Over the course of months, the X-Desk review unit loaned to us by SSL was first shipped to Assistant Gear Geek Scott McChane, for use in his home studio; then to Kirt Shearer, owner of Paradise Studios; and finally to me at my Kimchee Records project studio. Our perspectives on the unit’s features, layout, and supported workflows were as varied as the use cases that the console’s deep functionality allows. I suspected as much. But when I proceeded to assemble our three opinions sequentially, I realized that there was a substratal fabric to our comments that closely reflected the architecture of the mixer itself. Therefore, I decided instead to intermix all of our writings into a single conversational narrative. While you are reading the resultant play-by-play, I encourage you to visit the SSL website to access an interactive, visual tool that describes the various sections of the X-Desk as you mouse over them. Afterwards, if your interest is piqued, you can read through the user guide and study the explicative block diagram. –AH
SM: “So what are you running these days in your home studio?” they ask. You reply, “Well... the choice was tough for sure. In the end, I had to go with a new SSL mixer. They shipped it to my house from England. No big deal.” Yeah, right! You’ve got a new mixer in your garage worth close to half your mortgage — not likely. But then again, if you’re a true gear geek, you knew the prestige of SSL was coming to the bedroom studio... though beware, the X-Desk is much more than the simple desktop mixer you might expect. Out of the box, it doesn’t look like a console at all. There’s no EQ. The channel count seems to be limited to eight — without any preamps. Missing also are individual XLR or TRS jacks to interface the console to the rest of your gear. Is this a British thing? Are they shipping another box with the rest of the components? For a moment, I considered shipping the X-Desk back to SSL.
KS: It used to true that if you had a studio, you had a mixing console, and it almost certainly cost a small fortune compared to many of today’s options. But now there are many more choices, and therefore more decisions you have to make about what type of studio you’re going to have, and what the workflow will be. The manufacturers are responding by bringing a varied array of products to the market that can address almost anyone’s desired feature set and workflow. SSL’s X-Desk is one of those options, but at first glance, it can be a bit difficult to grasp the application of this product. It appears to be a rather expensive 8-channel mixer. But if you look closer, you realize that it does pack a good array of features into a very small package.
SM: Once I got over the missing features and the lack of XLR and TRS connectors, I scrounged up some D-sub snakes for the X-Desk and started playing with the input routing. All eight of the X-Desk’s channels support line-level inputs from two sources; Line and Alt. SSL suggests Line for use with an external preamp or instrument. Alt is intended for DAW playback. Input selection can be toggled using a button located at the top of each channel strip. Also located on each channel’s top section are a level-trim knob and a polarity-reverse button. Other standard channel-strip functions include two mono sends, a single stereo cue send, panning, mute, solo, and a full-size 100 mm fader. Each channel also has an insert send/return. Sends on every channel are active by default; engaging the insert button activates the insert return only. I could easily see a racked group of 500-series modules really integrating well with the mixer’s channel inserts, especially given that the X-Desk has no EQ. Each channel also has a direct out, switchable pre or post–fader.
AH: Once you look at the routing capability of the X-Desk, you realize that D-subs are a necessity to handle the abundance of I/O. I’m a big fan of simplification where it can be done, so I actually like the fact that the vast majority of the unit’s I/O is handled with D-subs. D-sub snakes cost less and are easier to install than snakes that terminate with single-channel plugs. Furthermore, SSL’s X-Rack and X-Patch products also rely on D-subs with the same pin-outs; employing these two systems along with X-Desk would make for an extremely capable, powerhouse rig. In fact, because the D-sub connectors are in a recessed area, it’s possible to rackmount an X-Desk with other gear right up against its top edge — proof that SSL know exactly what they’re doing.
KS: I must admit that when I first saw this unit, I thought, “Okay... not bad... eight stereo line inputs!” Well, no. The eight fader channels are mono only. I was depressed about that for only a few moments, until I realized that there is a very useful button on the stereo cue sends. It says “Alt.” Alt what? Well, they have included the lifesaving feature of having the cue sends be convertible during mixdown to act as eight additional line inputs with pan controls. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. The cue sends are likely to be used while tracking, for sending headphone mixes to the musicians, but they might not be used while mixing. Most likely, you’d be running your effects in-the-box anyway, and both the effects and cue sends would be idle. So why not make them extra inputs? Good idea.
SM: In my opinion, hands down, the best feature on the channel strip is the stereo cue, with independent level, pan and pre/post switching. It’s quick work building a monitor mix. Plus, in the master section, a Cue to Mix button sums the cue bus to the main L/R mix bus. This is how the mixer achieves a 16-channel sum — and it’s also why SSL can get away with calling the X-Desk a 16-channel mixer!
AH: I love the fact that you can choose Line In or Alt In as the source for each channel’s cue send — regardless of which one you assign to the fader. When you’re overdubbing, you can send existing tracks from the DAW to the cue mix via Alt inputs, while simultaneously feeding the live takes to both the DAW and the cue mix — effortless zero-latency monitoring for the performers, without any repatching. And importantly, you still have an independent mix bus for the engineer to monitor. Or you can just as easily configure X-Desk, with just a few button pushes, to deliver the same mix to the performers and engineer alike. Another option is to route to/from your recorder using the channel inserts, freeing the direct outs and Alt inputs for other purposes; the insert send is always live, and the insert-enable button switches between the signal on the send and the signal on the return. Try to find big-console capability like this in any other compact mixer.
KS: Now, let’s look at the master section. Again, it appears very simple at first glance but manages to include the basic features you’d find on a full-size desk. You’ve got master levels for effects and cue sends. You’ve got two stereo effects returns that could be used as four more inputs during mixdown. You’ve got the ability to return the effects to the cue bus for headphone monitoring. You’ve got mono switches on the returns, as well as solos. While there is no master stereo-bus linear fader, there is a rotary pot for that function. There is also an insert enable switch for the stereo bus.
AH: As with the channel inserts, the mix bus insert send is always live, and the insert-enable button just switches in the return. This makes it possible to A/B a dynamics processor properly, without hearing the effect of the processor reacting to a sudden change from zero to full input. Additionally, there is a parallel summing button that mixes the dry and wet signals at the insert return, allowing you to implement parallel compression or EQ without eating up additional inputs — another killer feature not found on other compacts.
KS: As far as the monitor section, you have the ability to connect and switch between two sets of monitors, although there is no bass management. So, if you want to employ a subwoofer properly, you’ll have to use a subwoofer with built-in management or an external processor. There is the inclusion of a monitor dim switch with a variable dim level, as well as a cut button. You get other large-desk features such as a mono button, as well as the ability to monitor an outside source.
SM: Source options for the monitor section include an external stereo line input and a 3.5 mm “iJack” input for portable players. Don’t be a snob now, you know you’ll use it! Each input source may be selected individually or summed in combination.
AH: I find summable monitoring useful for quickly trying out a part or laying down a guide track against a prerecorded song (like a demo recording sitting on the artist’s iPhone) while the artist is in the control room going direct in. I’ve done this a bajillion times while recording keys, guitar, bass, etc. — definitely a pro feature that works well in the context of “producing” an artist or band.
SM: The monitor section also offers a console-style talkback system with volume control and monitor dim function. The talkback button can be programmed to work in latch or momentary mode during the mixer’s power-up stage. On its very first tryout, I found the X-Desk’s talkback system to perform much better than my existing setup (shouting through the sliding glass door into my iso-booth). On first listen, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the X-Desk’s talkback mic, but after spending an extra few moments balancing the dim and talkback levels, I was more than satisfied with the results. All controls are intuitively located and light up when engaged.
KS: There are those who have been critical of the sound of the headphone outputs, as well as the talkback mic. There are products that outperform the X-Desk here, but I found no objectionable issues in either case. Sure, the talkback mic sounds like a tin can, but hey, it’s a talkback mic. It’s supposed to pick up the guy on the couch across the room, not cut a lead vocal.
AH: I’m not bothered so much with the sound of the talkback mic itself, but I find the mechanical noise bleeding into the talkback mic quite annoying. You hear noise in the cue mix when you push or release the talkback button — or touch anything on the console, for that matter, while talkback is engaged. Anyway, enough about talkback — let’s talk about how the rest of the console sounds.
SM: Initially, I set up the X-Desk as a monitor mixer for summing eight channels of stems, with a simple 8-in, 8-out setup from my DAW. With the trim pushed a little on drums, electric guitar, and electronic instruments, my mixes really sang. Though I’ve never had the opportunity to mix on any other SSL console, I could only describe the clear, smooth sound of the X-Desk as beautiful. Without any further agenda, I just “hung out” in the studio and listened to mixes for the first few days I had the console. I was so excited at how my mixes were sounding through the SSL, that all first impressions and misgivings about the X-Desk were soon forgotten.
KS: The X-Desk uses SuperAnalogue circuitry that is very similar to what is found in their higher-end models, such as the Duality and the AWS 900–series consoles. The older, classic designs, such as the 4000-series, used a healthy complement of socketed IC chips, such as 5534s, as well as a generous helping of VCAs in the signal path. They had a characteristic crunchiness when pushed hard that has become a recognizable sound. In contrast, the newer SuperAnalogue circuitry in the X-Desk relies much more heavily on discrete, surface-mount components. Additionally, there are no capacitors in the audio path. This is certainly in contrast to the older designs, and it is one of the reasons the X-Desk has a more open sound — “clean” in nature and excellent in detail.
I do not intend to make this a comparison between mixing in-the-box and analog summing, but some comment is in order. I am well aware of the arguments on both sides of that issue, and my preference has largely been towards analog summing from a sonic standpoint. I first set up a mix totally in-the-box. I then stemmed tracks out to the X-Desk for comparison. For the mixes I tried, it wasn’t close. There was noticeably better detail and sparkle to the mix when summed with the X-Desk. I could hear the elements of the mix with better clarity. There was good transient response with a good deal of headroom. There was no sign of the stereo bus losing steam. I tried pushing the input gains a bit and ran the LEDs into yellow and red. As expected, there wasn’t a huge character change in the audio up until the point of obvious distortion. So this just isn’t a unit that will really get warm and gooey when pushed. As I said, clarity seems to be the sonic signature. There’s no question that I would choose using this unit over mixing in-the-box.
AH: I think SSL really succeeded in delivering a console with a sound and feature set that belie its desktop size. For any small studio seeking no-compromise sound and well-implemented ergonomics, this unit would function well as the central hub for routing, mixing, monitoring, and communication. Personally, I believe what’s ultimately unique about the X-Desk is that it’s the first compact mixer that successfully straddles the line between home/project studios and professional studios; the features and workflows that it offers mirror the fact that this line is getting fuzzier. The unit is expensive compared to other desktop mixers, most of which include EQs and mic preamps, but I believe that anyone looking for the top-notch sound that this mini SSL delivers would also be picky enough to choose their own outboard preamps and EQs.
KS: My feeling on the X-Desk is that many people will require a different feature set than what this unit provides. It has no EQ or mic preamps, so you have to go outboard. There are consoles out there with more features for mixing, as well as other consoles with more features for tracking. So the market the X-Desk hits seems to be a very specific one. But for those that need some degree of routing while tracking and want analog summing while mixing, this small mixer does cover a lot of ground. Also, the X-Desk can be cascaded for creating a larger system. The X-Desk isn’t elaborate, but it does allow for a small studio to have many of the needed elements of workflow, routing, and audio quality that have previously required a much bigger outlay of cash and space.
SM: Even at this desktop level, an SSL is a serious commitment both with regard to integration and cost. However, based on my experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a console that sounds as good as the X-Desk in the same price range. Combining the footprint of a standard desktop mixer, the connectivity of a console, and that prestigious SuperAnalogue sound, the X-Desk bridges the gap between classes. The X-Desk is a pro solution that would serve well in serious project studios, post-production/editing suites, and recording studio B-rooms alike.
($2899 street; www.solidstatelogic.com)
–Kirt Shearer, SM, and AH
by John Keane
This article is partially excerpted from the introduction to A Musician's Guide to Pro Tools, Book Two, which is a continuation of A Musician's Guide to Pro Tools Book One. It was adapted by me to...