I vividly remember the first time I was exposed to moving fader automation. I was 12 years old, and the medium-sized recording facility was centered around two seminal Yamaha DMP7 [Tape Op #122] digital mixers. The experience blew my mind. Even though the faders were noisy, and their resolution was far from amazing, the idea that I could ride faders and effects sends/returns (with complete recall) opened my eyes to an incredibly dynamic way of mixing. Years later, while at university, I was fortunate to finally put my hands on a genuine SSL mixing console that had proper moving faders. Because of the desk’s sheer size, I felt like I was commanding the Starship Enterprise. It seemed that my mixes became more lively and exciting simply because I was doing a dance with the desk and the music responded accordingly.
I started mixing exclusively in the box around 2008, and felt the need to adopt a control surface for my DAW – mostly for writing automation. While I’ve used three different moving-fader controllers at various times in my career, I eventually settled on an Avid Artist Mix about eight years ago. Even though the unit currently sits directly in front of me every single day, I find myself using the controller less and less because I seem to get quicker results with a mouse and the knobs on my keyboard controller. Admittedly, I’ve kept it on my desk simply because it “looks cool.” When Tape Op approached me about reviewing SSL’s new control surface, I immediately said “yes” simply because of the company’s pedigree and my history with SSL consoles. Although, could another DAW controller re-ignite my console-waltzing?
Taking the UF8 out of the box, I was immediately taken by the robust construction. The chassis is incredibly sturdy and sports a very sleek anodized top plate. That being said, all four edges around the top of the unit felt sharp to the touch. While I don’t think that most people will find themselves bleeding out while mixing their latest hit, I’m not sure how secure I’d feel using it during a 3 a.m., Scotch-induced session. Of course, in the end, it’s all about sacrificing for the art, right? I’m a big believer in gear ergonomics, and thus can’t endorse enough the six variable angles of elevation that the UF8’s rear (screw-on) legs provide. It was a joy that I?could be incredibly specific in how I wanted the unit to sit at just the right angle in front of me, and SSL absolutely nailed it in their decision to offer so many options!
The UF8 operates under the HUI/Mackie protocol and connects to your computer via a single USB 2.0 cable. It also has an additional USB-A port, which allows four units to be daisy-chained together in order to build a 32-fader surface. Before you get rolling with the UF8, you’ll need to first install SSL’s very intelligent 360 software (Mac and PC). Along with the software’s intuitive interface and vast configurable options, the 360 gives you the option to talk to three different DAWs simultaneously, which can be specified in the layers window. On the unit itself, each of the three DAWs can then be accessed by the three LAYER keys in the upper left section of the UF8. Next to the LAYER keys are three QUICK KEYS that allow you to toggle between different screen sets within your DAW (depending on how you set them up in 360).
One thing I want to make note of is the well-articulated “getting started” videos that SSL has put together. Each individual video is specific to the DAWs that the UF8 supports (currently Pro Tools, Logic, Studio One, Cubase, and Ableton Live). They offer a serious foundation of how to set up the UF8 with your chosen DAW and do so in a very slick/well-produced way. In my past experiences, most controller setups have been clunky, and a bit of a crap-shoot to get them to work in tandem with different DAWs, but SSL aced this, and I was up and running with my UF8 in no time.
When you initially power the unit up, the UF8 comes to life, displaying a carnival of colors and faders that move up and down with a near-silent elegance. Appropriate to the unit’s name, the UF8 has eight touch-sensitive, motorized 100 mm faders that are incredibly smooth. Each fader also has 10-bit resolution (or 1024 steps), which allows for an insanely precise amount of control in light of the HUI protocol it operates under. That being said, to me the faders felt a bit looser when compared to my older Artist Mix.
At the top of each fader are eight V-pots (continuous rotary controllers) that can be assigned for multiple uses – although they default to control panning. While I appreciate how flexible these eight nobs are, they also felt a little loose to me, but resistance in controller pots is a personal preference that doesn’t affect performance or resolution. Along the left side of each fader is a SOLO, CUT (mute), and SEL (select) button – the latter’s function is dictated by the three SELECTION MODE buttons on the mid-right side of the unit. This portion of the UF8 allows for multiple fader selections, record enabling, and automation functions. Automation type can be selected via the buttons on the left-hand portion of the UF8. The selection buttons also have a toggle feature, whereby if you hold them down and press a single fader’s “SEL” button, all eight faders jump back to null.
Above the V-pots are eight absolutely stunning high-resolution color screens/scribble strips. I’ve watched UF8 videos on the SSL site (and other online locations), but they simply don’t do these screens justice. They are incredibly pristine and sharp, which means you never have to guess at what information they are giving you – gorgeous! Above these screens are eight of the 43 (wow!) configurable keys that change function depending on which of the six Soft Key buttons are selected in the upper right-hand corner of the unit. These Soft Keys (defined and configurable within the 360 software) toggle between controlling the V-pots, pre-configured layers, and a single, user-defined layer.
Directly below the Selection Mode buttons are the unit’s navigation controls or Main Channel Encoders. There is a large round scroll knob that allows you to page thru your session’s individual channels, move the play-head (in Nav mode) or move individual pieces of audio (in Nudge mode). The Focus key enables you to adjust individual plug-in parameters by simply hovering your mouse over the desired control and twisting the scroll knob – nice! You can also jump in banks of 8-channel increments by using the two Bank keys, located right below the navigation-selection keys. Finally, at the bottom right of the unit are the UF8’s four arrow cursor buttons, which allow you to move around your session – or zoom – with great ease.
The last section of buttons, located mid-way down the left-hand side of the unit, control the sends and plug-in parameters of your individual channels. When selecting the Channel key, it enables all V-Pots to control the first five sends in your DAW, which can be toggled to pre- or post-fader via the buttons atop the eight crisp TFT displays. Choosing the Plugin button allows you to control whatever plug-ins you may have in the first five inserts of each individual channel. For plug-ins with more than eight tweakable parameters, you can access additional components with the Page keys or the furthest-right V-Pot.
One thing that I continued to struggle with was how the unit controls the transport of your DAW. Instead of having dedicated transport controls at the bottom right – which would seem natural as so many controllers and tape machines have positioned them at this location for as long as I can remember – SSL chose to put the transport controls at the very top of the unit, above the eight displays. While I understand that this decision may have been to accommodate multiple UF8s side-by-side, I still couldn’t get used to the ergonomics of this. As a work-around, I was back to using my computer’s extended keyboard to control Apple Logic’s [Tape Op #74] transport functions – butted up against the front of the UF8. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but something to mention nonetheless.
Overall, the configurability of this unit is nothing short of astounding, and within a very short time I was flying around my sessions with a great deal of speed. The dedicated 360 software is fantastic, and getting the UF8 to work with your DAW will be a “cakewalk” thanks to SSL’s well-articulated videos. The unit is laid out in a very logical way and the UF8’s 79-buttons feel nice and solid. Apart from my personal preferences, this is a well-built controller priced at under $1300.