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A console review can be rather involved, so let me just say up front that I think the SSL AWS consoles are absolutely excellent. The sound is enormous, clear and strong; the functionality offers up what is without a doubt the most sophisticated, yet intuitive, way to work in a hybrid digital- analog system; and the size, ergonomics and general vibe of these consoles make for what is probably the most intelligent and forward-looking desks on the market.
The sound of the AWS is very SSL, and particularly is derived from the 9000 K, which is known for its headroom and clear, full-range sound. These consoles are big on analog mojo, but not the kind where you push into the mix bus and get a harmonic halo like on a Neve. Rather, these consoles have tons of headroom and remain clear and focused as you push levels hotter and hotter. The analog mojo is the kind that delivers a rock solid and deep bass footprint, crystal clear highs, and a very articulate midrange while never sounding harsh. Further, the AWS 900 series presents an incredibly wide and deep sound stage that has made SSLs the choice of so many mixers to this day. In short, the AWS sounds huge and powerful like a big SSL.
While the main circuitry of the AWS series is derived from the 9000 K, the EQs, however, present a really interesting sonic option in that they can be switched between the classic E-series curves and the G-series EQ. Without getting into it too much, the G EQ has very distinctive curves and is probably SSL's most colored sounding circuit. You hear an immediate tonal change when using the G EQ - a more midrange focused and thicker tone. By switching all 24 faders between the E and G EQs, the sound of this board is truly transformed, but mixing up the curves can prove to be a really great option. I found myself using the G EQ on tracks that were lacking a certain kind of earthy fullness or when I needed to do tone shaping that changed the character of a sound rather than just addressing frequency content. One good example was while trying to lay virtual strings into live orchestral strings. By scooping broadly around 3 kHz, the virtual strings kind of fell into the more earthy live orchestra section very naturally. Conversely, I found myself using the E-series EQ when I just needed to do some more generic tone-shaping or surgical work. In many ways the heart of an analog console is its EQ section, and the AWS boards come loaded with two hearts.
The busing structure of these consoles is elaborate, flexible, and generally able to do just about anything you'd like in terms of routing - very typical of SSL boards. If you really want to learn more about what's possible, see SSL's website for a full description, but I'll spare us all the confusing description of the multilayered grid. In short, you get a bunch of pre and post-selectable cue and aux sends that can be sent to a number of different buses. With a little bit of study, it's easy to start doing elaborate parallel processing; create effects sends and cue mixes; or mix down to 5.1. There are eight main track buses, selectable via pushbuttons above each channel, and each channel has a switchable insert point that can be put into three different locations along the signal path of the channel. If you can think it up, you can probably route it on this board.
The stereo bus compressor is based on the G-series console compressor and uses feed-forward topology for that famously thick, somewhat grabby, SSL bus compressor sound. It can be routed into either the record or mix buses, and is sonically capable of shaping the sound of the console as any bus
compressor can. On a console costing $100,000, it's easy to overlook this compressor at first, but to have a classic bus compressor that costs about $3600 (street price) on board, routed into the bus at the press of a button and recallable along with the rest of the board via TotalRecall is one of this console's best features. It certainly makes the AWS sound and feel more like a large-format SSL.
There are also two mono compressor/expander/gates on board, assignable to any channel via push buttons beneath the track bus buttons on each channel. These can be linked for stereo operation, and they provide auto makeup gain; routing a channel to them during mixing is a breeze as your levels will pretty much stay put. I am a big fan of auto makeup gain compressors for mixing (I'm now addicted to the API 225L on my own console's channels), and I have yet to do a mix on an AWS console without using these on-board compressors. Like the stereo bus compressor, the push button routing and TotalRecall functionality make them an integral and intuitive part of mixing on the board.
For tracking, the AWS is equipped with SSL's SuperAnalogue mic preamps. Truth is, I've mostly mixed on these boards, but I have tracked though them on a couple of occasions. As most would agree, the SSL preamps are excellent, clean units, but they aren't going to give you that color and sweet distortion curve that so many people crave these days. You can play the preamp against the output fader for some hot tones, but beware the steep distortion ramp-up here - not a ton of room for subtle distortion.
For analog mixing, SSL has included their longstanding TotalRecall technology for storing and recalling all console settings, as well as their classic SSL Automation for the analog faders. They've also included the new A-FADA automation system, by which the console's analog faders follow the DAW's automation. A-FADA makes bringing already automated in- the-box mixes onto an AWS console a cinch. Both TRC and Automation can be stored with your DAW session, and once the console was talking to the computer via Ethernet, I was comfortably writing, naming, and storing mix passes while hardly thinking about it.
That more or less covers the analog side of the board, and now we turn to what is in my opinion the best new console feature since automated faders: full DAW control at the touch of a button. In all seriousness, I think the SSL AWS has introduced the single most powerful button on any console of the past 30 years or more. One simply presses a button on the center section and all faders and the twenty-four assignable rotary encoders instantly become DAW controllers with track names appearing on the digital scribble strips. One can enter and exit various DAW automation modes from the faders as well. Combine this with the host of other DAW integrated functions such as edit/mix window selection, view zooming, undo, numeric key pad with enter key, full transport controls, and virtual plug-in control via the onboard TFT screen - you can quite literally set the keyboard and mouse aside and work both the DAW and analog sides of a mix on the board only.
I have a personal vendetta against the computer screen and the fact that using a mouse requires precious hand-eye- coordinating brain power while I'm supposed to be listening and thinking musically. While at first glance this DAW control functionality may look like a really cool feature, on the human brain-processing level, this functionality actually makes working on the AWS consoles more like what it is to work with analog tape than one would expect from the most sophisticated, DAW- integrated console to date. By putting the mouse and keyboard aside while using the AWS, I'm as freed up to think as musically and work as fluidly as when I roll tape. And SSL has absolutely nailed the DAW integration with Pro Tools. I feel like there should be more to say about the DAW integration, but it's such a simple and elegant solution to such a fustercluck of a problem that all I can say is "thank you."
Let's take a look at the new ASW 948 in particular, as I recently spent three long days behind this console mixing for The Cinematic Orchestra. Responding to the real-world needs of mixing today's high-track-count DAW-based projects, SSL realized that many people were simply stemming subgroups out of their Pro Tools session onto pairs of channels, so they made the logical move of designing dual line-input channels that share the same routing, insert points, EQ, and fader. The physical size and layout of the AWS 948 is identical to the 24- input AWS 924, but the ability to return 24 stereo channels to the console makes DAW sessions with many stereo tracks or many stems as intuitive as returning mono channels from a tape machine. Clearly, SSL looked at how people work with stereo virtual instruments, enormous film scores, in-the-box subgroups and stems, and they adapted the console accordingly - very smart and forward-looking.
You don't have to configure the board with 24 stereo channels, as each channel can be run as two mono channels. However, mono mode is not the most elegant use of the console as there are only twenty four faders, and every even-numbered input is then routed to the rotary encoder above the fader (these are flippable by pressing the encoder knob). However, if there are mono sources that need to be individually returned to the board (maybe a plate reverb return), mono mode is easy enough to get used to, and this complexity is typical of SSL's ultra-flexible console designs. Some mono routing strategies might include returning a vocal on the fader (odd-numbered channel) and a vocal double on the rotary encoder (even- numbered channel), or perhaps one could return a snare top on the fader and the bottom on the rotary encoder.
One of the most surprisingly cool features of the AWS 948 is that when a channel is in stereo mode, the pan knob becomes a width control. When the pan pot is turned to the right, an out-of-phase left component is introduced to the right signal, and vice-versa, resulting in a widening of the signal beyond the speakers. When the pan pot is turned left, in-phase components are introduced to the opposing component in a similar way, resulting in a narrowing of the width with fully left being mono. At first, I didn't think this width knob was anything more than something to do with a function rendered useless by making the channels stereo, but as soon as I started toying with it, a whole new dimension of mix control opened up.
For The Cinematic Orchestra tracks I was mixing, we were using every channel on the board, with instruments ranging from full drum set tracked at Mavericks in NYC; to full live orchestra tracked in Budapest; to virtual pianos pulling samples from sample libraries; to gated, delayed, sweeping band-pass filtered Rhodes parts. I was mixing over a hundred tracks that didn't always sit together sonically when I brought the faders up - a natural result of such elaborate productions. First of all, an analog console - even one as clean sounding as this SSL - really does help pull together the sonic character of such disparate sources. The AWS 948 does "that thing" that only analog summing can do, and it does it really well. The stereo bus takes anything you throw at it, and I really appreciated all the headroom available as the bombastic drums and uber-deep synth basses kicked in.
But what really floored me was how that width knob helped me deal with all those disparate elements. For example, when the drums entered on one song, the mono kick drum just felt way too present punching through the middle of the very wide orchestra. By rotating the width knob to the right, that kick drum began to lose its center focus, and the cymbals became wider and more convincingly part of the orchestra. In another section, a virtual piano just felt too... well... too virtual, and by widening it, it fell back into the stereo image of the track. And I also found that when the music got quieter and more intimate, narrowing the orchestra helped the intimacy of those moments. What it means to be working on a real stereo board is exemplified by using that width control, and I can't say enough about how incredibly useful that control is when dealing with all stereo tracks. It is definitely not a gimmick.
I have become convinced that Phill Brown has it right when he says that while using plug-ins, "each tweak of compression, EQ, de-esser - in fact, any treatment at all - will slowly eat away at the original signal." (Are We Still Rolling?, p. 359). As I mixed The Cinematic Orchestra's tracks, I was slowly removing plug-in EQs that were in place to manage the sonics during production, and I started using the console EQs instead. If we're talking one or two tracks, the effect isn't enormous, but when I'd deleted, say, thirty plug- ins and replaced them with either the E or G EQs, the difference was night and day. It was like doing sonic archeology, and with each removal of a plug-in, I felt as if I was dusting off yet another critical feature of a precious artifact until we could see the whole thing glimmering in clear sunlight. And the versatility of the E and G curves allowed me to do everything from surgical notching to broad-band tone-shaping.
Obviously, one of SSL's goals here is to offer an amazing-sounding analog console that will undeniably blow away an in-the-box mix, and there's no question that they've done that. What's more is that they've designed the AWS 948 to take an in-the-box mix quickly and easily into the analog realm. Between the 24 stereo line inputs, the A-FADA functionality, and Pro Tools' new ability to save I/O profiles, a very elaborate laptop mix could be splayed out on the AWS 948 and be playing automation in minutes. The only thing that'll take you some time is that you're going to want to dump those plug-ins and take advantage of the sound of the EQs and the width control.
After three long days of mixing very elaborate productions on the AWS 948 (in the new mix room at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, www.sigmasoundstudios.com), I walked away with mixes that everyone was totally happy with, and there was no question that the console was the right sound for this music - big, expansive, powerful music within which clarity and analog 3D mojo were necessary. We also walked away knowing the console inside and out, and as complex and versatile as it is, it's also incredibly intuitive to use. The best feature? DAW control integration. We eventually were able to move through the board and through elaborate Pro Tools mixes without the mouse or keyboard. I think the great irony for me is that, as a bit of a Luddite tape-loyalist, I found this incredibly high-tech console that's deeply integrated into Pro Tools to offer up the most analog-like workflow I've ever experienced with the computer still turned on.
If you're looking to buy an analog console in this price range, or you're just looking to book a mix studio, schedule a day behind an AWS console and force yourself to put the mouse and keyboard aside. I can't guarantee the sound will be right for you and your work, but I can guarantee you're going to wonder how you ever lived without the integrated DAW control. Very very smart, SSL. (AWS 924 $79,500; AWS 948 $96,250; www.solidstatelogic.com)
-Allen Farmelo, www.farmelo.com