The SSL large format consoles are, quite simple, the quintessential mixing desks and can be found in the studios of almost all top-tier mix engineers. They unarguably changed both the sound of modern music and the art of mixing in general, with innumerable hit records having passed through their inimitable circuitry.
The first SSL consoles were introduced in the mid-1970s. Though only a handful of the the early models were made, they made their mark on the recording industry, perhaps most famously when Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ brought to the world a drum sound like nothing that’d ever been heard before, courtesy of the SSL B-Series console on which is was recorded. It was in the early 80s, however, that the classic SSL console, as its known today, hit the market in the form of the SL 4000E and set a new benchmark for mixing.
The 4000E was a leap forward both sonically and functionally. With production trends moved towards a cleaner aesthetic (as is exemplified in much of the music of the 1980s), the console offered high headroom, flexible EQ, gating and compression and a clear, punchy sound that would go on to become the trademark sonic imprint of the company. Furthermore, it brought a new workflow that fostered more creativity, unimpeded by technology. Design elements like an in-line signal path (meaning each channel has a separate path for recording and monitoring signals, allowing the engineer to more readily access each), dynamics processing on every channel and integrated transport controls, including track arming, via the console’s advanced (for its time) computer. Shortly thereafter, this computer would also serve to provide SSL’s revolutionary Total Recall technology. This broke new ground, enabling mix settings to be saved and then precisely replicated for when mixes needed to be recalled and changed.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, SSLs console lineup developed and expanded. The E-Series consoles’ most significant change was the overhaul of its EQ section. Starting out with the ‘brown knob’ circuit, which has very musical quality and is overall gentler than its successor, from the 1983 version of the console. Known as the ‘black knob’ EQ, it gave wider gain rangers and a tighter Q, allowing more precise sculpting. This has come to be known as the classic E-Series EQ and an important part of the console’s signature sound. The G-Series followed on from this, amongst other upgrades, the most important change again came in the form of a redesigned EQ. The G-Series EQ is a much more significant departure from its predecessor and is characterised as a totally different piece of gear. The main distinguishing feature of the G-EQ is its variable Q, which narrows the bandwidth as more gain is cut or boosted. This lends itself to more EQ moves with small amounts of gain in broad strokes, like shaping an instrument or bus processing. Both versions of the E-EQ have a fixed bandwidth and all levels of boost or cut, making it better suited to surgical corrective EQ or applications that need tighter Qs at lower gain levels, which is commonly required with drums. Both the E and G-Series consoles were eventually made available in the 4000, 5000, 6000 and 8000 formats, which offered the same sound with variations on the routing and bussing. Most notably of these was the introduction of multiple stereo busses, a feature harnessed and popularised by mix engineer Michael Brauer with his multi-bus approach to mixing. This involves the spectral content of the mix is separated into different mix buses and compressed independently of one another, rather than having one master bus compressor reacting to the full mix.
In 1994, SSL made a substantial update to their analog technology with the introduction of the 9000 J console. This implemented their new SuperAnalogue signal path, which utilised a capacitor-free design for extremely low distortion and incredible bandwidth – theoretically from as low as 5Hz up to as high as 500kHz. While these consoles don’t respond as well to being ‘pushed’ in the way the earlier models do, it provides unparalleled detail and sheen. Amongst other features, including 5.1 configuration and Total Recall as standard, these consoles came with both E and G-type EQs with the option to switch between.
Though many versions of the console exist, each with their own charm and unique qualities, the SSL sound is consistent throughout all iterations. Across all genres, it has become the definitive sound of a mixed record. The combination of a clean signal path, powerful EQ, snappy compressor and highly musical expander/gate affords detailed shaping of each track and the bus compressor in the centre section adds the glue and finesse that brings it all together in a bold and impressive way. Even as digital workflows become more popular, these consoles continue to be the primary instrument of most mixing facilities around the world.
The Gear Rack