Reviewed by Mel Lambert
Improving upon success is always fraught with difficulties. The marketing department has polled current customers and come up with a wish list of advanced features and functions which, the polled users have told them, are necessary for next-generation systems. Meanwhile, the R&D department has been following the latest trends in circuit design and implementation, and is prepared to extend the envelope in state-of-the-art technologies. In the case of the new SL-9000 J Series, there were additional parameters to fold into the equation.
First, SSL's G Plus range of analog consoles, including the SL-4000, -6000 and -8000 systems, has constantly evolved during the past 20 years, and is probably the world's most familiar control surface; I would hazard that more engineers know how to use an SSL console and its Studio Computer automation that just about anything else out there in studioland. And in the digital domain, SSL has shown a not inconsiderable amount of talent in designing consoles and editing systems.
With a duality of success, where would that leave SSL's analog design team? The new SL-9000, with its all-new J Series computer system, poses some obvious contradictions. Is there sufficient advances left in analog circuit designs to make a new model viable? Can it push the envelope beyond G Plus, and offer an alternative to some of the current all-digital designs?
These and a myriad other questions have been foremost in my mind while spending time with the latest analog offering from this leading manufacturer. In terms of sonic quality, the SL-9000 does indeed out perform its predecessors; this is, without doubt, one of the quietest analog boards I have ever come across. (The enhanced noise and THD specs can be traced, I am reliably informed, to the elimination of electrolytic capacitors from the signal path; the resultant DC-coupling is said to enhance sonic performance in these and other critical areas.)
Responding to the need to work with multiple multitrack and mastering machines, the SL-9000 features 48 multitrack busses, four stereo busses, a main LR stereo buss (which is also available as an optional LCR configuration), plus eight aux busses that can be configured as six mono effects sends and a stereo cue/foldback send. In addition to serving as subgroups, the four stereo bus outputs can be used as additional record sends, to generate dedicated surround/center outputs for mix-to-picture sessions, or as extra effects sends.
J Series also provides additional flexibility with regard to machine control functionality. In a basic setup, the J Series computer can serve as a master, capable of controlling up to four slaves via direct nine-pin serial control ports; no additional synchronizer modules are required. Slaves can be offset to the master, and placed off/on-line as necessary. A G-Plus-compatible parallel interface is featured. The J Series computer also provides facilities for generating both linear and MIDI timecode, to interface with MIDI-based samplers and sequencers.
Quite often during mixdown we can quickly run out of sends to effects units- particularly on a busy mix. But what of the now redundant mix busses? Could they be pressed into service? Which is just what SSL realized. The SL-9000 has an ingenious FX re-assign system- or "EFX"- whereby a couple of dedicated buttons per module enable any two mono effects or the stereo cue/foldback sends on individual channels to be disconnected from their respective busses and routed instead to any of the stereo or multitrack busses, thereby proving up to 64 (48, plus four stereo, plus the existing eight) discrete effects-send mixes.
J Series also extends the number of automated functions. In addition to the familiar large-fader level and cuts provided on the G-Plus, the new console offers automation of the following channel functions: small fader level; small fader cut; EQ in/out; insert in/out; and individual aux on/off switches. Now, a whole lot more switch assignments can be changed on a timecode cue and incorporated into the automation data.
Also available are connection and direct control of SSL digital products via an Ethernet network, including DiskTrack, VisionTrack, SCSINet (remote MO drives), KeyPad, programmable patchbays, and so on. VisionTrack provides up to 50 or 100 minutes of video storage, according to system specification. KeyPad connects to the SL-9000 via a single cable and features 20 programmable keys that can be used to mimic buttons on the console's front panel. PatchBay is an automated 24-by-eight router that can be used with analog audio, AES/EBU digital audio or machine control lines.
The SL-9000's input/output module bears a strong resemblance to the SL-80%0G, but with some neat enhancements, including a Multitrack Bus trim located close to the assignment buttons (instead of being adjacent to the Group/Tape switches near the bottom of the module). The J Series Dynamics section is based on G Series circuits, with the addition of a peak-detect option on the compressor, and a hold control for the Gate. As with G Series, the Dynamics section can also be keyed from the Monitor path, or from the insert return. The mic pre-amplifier has been redesigned to provide improved noise performance, and now offers a Hi-Z option for direct connection to keyboards and similar devices.
The SL-9000 offers four-band parametric equalization, with variable Q on the mid bands and shelving/bell on the high and low bands. The normal EQ curves are based on the G-Series equalizer; with constant Q on the mid bands, the bandwidth increases as the gain is decreased. But, instead of the LMF and HMF range shift switches found on G Series, the SL-9000 offers LF and HF bell switches. In addition, an "E" switch selects an alternative set of EQ characteristics, based on SSL's "242" E Series card. Now the mid bands offer a constant bandwidth- Q increases as gain is increased while the HF band features a shallower slope than normal mode. As with G Series, the EQ section can be switched to the monitor path and/or the filters placed in the channel input.
The console's user interface is based in a color monitor/pen and tablet combination familiar to ScreenSound, Scenaria and OmniMix customers. Names and numbers/timecodes may be entered using the pen via on-screen keypads or, more usefully, via a dedicated keyboard located in a drawer under the tablet or a numeric keypad. Session data is stored in Project Files; studios can have a default project from which subsequent working projects can be built. All automation data, track lists, events (cue) lists, etc., are held in memory until saved via this menu to hard disk. Each time any element of a Project File is saved, it generates a new version of that element and does not overwrite the version previously saved to disk.
Space precluded me from providing anything more that a brief overview of the J Series automation functions. My only macro observation is that many G-Plus users might be a shade intimidated with the enhanced features and functions available from the new system. There is no denying that, once you appreciate what the new computer automation offers, it soon becomes an indispensable adjunct. At first sight, however, it can be overpowering. While it would be difficult for SSL to offer a "Starter Page" that would allow a G-Plus user to begin a session in a more familiar environment, and then transition to full automation later in the project, mastering J Series needs care and patience.
The large faders and central group faders are automated with SSL's moving-fader Ultimation. Normally, fader motors are activated and audio passes through the fader, except when a specific automation mode dictates that audio should pass via the channel VCA. You can also turn off the motors, if not required; in this case, audio only passes via channel VCAs when a fader is grouped, or the automation is activated. Automation of small faders is provided by separate VCAs, which are bypassed unless SF automation is activated; this is very useful during tracking to eliminate VCAs from the signal path.
Unlike G Plus, large fader cuts, along with all the other automated on/off and in/out functions, are treated separately to the faders, and may be selected independently to any one of the mix modes. A useful new feature, Match and Play, allows mix data written for automated switches to be edited, by effectively dropping in/out of write mode on existing mix information. Individual Match and Play buttons for each channel are located above the large fader solo and cut buttons; separate Match and Play buttons are also provided above the Group Faders.
A red line across the center of the display represents the current ("play head") position; the system can be moved to any timecode point within the window by simply stabbing with pen at the required position, or by dragging the red line to a new locate point. Cues are represented by horizontal black lines across all the channel windows, and can be located in a similar way. A Zoom facility provides a more detailed view of the display.
In addition- and one of the display's most useful functions- mix data levels for faders and automated objects can be shown as colored overlay traces. Excursions to the right indicate an increase in fader level or, in the case of switches, the on condition. All of which is very intuitive and easy to follow. Once automation data has been written for faders and objects, it can be edited on an additional large-scale display of a single channel; once again, audio can be displayed as a waveform during the editing process.
For systems equipped with DiskTrack, as well as showing recorded audio, this display also provides a full range of audio editing tools. DiskTrack provides not only a maximum of 128 tracks (96 hours maximum storage time) of disk storage, but also serves as a routing system for a centralized resource server of additional hard disk recording/playback and analog or digital I/O. The console can access up to 96 concurrent instant-access record/playback disk tracks.
All I can really say abut DiskTrack is that you have to try it to fully appreciate what zero rewind time does for the speed of a session! In addition, material on individual tracks can be nudged forwards and backwards in microsecond increments, to improve timing or for special effects. In block-move mode, data can be relocated anywhere within a project, to repeat a chorus for example, or to provide the ultimate in comping vocals. Up to 50 takes can be recorded to any one track. All drop-ins/outs are crossfaded to avoid clicks. Crossfades are stored on disk at the time of creation; it is not necessary to recreate them in real-time whenever the track is replayed.
And if that wasn't enough, in record mode DiskTrack is always armed and ready for action, Which means that it has been capturing the input signal for a second prior to and after dropping into/out of record mode. Now late punches, or rude timing anomalies, can easily be corrected simply by extending the start or end points. It's a great system!
Eight different types of mix modes are available, including Static, Overwrite, Rollback, Rollback/Join, Clip Fill, Clip End, Cycle Fill and Cycle End. Regardless of the mix mode selected, there are two possible write status for faders: Absolute and Trim. When the system is replaying previously written data, all faders are in Replay status. In Overwrite mode, as soon as the system enters play, dynamic fader moves and switch changes will be written to the current mix pass, up to the point of rollback. Levels and switch settings at the point of rollback will be written to midnight, effectively overwriting any previous mix data. Static mode functions like an on-line recall; as soon as the system is rolled back, the current levels and switch settings are recorded for that mix pass, from the start of the mix to midnight. Rollback mode allows a basic mix pass to be updated. New information is only written to the point at which the system is rewound; any previously recorded mix data will be replayed from the rollback point on. Rollback/Join is, in essence, half-way between Overwrite and Rollback, and automatically drops the faders that were active at the roll-back point into that mode the next time you play through the data. Ingenious.
Clip Fill and Clip End are designed for use with captured clips, or audio recorded to DiskTrack. Clip Fill allows switches and faders to be freely adjusted without being written to the mix; when the system is rewound, settings at that point will be written for the entire length of the chosen audio clip. Clip End enables dynamic moves to be written to the end of the clip; at the point of rollback, the last settings will be written to the end of the chosen audio clip. All very useful, and a creative addition for the J Series system. (Cycle Fill and End operate on a similar principle to Fill and End but within the duration of the current cycle window.)
In addition to the basic mix modes and their Absolute or Trim write status, J Series also provides a number of other, associated, automation facilities, including Renull (to force a level jump at the point a fader is switched from Replay to Trim); Snap (a fader stays in the write mode while touching the fader, after which it resumes replaying the reference mix ): Autoglide (to move the fader back to the null point after writing, and adjustable from 1 frame to 10 seconds): Autotakeover (which provides an indication of the direction an active update fader must be moved in order to return it to the null position, at which point the fader drops back into Replay mode); Immediate Pickup (a function for Large Faders when the motors are turned off to simulates the touch sensitivity of moving faders and for the small faders): Merge Trim (a very powerful function that adds absolute mix data to trimmed mix data, thus allowing further trims to be applied to previously trimmed moves); and Level Match (which provides an indication of where a fader should be positioned to match the written mix information).
Eight Control Group faders are provided in the center of the console as well as 32 software groups from the J Series computer. Software groups can be used in or out of an automated mix, and allow free grouping of any fader to any other fader (large or small). Each slave fader in a group can be one of six types: Slave Fader and Cut; Slave Fader Only; Slave Cut Only; Slave Cut Inverted; Slave Status Only.
An unlimited number of Switch Groups can be set up to group together the console's non-latching objects on the console, including effects sends on/off, stereo cue on/off, insert in/out, EQ in/out, large/small fader cuts, group fader cuts and solos. Two types of group are provided: Master/Slave or All-Master. Whereas a Master/Slave group has a single designated master fader or switch, an All-Master group enables any fader/switch within the group to control all others in that group.
The J Series computer also has a new way of handling mix passes. Each time the system is rolled back after making update moves, J Series generates a new "Mix Pass." Each pass is automatically provided with an incrementing number, and time-stamped. A new mix pass is only created if the mix information has been updated- just rolling back and listening to the mix a number of times does not create a new mix pass. The Mix Pass list is continually updated, and stores six complete mixes in memory which, in turn, allows for six levels of undo. As the Mix Pass list is updated, earlier mix passes are deleted to make room for new ones. Important mixes can be saved periodically to the internal hard drive, and a single mix retained for an indefinite period in the Mix Pass list by means of a Keep function.
As well as dynamic automation, J Series computer also provides a total of 40 console-wide snapshots of all automated functions. The computer also stores a Pre Enable snapshot each time the mix system is enabled; this setting can be used to restore the board if the mix system is enabled with an older mix that destroys the current console settings.
And finally, SSL's familiar Total Recall records the position of all the switches and rotary controls in the console's channel modules, as well as- a first with J Series- the positions of controls within the center section. Reset accuracy is a quoted +/-0.25 dB. TR setups are saved on a Project basis, in a similar manner to mixes, via the Project Manager Setup Menu, which also provides access to the Total Recall Setup List.
Once you become fully conversant with the J Series system, however, and the revolutionary creative tools it offers in the studio, you gotta wonder how you ever managed without it. It's a tool that rapidly earns your respect. In terms of sonic performance; the 9000 is without equal in the analog domain. In terms of digital control, it's only serious rivals are the all-digital designs from a small handful of companies. I predict that this will be last large-format, all-analog design that SSL brings to market. I doubt if they could top what they have achieved with the SL-9000 J Series.
My sincere thanks to the crew at Record Plant, Hollywood, for providing me with access to the 80-input SL-9000 J Series with DiskTrack in the SSL3 Studio Suite, and to Allen Sides for his extremely useful input regarding the day-to-day operation of his new 80-input SL-9000 in Record One's Studio B.
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