At the 2019 AES show in NYC, SSL's Origin console was one of the most buzzed-about product debuts. It was striking in several ways, but most interesting because it was a very analog product in a very digital age. That said, the Origin may be the perfect console for an all-digital workflow thanks to some key features.
Origin is a 32-channel inline console with both long and short faders, providing a total of 88 line inputs in mix mode with 64 of them on faders. Each channel has SSL's four-band parametric E series "242" EQ, one of the most musical EQs I've had a chance to use. Each channel also offers a discrete FET-based mic pre with SSL's new PureDrive circuit that can work in the super clean "Pure" mode or the harmonic saturation "Drive" mode, providing for 32 mic inputs at tracking. The board has 8 stereo subgroups (or 16 mono), all of which can be routed to the stereo mix bus for multiple mixing configurations. Also, there are four mono aux sends and two stereo aux sends for sourcing headphone mixes and effects sends, along with four stereo return inputs and a full control room monitoring with talkback section. Of course, there's also the iconic SSL bus compressor built-in!
The center section is notable for its flexibility in being able to move the rack mounted master section up or down to accommodate a computer keyboard, a monitor, a DAW controller, or an additional 500 Series rack, so you can configure the mix position to best suit your work style. Interestingly, what's not in the console is any type of automation or recall, a first from SSL who pioneered the most popular console automation system still in use today.
But make no mistake, while this console would be amazing paired with a tape machine, it's right at home in today's mostly digital workflow, as evidenced by small but useful details. For instance, there's room for a trackpad at the center front bottom – right next to the subgroup masters. One of the features I found most useful is the unity gain button on each channel that bypasses the fader, placing that channel at fixed unity. It's a small thing, but so functional for analog summing when automating in the box, keeping sessions easily recallable, while at the same time easy enough to pull a channel out of unity in order use a real fader to make mix moves on the lead vocal (for instance) – adding some real human soul and energy to a mix. The lack of automation certainly acknowledges that most people will be working in a DAW, and the automation will reside in the DAW. Also, metering is via peak rather than VU meters which again acknowledges that most people will be using the console with a DAW rather than a tape machine.
Before I go too much further on this review, let's talk about the price. What would you pay for a console with 32 mic inputs and 64 line inputs on mixdown? From any other decent console manufacturer, you're going to shell out close to $100,000 when it's all said and done. Here's why the Origin got so much buzz at AES: Out the door, including a stand to put it on (so you don't need to build or buy something to hold it up), this console is just $49,995 – about half of what most other consoles with this flexibility and quality would cost! Granted, this isn't cheap. You can buy a nice car or make a down payment on a house for this kind of money, but in the crazy world of recording music that we live in, some of us somehow manage to finance consoles because they sound so good compared to working in the box. How did SSL do this? Well, the lack of automation was one way to keep the price point down. Another small but brilliant cost-saving detail was eliminating individual routing buttons – saving the expense of 16 buttons on every channel. Instead, you hit one button on the channel to put it into routing mode, then assign that channel's path from the master section; smart and efficient. There are several modes within the routing module as well, so the configuration is actually much more versatile and efficient than older console-style button routing. One other thing not included with the console is a patchbay, but the excellent/easy-to-follow manual has a suggested patchbay layout guide. Origin offers a huge amount of connectivity, which is a good thing, but as with any console, you're going to need to spend a significant amount of money on cabling and the patchbay. Most of the connectors are DB-25, with the 32 mic inputs on XLR being the exception. To give you an idea of the connectivity options on the Origin, there are 41 DB-25 connectors on the back panel! If you're seriously considering this console, both the operation and installation manual are on SSL's website and are suggested reading.
I'm trying to justify why I need an Origin and how I can borrow the money to do it, but I'm not there yet. Still, we wanted to get this console reviewed in Tape Op, so Phil Wagner at SSL (thanks Phil!) let us know that our pal Joe Barresi [Tape Op #23] had just finished up a two month Avenged Sevenfold session on a new Origin. Here's what Joe had to say:
"I prefer tracking on old Neves and mixing on an SSL; I call it 'the great clarifier.' The SSL basically takes all the fatness that you've captured with the Neves, then makes everything clearer. The 4K (4000 Series) console is an unbelievably punchy and aggressive desk, which is especially useful with the kind of music that I mainly work on. My console (I have a 72-INPUT G Plus SSL that came from the Townhouse Studios in London) is also super punchy and so flexible – it's really a great mixing tool. You can just crack open the compression and everything moves forward. The EQ is musical, but it can also be surgical. I use it almost like a Neve, with a very wide bandwidth and just sculpting a little bit here and there, but if I need to do surgery on some tracks, then I can narrow it up too.
The flexibility of the Origin is amazing and reminds me of the workflow on my own desk. That's really why I wanted to check it out – it seemed like even though there are no automation or recall functions, it really did feel like a small footprint 4K to me. It's got both the large and small faders, two stereo foldback/cues, and the functionality of the center section too, which is incredible. Being able to bring a mix back on a switch and monitor external sources as well is fairly easy. The Origin duplicates all the center section functions of the bigger desks, so it felt familiar to me. In fact, the EQ is great and sounded similar – just missing a low-pass filter. The mic pre is very cool – it's got that VHD (Variable Harmonic Drive) feature. In fact, I did some recording in the control room on acoustic sources by running a ribbon mic into the mic pre and jacking it up all the way – it was pretty punchy and cool, man! Very aggressive, but controllable too, depending on how hard I hit it.
The only weird part for me was not having compression on every channel. I'm so used to having a compressor in front of the EQ on a 4K. Being able to reach up and kick in the compressor, compressing ever so slightly, is a huge part of the way I mix. We did outfit the two center 10-space 500 Series racks with 20 channels of compression. We used the new SSL 611DYN comps. I hadn't tried them before, but they actually have a lot more functionality than an original 4K compressor. Plus, as a pre-EQ insert, you can place it in the same general vertical path as a 4K. It also took me a while to get used to the metering – I'm so used to looking at VU meters but the Origin has peak meters. It took me a second to figure out how far I could push levels versus what I was seeing, but sonically it did not bum me out whatsoever. Once I got around those small things, I honestly loved the Origin. I did some rough mixes at my studio – just basic quick roughs of where we were at so that I could A/B what I was hearing at my place to what was coming through the Origin. It was impressive. I set the desk up as a summing mixer with 24 channels of Pro Tools coming in mono and stereo submixes (like kick, snare, stereo toms, stereo cymbals, stereo rooms, mono bass, assorted stereo guitars, and solos, plus keys, etc.). That way I could do roughs every night of the current progress and could easily bounce between songs. The console's built-in stereo bus compressor was always engaged, going back into Pro Tools with no plug-ins on the mix, and it was super punchy – actually very impressive. I had a decent amount of EQ and compression going, as I would do in a regular mix, to see how the console handles abuse, and it was totally respectable. My only real regret was not wiring the whole desk up to a patchbay. To save money and time we figured out how many actual DB-25s I would need to get in and out of the Origin easily, but in retrospect, I wish it was all completely wired to a bay so I could've had access to other crucial functions like the talkback compressor, or the SLs (Studio Loudspeakers), etc.
I didn't miss the lack of 32 buses, as there are plenty of bus and send options with the Origin. The routing is easy: Four stereo effects returns that I didn't even get to use. The other thing that was interesting was the button that places all faders at unity and takes them out of the picture, so stemming and level recall is easy. That's a pretty cool idea. The Origin also has a Sleep mode, which drove me crazy at first. The console automatically goes to "sleep" after not passing audio for a preset time (in order to save power) – this threw me for a loop. I had to text SSL for a workaround (because I of course didn't read the manual), and they kindly directed me to the section in the manual that allows you to set it really high – around 74 minutes or something. Once I did that, it was never a problem for me again. I love that you can turn it off at night so you don't have to keep an air conditioner on overnight for the power supply (like I have to do with my 4K) – and the soft-start function is cool too. Overall, it's a very happening desk, and an excellent addition to the SSL lineage."