Ten plus years ago I was the proud owner of a Neve 5104 console. I admit, it's a far cry from a vintage Neve sporting 1073 modules, but it's what I could afford at the time and I liked its sound. But as is the case with any piece of vintage equipment, it required constant love and attention. It would behave well for days on end during tracking, but then the moment you needed to print a mix an EQ would fizz out, something would magically become intermittent, or a channel's level would drop 10 dB. At some point, there was so much board tape on the console with "X"s on it to mark bad channels, funky EQ's, bad pans, etc. that I sold it "as is" to a guy that was willing to make a project out of it. I want gear that sounds great and works every day. It's not too much to ask, and these days there's a ton to choose from that meets these criteria. I feel I have been through it all when it comes to different formats and workflows for mixing; in the box, all analog consoles, mix surfaces/DAW controllers, summing mixers – you name it, I have tried it.
I like the flexibility of being able to execute recalls quickly when mixing in the box, but I also enjoy using healthy amounts of analog processing. My fellow compatriots here at Tape Op know that I've been on the hunt for a smallish format analog console with good routing options, can incorporate 500 Series modules, sounds great, and has at least decent feeling faders. The last point is a huge pet peeve of mine. I'll see an amazing looking console across the room at one of the trade shows, only to walk over and grab a fader and be disappointed with its flimsiness. The problem is, many of these consoles sound fine, but I would never purchase one due to this tactile letdown. Anyone who has worked on a spaceship-sized Neve or SSL console knows how perfect it feels to push up a high-end Penny & Giles fader. Now we're mixing! Tape Op publisher John Baccigaluppi mentioned in a recent conversation that SSL made a small format console that supported 500 Series modules. Upon some quick internet research, I found that the XL Desk from Solid State Logic did indeed meet fit the bill.
The unit SSL sent me was a pre-production unit that had seen some miles. I had some issues with certain channels not passing audio when the 500 Series button was selected, so I swapped and reseated modules, ran some signal path tests and more to no avail. When I let SSL know via email, I got a call 30 minutes later from Phill Scholes saying he could come up to Seattle from Los Angeles to take a look on Friday. It was Wednesday. Friday, unfortunately, didn't work for me, so he suggested he come up the next day. Sure enough, Thursday morning, Phill knocked on the studio door with his tool kit and parts. Long story short, within a few hours he had the console up and running issue-free. Friends, that is customer service. I was impressed.
I will cut to the chase. There is so much functionality and routing flexibility packed into the XL-Desk, that I cannot imagine a scenario where I would be stuck without an option that could meet any task. It would take too much ink to go through every little aspect of this desk and I'd be re-writing the manual anyway, but, for the sake of this review, I wanted to focus on what I find noteworthy.
At the top of this console is a 16-space 500 Series rack with an additional two 500 Series spaces preloaded with a double-wide SSL G Comp stereo bus compressor. You can have the XL-Desk shipped with up to 16-channels of 500 Series SSL EQ or order it empty to fill up yourself. The XL-Desk has 24 inputs, broken down into three channel types. The first 16 channels have dual input mono functionality that can switch between a main input source or DAW return. Channels one through eight feature SSL's VHD (Variable Harmonic Distortion) microphone preamps with line level input returns from the DAW. The preamps on the unit are underrated in my opinion. They sound clean and transparent, but I loved using the VHD option to drive the signal from subtly saturated to full-blown fuzz for both tracking and mixing. On these first eight channels, it is also possible to utilize the VHD option to drive existing audio after the fact during mix. The knob lets us select continuously from second to third-order harmonics and a blend of the two – pretty cool to have a solid tracking preamp and tone shaper when mixing right at your fingertips! A personal favorite was blowing a second bass track into oblivion while mixing it back in under the more traditional tone for a nice sonic halo and character. Channels nine through 16 are line input modules only, however, the channel's corresponding 500 Series slots could be filled with mic preamps. All of the first 16 channels offer standard Cuts and Solos with a Trim section that includes a +/-20 dB trim and three function LED indicator, plus polarity, channel output post-fader, insert, DAW return, and 500 (for accessing the channel's corresponding in-line 500 Series slot) buttons. Other dual mono channel features include a stereo cue section with an ALT button that pulls in an additional 16 inputs on mixdown, plus four stereo mix bus selectors (A, B, C, and D), and 100 mm faders. The last four channels before the center section are stereo.
The monitoring section is robust, with multiple source selection and options for three pairs of monitors (with individual level controls) plus a subwoofer (bass management included) with a MONO check button. CUT and DIM (with level adjustment) buttons sit directly below the larger Monitor Level control. There are two foldbacks with independent levels and Talkback buttons (configurable as latching or momentary). A standard headphone jack and mini-plug input for iPhones, etc. are also provided. A Listen button and level control with built-in compressor adds the option to plug in a listen mic in the live room so you can monitor conversations between takes – this feature also makes for more wild compression sounds when used for other purposes. One handy feature is the HP (headphone) mix that can flip from a tracking setup (where someone may want a loud click track or their specific instrument a little louder) to the board mix where levels are more in context.
There is also a master section for MIX buses B, C, and D that features the borrowing of 500 Series modules (more on that below), and Insert, Sum, and AFL functions. INS engages the insert point normally associated with an external piece of stereo outboard equipment. The SUM button sums the Insert Return and the original Mix Bus feed together providing a direct stereo input to the Mix bus. AFL allows the Mix Bus to be auditioned in the studio monitors. As mentioned above, each mix bus can "borrow" 500 Series processing from the rack: 9-10 feeds Mix A, 11-12 gets Mix B, and so forth. Did I mention that the console comes with the famous G Series compressor that is strapped to Mix A? Anyone that has used one of these compressors knows what a special tool it can be for giving the mix a nice "finished/all things in their place" sound.
The inline 500 Series modules can be "hard patched" to the corresponding channel with a jumper cable on the back of the unit or routed to a patchbay for maximum flexibility. By selecting the 500 button on a channel you can use this function, and by selecting the INS can access both inserts. Inserts are routed via D-sub patching on the rear of the XL Desk. Worth noting: there are a lot of D-subs on the back of this unit (27!), which truly speaks to the plethora of routing options the XL Desk has to offer. Keep in mind that after purchasing this console you will still need a decent chunk of change for cabling – dedicated XL Desk cabling packages can be found online. The only XLR connectors on this mixer are for the talkback mic and the main monitor output – mic inputs are all D-sub.
Though the all-analog XL Desk has no automation or recall capabilities, the four mix buses and direct (pre or post fader) channel outputs make stem creation, creative processing, and recalls a snap. You can spit B, C, and D sub-groups out with processing back into a DAW and 24 channels on the board post fader back into the DAW as well. What does this mean? Well, imagine being able to send those stems or tracks back to the XL Desk, set the faders at unity (would've been nice to have a fader null/disable button) and have the mix as it was, then make the necessary level or processing adjustments and reprint. Considering you will have to do pans, sends and recall any mix bus processing that was going on, it is not "instant recall," but it's much closer, while having the benefit of an analog summed mix.
If you are familiar with Michael Brauer's [Tape Op #131, #37] mix technique, multiple mix buses are largely his game. By processing certain mix elements as groups (drums, guitars, keys, vocals) with compressors, EQ, and effects either collectively, or by using sends and then sending them all to A (or primary mix bus), you can create new sonic opportunities and palettes. You could also use the different mix buses to simply create stereo stems and print them simultaneously along with the master mix. For example, all drums to B, all guitars to C, and all vocals to D. Because they all have dedicated outputs, you can get them back into the DAW while you are printing mixes.
We could write a book on this beast, but if you are at all inclined to find out if this desk is for you, I would recommend digging into the owner's manual online to get a comprehensive sense of what this console is capable of.
Simple and small gripe: The faders are a little light, but reasonably precise. They're certainly better than the junk found on cheap consoles, but not quite as sweet as a Penny & Giles fader. I would consider replacing the fader caps to perhaps something a tad weightier to compensate. However, the sonics are excellent. The XL Desk has a big, wide-open sound that I associate with the large format SSL desks I've worked on at the now sadly defunct Studio X in Seattle and Joel Hamilton's [Tape Op #85] Studio G in Brooklyn. Those consoles feel firm, clear and precise – anything but sterile, perhaps due to SSL's SuperAnalogue™ signal path.
Another aspect people love about SSL's has always been the flexibility in routing when mixing. I know a lot of folks that say, "Track on a Neve, mix on an SSL," but you could actually load this up with some Neve 500 Series modules and use outboard preamps to track and then have all the SSL routing flexibility right there. A newcomer may not even know how to fully utilize all the options here, but as you grow as an engineer, you'll be hard-pressed to come up with a routing scenario that could not be accomplished on the XL Desk.
I brought up an older session that I had done with Seattle singer Tom Eddy (from bands The Dip and Beat Connection) that I'd halfway mixed but never finished. I was astonished at how quickly the mix came together with the XL Desk. I wanted to mix only using my EQs in the SSL's 500 Series slots with outboard compression and effects, which makes for far less back and forth on the computer – set your outputs in the DAW and mix!
You can use the XL Desk with or without a patchbay. I tried it both ways, but I preferred the maximum flexibility afforded with the multiple signal routing options available on the patchbay. It was a bit of a project to get (most!) everything patched and dialed in, but, once I did, it made auditioning various processing chains a snap. What I liked most about the XL Desk is that once I got a sense of layout and functions, my workflow immediately improved. Mixes came together much quicker, which is a huge benefit. Though I didn't get to audition every scenario possible, I can see that there's a ton of potential packed into this small footprint console. In addition to being a great centerpiece for a commercial studio, the XL Desk is compact enough (40 x 32 x 10-inches) that you could take it to a remote location, like a rehearsal space, old barn, haunted house, or any unique space for minimal effort tracking. With a few outboard mic preamps, monitors, and an interface, you could have yourself a robust mobile rig with excellent sonics.
While this console does not have every feature of a large format SSL, it has more than enough. The audio path of the XL Desk is the same as SSL's flagship consoles, like the Duality and AWS [#83]. Though it lacks built-in dynamics on each channel (which you could supply with 500 Series modules) and doesn't have the bus and channel count, for the money the XL Desk is loaded with and features, plus its big console sound is incredible. Older SSL desks hold a reputation for having a sweet spot (in terms of how hard you hit it to pull out the true sonic character of the desk). I was told by SSL that this is no longer true, and I thought the XL Desk sounded good regardless of where I had the faders.
For all the flexibility and convenience that working on a DAW provides, I have spent the past few years trying to look less and listen more. I feel that more and more engineers (especially young ones) are mixing with their eyes and not their ears. With the XL Desk, you'll find yourself closer to the golden days, by being able to use onboard 500 Series modules with the ability to easily access and integrate analog outboard gear – spin some dials for pans, sends, etc. It takes a little practice to break old habits, but ultimately it feels better to mix without a mouse. I feel more connected to the audio and song by tilting the balance of power from my eyes to my ears. It sounds so simple! It comes down to how you choose to work and what your budget will allow for. There are many advantages to working in the box – as conversion quality and other aspects of digital recording have improved, it's a viable option – look to the adoption of digital mixing by pro mixers like Tchad Blake [Tape Op #16, #133] and the aforementioned Michael Brauer as examples. For me, there is still something quite therapeutic about interfacing with console faders and analog processing that others too still find essential and inspiring. The XL Desk is a professional, accessible all-analog console that is all things SSL in terms of tone and vibe – unparalleled in its flexibility at this price point. And with the introduction of SSL's larger, new Origin console, we've seen a serious price reduction for the XL Desk.