At some point, we all have heard enough of the never-ending “analog vs. digital” debate. It’s getting harder to argue when the digital side of recording continues to get better sonically. Even guys like me that started in the early 2000s have seen a massive evolution, as of late. Let’s face it, we’re pretty lucky these days!
The more blind comparisons I do, the more I realize how much I’m influenced not only by visual feedback, but by tangibility as well. When I'm in the moment, I'll think the amazing analog console in front of me sounds so much better than the plug-in, but those differences usually subside when I sit back, close my eyes and just listen. Similar to when we were kids and wanted to be an astronaut, something primal awakens in me when I’ve got a bunch of buttons and lights in front of me that I can control. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to flying a spaceship. So, why aren't we putting more effort into bringing back this visceral reaction when making music? Who’s to say the more inspiring choice didn’t sound better in that moment, even if the blind comparison is proving otherwise?
I also don’t think it’s a weakness to admit that being able to reach out and touch something “might” make it sound better. If your magic box makes you feel confident and inspired, then the outcome will probably sound better, as well. My expensive gear still sounds like crap when I’m having an off day. It’s a lot more important to focus on the circuits in your head than the ones in your computer and outboard gear.
So, what the hell does all this rambling have to do with the UF1 control surface? Well, that’s the biggest problem with trying to review something like this. It doesn’t have a sound, and all I can do is encourage you to try it. To sum up the UF1 control surface in a few sentences: It’s small, so it fits next to my analog console in the little space I had left on my table. It feels expensive and high quality, so I don’t feel like I’m handling a knock off set of dollar store Legos. It lets me do punch-ins very easily with my Universal Audio Apollo system (an impossible synchronized dance on a keyboard and mouse). Automation is straightforward, and takes my eyes off my computer screen. I can control just about any plug-in fairly easily. The screen is absolutely amazing. It’s a control surface – it’s not the cheapest, but it’s definitely one of the best. You’re going to get what you pay for, so don’t skimp on this.
With that out of the way, I can’t stress enough how much this thing elevated my visceral experience (and that’s what I need to get across to everyone here). Starting out, SSL actually sent me their complete control surface system consisting of the UF8 [Tape Op #144], UC1, and UF1. When their powers combine, it’s like a Captain Planet moment – you finally realize why SSL has split everything up the way they have over these releases, and how well they integrate together. If that larger experience is what you’re after, check out the almost hour long video I’ve done for my MillSounds studio's YouTube channel where I turn off the computer screen and do a whole mix with just the SSL controllers and the plug-ins that come with them. I truly believe that’s as close as you can get to realistically owning an analog console without all the negative aspects (like maintenance and recall). I worked on a massive SSL 9000 console a few times a month for almost five years, and I've got to say, having those three control surfaces was better for me in almost every way. Big consoles with full channel strips on every fader are going to continue to go the way of the dinosaur except in the highest levels of sonic temples. The power bill alone for that SSL 9000 in San Francisco averaged over $1000 a month. The great thing about technology right now is that not everyone needs that opulence to successfully make music anymore. The unfortunate thing about technology right now is that not everyone is going to be able to have experiences like I did in front of those wonderfully inspiring spaceships. These control surfaces are that middle ground.
Putting aside all of the awe for a moment, what I want to get across here is the connection that something like a console can create. At some point in the production process, I strongly believe that we all need to find ways to disconnect from the computer more, and be able to “be” in the music. Even if it’s just for a moment, it needs to be less about what’s on our screen and more about (and only about) what’s coming through the speakers. We all have to find those moments, and that balance, throughout the creative process.
Speaking only for myself, I found that the complete SSL control system (with all three controllers) was a bit overwhelming, for the most part. I’ve been doing the studio thing full time for well over 15 years now, and it’s tough for me to jump into a completely new routine to the extent that all three products offer together. I naturally found myself reaching for the UF1 the majority of the time. The UFI does everything I need it to do, making it compatible with the way I work. I just didn’t need eight faders all the time, and probably wouldn’t be using the SSL channel strips enough to warrant the investment in the UC1. The UF1 gave me the transport, a scrub wheel, and one motorized fader was perfect for those moments of detachment from the screen. After some practice, I found myself controlling my third party plug-ins pretty easily, too. For all of these reasons, the UF1 is the perfect fit for me. However, if you fall in love with the SSL plug-ins and channel strips, you’ll be able to do a lot of heavy lifting with the UC1.
I have a feeling there are a lot of other people out there like me that will find the UF1 a perfect fit. I’ve avoided the investment in a control surface for a long time, and having the SSL control surfaces here was a reminder of an unhealthy gap I’ve created in my workflow. The way it helped me connect to the “bigger picture” in all of this should make it worth the consideration, and I think as more people try it they’ll realize the same thing. I’m looking at this as more of an instrument, and it’s inspiring me to work more confidently. That’s what the UF1 brought to my table.