Softube are out to make DAW mixing more like using a large-format console. Can Console 1 liberate us from mouse and keyboard?
Swedish plug-in developers Softube have made quite a name for themselves over the years with emulations of sought-after studio equipment and guitar amps. They've collaborated with other manufacturers such as Native Instruments and Universal Audio, but the new Console 1 is their first foray into hardware design.
The goal of the Console 1 package is to make mixing within digital audio workstation software more like mixing on a large-format analogue console. However, there are no banks of motorised faders here, and in fact, no control over DAW parameters at all. Instead, Console 1 gives you what is in effect a single channel from a very well-specified mixer, implemented in a hybrid software/hardware system. There are two elements to Console 1: a plug-in that includes all the signal processing found in a top-flight mixer channel strip, and a proprietary hardware controller that matches the layout of the plug-in and provides a dedicated knob for every function. As supplied, the Console 1 processing is based around a licensed emulation of the SSL 4000 E-series channel strip, but if you own other Softube plug-ins such as the Tube-Tech CL1B compressor emulation, these algorithms can be loaded into the relevant section of the channel in place of the SSL variant. Softube also have further complete channel strips in the works.
In the fullness of time, Console 1 will be a cross-platform product, but at present it only works on Apple computers, and I tested it on a mid-2013 MacBook Air running Pro Tools 11 and Studio One 2.6. The software element uses the new type of iLok authorisation that does not require a hardware key, and one Console 1 licence can authorise up to three computers. The hardware, meanwhile, attaches to your computer via USB, and is bus-powered with no option to use an external PSU.
I decided to hit the ground running by mixing a track using, as far as possible, no other tools apart from Console 1 and the host DAW (in this case, Pro Tools 11). By and large, this proved perfectly feasible, and you can read more about how it panned out in this month's Mix Rescue article.
What struck me straight away was how easy and intuitive the mixing process becomes, at least once you've got your instances of the Console 1 plug-in inserted and named (see box). A large part of this is down to the clever way in which Softube have managed the visual side of things. The usual plug-in interface within your DAW is employed only in the initial naming and numbering process, or when the Console 1 hardware is not attached. In this situation you can set the plug-in window to display controls that can be moved with the mouse in the conventional way, but for some reason Softube have chosen to make them absolutely minuscule, and I'd only want to interact with the plug-in this way in the direst of emergencies.
In normal use, by contrast, there's no opening and closing of plug-in windows taking place at all, and no problems whatsoever with visibility. Instead, whenever you press a button or turn a control on the Console 1 hardware, the channel strip settings for the appropriate channel appear as an overlay that takes up most of the screen. What you see on screen always corresponds exactly to what's under your hands, and you never find yourself inadvertently adjusting parameters on the wrong channel, or equalising where you thought you were compressing. Do nothing for a few seconds and, unless you've disabled Console 1's automatic mode, the overlay disappears again, putting you back in DAW-world.
It's amazing how quickly you adapt to working from the Console 1 hardware alone, using the buttons across the top to flit around between different instances on different channels. For long periods I found myself using the mouse and QWERTY keyboard only as transport controls, and the one-to-one correspondence between knobs and on-screen parameters means that after a little flying time you can operate the controls by feel alone.
From a processing point of view, the SSL channel strip as implemented here is pretty comprehensive. Naturally, you will still need to use other plug-ins for generating effects such as reverberation and delay, but for shaping the sound of individual channels, Console 1 places everything you need under one roof. External side-chaining is possible, provided the host DAW supports it, and the order of the main sections can be reconfigured.
Compared with the analogue original, Softube have also extended the functionality of the channel strip in several small but very useful ways. For example, like the classic SSL design, Console 1 provides high- and low-pass filters (which can optionally be switched into the compressor side-chain path), plus a four-band EQ where the two mid bands are fully parametric and the high and low bands are switchable between shelving, bell and filter modes. However, the range over which the filters can be swept has been extended, so there's considerable crossover between the ranges of the high-pass filter and the low EQ band. This makes possible all sorts of creative and very useful compound EQ shapes, for instance by overlapping a low-frequency shelving boost with a high-pass filter.
The simple but effective one-knob Gate function, meanwhile, has been joined by a really good-sounding transient shaper. Again operating with a minimum of fuss, this presents you with two knobs that allow you to emphasise or reduce the amount of Punch (transient attack) and Sustain. It makes perfect sense to include this functionality in a channel strip, and I found myself using it quite often in situations where I wouldn't previously have thought to call up a dedicated transient shaping plug-in.
At the other end of the default signal chain, the compressor sports a wet/dry mix control for parallel processing, as well as fully variable time constants. It also has automatic make-up gain which can't be defeated; this is perhaps the one thing I'd change, given the choice.
Many of those who like mixing on SSL desks, and the E-series in particular, do so partly because of the sonic characteristics these consoles exhibit when driven hard. Console 1's Drive section represents an attempt to replicate this effect in the DAW environment, and once again, Softube have extended its versatility, principally through the Drive Character control. This is variable from -10 through to +10, and at zero, Softube say that the character of the added saturation precisely matches that of the original desk. Positive Drive Character values give the saturation an increasingly bright, sharp sound, with lots of harmonics filling out the upper mid-range. Negative values, by contrast, leave the upper mids well alone, providing a warmer, thicker effect which works beautifully for adding richness to harsh source material. All in all, the Drive section was one of my favourite Console 1 features, and I ended up using it on more than half the channels in my test mix.
Console 1 also takes full advantage of some digital concepts which would not be feasible in the analogue domain. You can copy and paste settings from one instance to another, for example, and best of all, the system keeps a lengthy undo history that allows you to roll back your mix to previous states. Most DAWs do not treat fader moves or plug-in parameter changes as undoable actions, so this is very welcome.
From the point of view of system resources, Console 1's individual processing sections are all bypassed by default, and consume CPU cycles only when activated. Even when they're all working hard, the CPU load is relatively light, and I had no problems using Console 1 across some 30 channels simultaneously.
Through years of mixing on computers, I've got used to particular ways of working; and while the experience of using Console 1 is never going to be quite like sitting in front of a Leviathan analogue console, it showed me the value of a different approach. As long as you're familiar with the basic operation of equalisers, compressors and so on, there's really no learning curve at all: you can simply jump right in and start carving shapes. As a tool for interacting with the channel strip, the Console 1 controller feels very right, and lets you get results much more quickly than you can with mouse and keyboard. The fact that it's emphatically not a DAW controller means that Softube have been able to integrate it very tightly with their software. You could think of it as adding to your setup the sort of assignable 'super channel' found on many digital mixing desks.
No doubt there will be those who complain that they'd rather have an open system that lets them work with any channel strip plug-in of their choice, but having tried Console 1, I'd say that's missing the point. The Console 1 system derives much of its benefit from the way it bypasses the host DAW's plug-in windowing and channel selection, and it would be no fun at all to have to use the hardware with a conventional channel strip plug-in.
The fact that Console 1 is not a DAW controller does have its negative aspects, though. The virtual mixers in many DAWs are, by default, configured so that the only constants are a fader and a pan-pot; if you want to apply processing that changes the sound of a source, such as equalisation or compression, you need to actively insert a plug-in and set it up yourself. This reflects the idea that the most fundamental part of mixing is balancing levels, and that processing is something you apply because it's needed, not just because it's there. A conventional DAW mix controller enhances this approach, bringing out into the physical domain faders and other controls used for balancing.
Mixing with Console 1 reverses the equation. The balance, as it were, is shifted away from balancing in favour of processing. There is an output level control, but it's a rotary encoder like all the others, not a fader. And while this control can be automated, it's not touch-sensitive, so writing level automation doesn't feel like a natural part of the Console 1 workflow. Engaging the dynamics section, by contrast, is all too easy, and it takes some self-discipline to avoid falling into a rather lazy and static approach to mixing where you rely too much on compression for level control. Ideally, in fact, I think Console 1 would be best paired with a conventional moving-fader controller, not least because the "this is not a DAW controller” philosophy means it doesn't have any transport controls of its own. (I don't own such a controller, but Softube say Console 1 works perfectly with all the moving-fader controllers they've tested.)
This brings me to the question of whether Console 1 represents value for money. And, as it has no direct rivals, it's not as though you can point to another product as an example of how much this ought to cost. On paper, £700-odd might seem a lot to ask for a nice channel strip plug-in and a hardware controller that, while solidly built, is not visibly festooned with pricey components such as colour touch-screen displays or motorised faders. What you can't learn from the bald specifications, though, is the way in which the whole is a lot more than the sum of both parts, and I think a lot of people won't realise what Console 1 can do for them until they try it. As you can probably tell, I greatly enjoyed my time with the system, and I will miss the review unit when it flies back to Sweden. If it had Windows support from the off, I'd be strongly tempted to buy it.
Softube have gone to great pains to make clear that Console 1 is not a DAW controller but a mixer in its own right, and that's not a bad way of thinking about it. Whereas conventional hardware controllers help you to get more from your DAW's own mixer, working with Console 1 is more like using your DAW as a tape machine to feed an external console — a console that only has one set of channel controls, but sounds great and comes without maintenance headaches, massive footprint or mountainous electricity bills. And when you look at it from that point of view, it suddenly seems quite the bargain!
To use Console 1 as its makers intend, you have to insert the plug-in on every channel in your mix, and every instance needs to be appropriately named and numbered. Some DAWs can pass track names and numbers automatically to the plug-in, and in the latest version of Presonus's Studio One, Console 1's numbering system will even rejig itself to follow any changes to track order that you make in the arrange page. A forthcoming update to Cubase 7.5, which should be available by the time you read this, will implement the same functionality. Automatic naming and numbering is not currently supported in Pro Tools 11, but Softube told me that they are working with all the major developers to make this possible, and it's clearly a feature that would be desirable with many other plug-ins too.
In Pro Tools, when you click the option to name an instance of Console 1, the name field is cleared and a cursor appears, but you then need to click again before you can type there, which threw me on occasion. It takes a little while to set up, especially on a large mix, and until there is universal support for automatic track naming, a pop-up list of common track names would be a useful addition, especially if they could be selected using the Console 1 encoders.
The other option available on insertion is Solo Safe. Everything that you do in Console 1 relates only to parameters within the plug-in, even when those parameters duplicate features within your DAW; and that includes solo and mute. Since Console 1 is not privy to your DAW's mixer routing, it can't employ Cubase-style soloing, where soloing a group channel automatically solos all channels routed to it. Instead, the solo function works much as it does in Pro Tools or most hardware mixers, where you would typically set all auxiliary channels and groups to Solo Safe, then group and solo the source channels if you want to hear, say, all the drum tracks at once. Likewise, Console 1 has no way of knowing about any Mix Groups you might have set up in Pro Tools, or their equivalents in other DAWs, so it has its own independent facility for creating temporary groups, in case you should wish to solo multiple tracks or apply parameter changes across multiple channels simultaneously.
- Very easy to use.
- Sounds excellent.
- Perfect correspondence between hardware and software.
- Mixing with Console 1 is genuinely different from mixing with a mouse and keyboard, not to mention faster and more enjoyable.
- Keeps an undo history of your mix.
- You're still dependent on mouse, keyboard or other hardware for transport controls.
- Tends to shift the focus of the mixing process away from balancing and towards processing.
- When used without the controller, the Console 1 plug-in's on-screen controls are too small.
- Naming every instance of a Console 1 plug-in in a mix is a tedious job if your DAW doesn't do it automatically.
Softube's Console 1 brings to your DAW not only the sound of a top-class mixer channel strip, but also its ergonomics. It has the potential to make more of a difference to your mixing process than you'd expect!
- Mid-2013 Apple MacBook Air running Mac OS 10.8.5.
- Tested with Avid Pro Tools 11 and Presonus Studio One v220.127.116.1190.