences were reported when some users applied the identical setting to a plug-in and a hardware version. Does this mean by using the Waves SSL Collection your mixes will sound the same as if you mixed them on an actual SSL console? It does not. For the reasons of workflow, analog busses analog summing, console resonances and reflections, VCAs, P+G faders, and that one module with Coke spilled in it, the current state of the art of mixing in the box cannot replicate the sound and experience of mixing on a real desk.

Of the most exciting plug-ins, many are based on analog forebears. That this collection of plug-ins had to be a virtually indiscernible clones of the originals in order to qualify as a success speaks to the ongoing value of analog gear. But the Waves SSL bundle’s value to you and me depends on only one thing: Does it sound great? Oh my, yes it does. And if everyone bought one, which you should, maybe we could engineer a group discount.

Summary

Do you identify with any of the following?

Why does EQing in my computer never sound as exciting or smooth or musical as it does/did with analog gear?

It seems like even when I use radically different EQ settings on plug-ins from different manufacturers, tracks lose their individuality in a dense mix.

My EQ plug-ins all look different from one another, but I think they all sound the same.

How do I get that slammin’, in-your-face sound I hear on all the big records?

The Waves SSL collection will shift your “paradigidigm,” if you will. If you want the most exhilarating EQ experience you’ve ever had in a DAW — to punch up your tracks with exuberant dynamics and the feeling of the legendary yet still contemporary hit making SSL sound at your fingertips — the Waves SSL Collection is a bargain at twice its selling price. If you want to reinforce your studio floor, build a machine room, hire a tech and a tea boy to get the same effect, then buy a used SSL console and download a do-it-yourself divorce with your last $249. (Sing it, Phil: “And you coming back to me/Is against all odds/It’s the chance I’ve gotta take.”)