Whether you’re after fader control, hands‑on EQ and dynamics or a hardware meter, SSL’s UF1 has you covered.
Sooner or later, most DAW users get frustrated with mice. Software mixers still take their design cues mainly from hardware consoles, and it’s natural to want faders and buttons under your hands as well as on screen.
However, fader‑based control surfaces can themselves be a source of frustration. The now‑ancient MCU and HUI control protocols are bottlenecks, limiting the type and amount of information that can be transmitted between DAW and controller. And although EUCON offers the potential for deeper and richer integration, it’s a proprietary Avid format and can’t be exploited by other controller manufacturers.
The older MIDI‑based standards still work fine for basic fader and transport control, along with related tasks like writing automation, navigating through projects with a jog/shuttle wheel and scrubbing audio. But plug‑ins are now central to mixing, and it’s pretty hard to create an MCU or HUI surface that can offer effective control over all of the countless different compressors, reverbs, EQs and so on that are on the market.
For this reason, some manufacturers have begun to bypass the MIDI‑based control protocols built into DAWs. Softube’s Console 1, for example, communicates not with the DAW itself but with Console 1 plug‑ins on DAW channels, via a software application running in the background. The great benefit of this is that you get perfect mapping of hardware controls onto on‑screen EQ and compressor parameters. The drawback is that it’s another proprietary system and won’t work with your choice of third‑party plug‑ins.
Since Console 1 was launched, Softube have been able to work with software developers to improve DAW integration. Most DAWs are now able to pass track name information to Console 1, for example, while the more recent Console 1 Fader surface can adjust channel volume and pan directly within the DAW mixer, where supported. What started as a closed, proprietary system is slowly becoming more of a team effort, but Console 1 is still very much its own thing and doesn’t use HUI or MCU.
Solid State Logic are another manufacturer who have developed proprietary software to allow their controllers to do things not possible with MCU and HUI. Unlike Softube’s OSD, though, SSL’s 360 is intended to augment rather than replace the older MIDI‑based standards.
The SSL UF8 is thus a more or less conventional eight‑fader MCU and HUI controller, but with added powers. The Layers system in SSL 360 allows it to be tailored to your DAW of choice, and permits its soft keys to be used to trigger macros: sequences of keyboard shortcuts that might not necessarily be assignable to single keystrokes within the DAW itself. The UF8 was reviewed in SOS March 2021: www.soundonsound.com/reviews/ssl-uf8
By contrast, SSL’s UC1 resembles Console 1, in that it’s primarily designed to control proprietary plug‑ins rather than the host DAW. Its control layout closely mirrors the user interface of SSL’s 4K B and Channel Strip 2, which emulate the preamp, EQ and dynamics from two different eras of SSL console. It even has a separate section for controlling bus compressors, and can be paired with another SSL plug‑in called Bus Compressor 2 for this purpose.
The introduction of the UC1 also brought a new element to the 360 software: the SSL Plug‑in Mixer, which provides a console‑style representation of the 4K B, Channel Strip 2 and Bus Compressor plug‑ins currently active in your DAW. (Buying any SSL controller gives you a six‑month licence for all SSL plug‑ins, and UC1 buyers get perpetual licences for these three.)
The new UF1 is the third controller in SSL’s range, and occupies the middle ground between the UF8 and the UC1: it’s both a DAW controller and a plug‑in/Plug‑in Mixer controller. Like the others, it’s beautifully made, with a solid metal chassis, high‑quality controls and bright, clear, high‑resolution colour displays that are clearly visible from any angle. Optional legs bolt on to the underside, allowing the UF1 to be set up at a wide range of angles relative to your desktop. And, of course, it sits perfectly in a row with one or more UF8s and/or a UC1.
The UF1 talks to your computer over USB, and has a Thru socket that allows multiple SSL controllers to be chained to one computer USB port. However, whereas the UF8 shipped with a laptop‑style ‘line lump’ power supply, the UF1 comes with a wall‑wart, and if you have the UF1 positioned at the front of a desk, you may well find the cable isn’t long enough to reach floor‑ or wall‑mounted power sockets behind the desk.
Some of the UF1’s functionality overlaps that of the UF8 and UC1, but in most respects, it’s designed to be complementary to both. The left part of the panel is basically a single channel from the UF8, with the same high‑quality, long‑throw motorised fader, small display and rotary encoder. Depending on your mixing philosophy, this may be all you need: many people find it natural to record automation passes one channel at a time, and don’t engage with the old‑school approach of moving multiple faders simultaneously. As an alternative, there’s also a Master button that switches the fader to the DAW master channel; this is supported in MCU‑compatible DAWs, but not Pro Tools.
Although it has just the one fader, the UF1 addresses a bank of eight channels within the DAW. As on the UF8, the primary function of the Channel encoder is to shift the focus left or right along the DAW mixer, and there are also Bank arrow buttons that move in steps of eight channels. By default, the ‘focus’ channel addressed by the fader and its associated display is the leftmost of the bank of eight, but this can be changed, and some control is available over other channels too, courtesy of the large display at the top right. This has four encoders beneath it and four buttons above it, and as long as the UF1 is operating in the Layer relating to your DAW, these can adjust pan, channel volume, send level and other parameters for channels 1‑4 or 5‑8 within the focus bank. They can also be used to edit parameters on third‑party plug‑ins within the DAW, but the Channel dial’s Focus mode, whereby the encoder adjusts whatever control the mouse is hovering over on screen, is often a more elegant way of doing this.
The Channel encoder is joined by the same cross‑shaped group of arrow keys that appear at the lower right of the UF8, and they perform the same roles here. These roles are DAW‑dependent, and in Pro Tools, for example, the arrow buttons can either move the edit cursor around or change horizontal and vertical zoom level.
The UF8 has assignable soft keys that can be used to provide transport control, but they aren’t labelled or ideally positioned for this job. This is one of the gaps that the UF1 fills in in style, with a row of five large, illuminated buttons placed exactly where you want them. Above this is another row of six buttons that default to oft‑used secondary functions such as moving to the start or end of the project, enabling the metronome, switching on loop recording and so on. A Shift button turns these into a comprehensive set of automation mode selectors for the focus channel, but it’s also possible to select alternate functions within 360. For example, I think most people will find the ability to jump back and forth between markers more useful than the ability to jump to the start and end of the session, and that’s supported as an alternative.
Finally, the largest control on the UF1 is a large and very nicely weighted jog/shuttle wheel. It jogs, it shuttles, and it also scrubs, courtesy of the button immediately above.
Considered as a single‑fader MCU/HUI controller, the UF1 delivers a lot of attention to detail, but the nature of those protocols means it pretty much has to work a familiar way. So, although it’s more capable than cheaper alternatives like the PreSonus Faderport, it’s not fundamentally different. The built‑in displays, proper jog/shuttle wheel and secondary control over four channels certainly elevate it above those devices, and given that the UF1 is a lot more expensive, anything less would be a disappointment. What is new and unfamiliar, at least to me, is the Plug‑in Mixer and the capabilities the UF1 either shares with the UC1 or adds to it.
When you engage the Plug‑in Mixer Layer, the Channel encoder now steps through instances of SSL plug‑ins rather than DAW mixer channels. Since each instance of a 360‑enabled channel strip has its own Plug‑in Mixer channel, that also means it’s stepping through the channels within the Plug‑in Mixer. DAW channels with no plug‑in instantiated don’t appear in the Plug‑in Mixer, and conversely, a single DAW channel can be represented two or more times if you use multiple instances of 4K B or Channel Strip 2.
Default channel ordering within the Plug‑in Mixer depends on your DAW; with Pro Tools, channels initially appear in the order in which the respective plug‑ins were added to the session. However, you can click in the channel name field and drag left and right to reorder. As with Console 1, channel names are transferred automatically from the DAW.
The channel strip plug‑ins have their own faders, solo, mute and pan controls. Using these rather than the equivalents in the DAW mixer means there’s less need to constantly switch back and forth between the DAW Layer and the Plug‑in Mixer Layer, but you’ll need to do some careful setup at the start. For example, if you have tracks feeding aux busses in your DAW, you’ll need to make sure that solo safe arrangements are in place within the Plug‑in Mixer. (The version I tested had a minor bug with Pro Tools only, whereby soloed signals only appear in the left channel; SSL are aware of this and it will be fixed soon.) Similarly, the plug‑in pan controls only do anything in plug‑in instances that have a stereo output path.
The channel strip plug‑ins are pretty deep and powerful affairs, with filters, four‑band equalisers, compressor and expander/gate, and various other features. These all fit comfortably within a single plug‑in window in your DAW, but when arranged vertically within the Plug‑in Mixer, will likely prove too long for most monitors. You can choose to hide the fader section at the bottom and the routing pane at the top, but even so, some scrolling is needed. As it stands, the Auto Scroll option scrolls the mixer horizontally to make sure the focus channel is in view, but won’t automatically scroll up and down if, for instance, you happen to be adjusting an EQ control that’s disappeared off the top of the screen. The Plug‑in Mixer is a work in progress, though, so this may well be on the map for a future version.
For obvious reasons, the UC1 is designed to match the square layout of the channel strip and bus compressor as they appear in the DAW plug‑ins, rather than the long, thin arrangement they have as Plug‑in Mixer channels. Once you enable the Plug‑in Mixer Layer for UF1, it too can control these plug‑ins, but that visual correspondence is missing. In this mode, the UF1 makes up to four plug‑in parameters at a time adjustable using the rotary encoders below the screen. These are sensibly grouped such that, for example, all the parameters for a given EQ band are shown together, and the soft keys at the top are used for relevant buttons and switches such as EQ in/out. The large screen also provides a graphical representation of the EQ settings, while dynamics settings are shown within the smaller display above the fader.
All of this works well, but as far as plug‑in control is concerned, the UF1 is intended more as a useful extension to the UC1. This is brought home by the order in which the 4K B plug‑in parameters appear. The first page collects together stereo Width, Mic preamp gain, Out Trim and Compressor Mix — which have nothing in common except that they lack dedicated controls on the UC1. You wouldn’t buy the UF1 just for plug‑in control, then, but it would be an excellent partner to the UC1.
However, that doesn’t mean the UF1 is doomed to play second fiddle to the UC1 within the SSL 360 ecosystem. It has its own starring role to play, courtesy of its large colour screen. This makes possible a sophisticated metering mode, which can be accessed both from your DAW Layer and from the Plug‑in Mixer Layer.
To turn the UF1 into a meter, you first need to install the SSL Meter plug‑in (UF1 buyers get a perpetual licence for this, as UC1 owners do for the channel strips and bus compressor). You can then instantiate up to eight instances in your DAW session, and hitting the UF1’s Mode button a couple of times will bring up one of the plug‑in’s three meter panes within the UF1’s display. These are, respectively, an ‘analogue’ view which shows a pair of VU or PPM meters, a 32‑band real‑time spectral analyser, and an Overview pane with various different numeric readouts and a goniometer. All of these are highly configurable if, for example, you need to calibrate the VU meters with respect to a specific output level from your audio interface. The only obvious thing missing at present is LUFS loudness metering, but SSL hope to implement this soon.
I think the metering will be a major selling point for the UF1. Good hardware meters can be very expensive, and the convenience of having this feature integrated within a DAW controller is hard to overstate. Plus, of course, switching the main display to Meter mode doesn’t affect the UF1’s capabilities as a fader or transport controller.
“Metering will be a major selling point for the UF1. Good hardware meters can be very expensive, and the convenience of having this feature integrated within a DAW controller is hard to overstate.”
Thoughout this review I’ve drawn comparisons between SSL’s controllers and those of other manufacturers. Operationally, the UF8‑UC1‑UF1 ecosystem resembles Softube’s Console 1 and Console 1 Fader, but its most obvious rival is probably Avid’s proprietary EUCON control scheme. This system allows Avid’s controllers to combine HUI‑style fader control with detailed editing for any plug‑in, without the need for a separate software framework like the Plug‑in Mixer. Within this scheme, the UF1/UC1 combo faces off against Avid’s Dock plus your choice of tablet running Avid Control.
The fact that Avid controllers have access to EUCON gives them a head start in terms of functionality, and I’m sure SSL would prefer not to have had to develop their own proprietary plug‑in control system to work around the limitations of MCU and HUI. But considered as a fader and transport controller, the UF1 wants for nothing — and when it comes to plug‑in control, SSL’s system makes up in immediacy what it lacks in universality. Control over third‑party plug‑ins is limited, but control over SSL’s own plug‑ins is absolute, and as Console 1 proved, there’s something about a perfect correspondence between controller and plug‑in that is lost in any generic system, no matter how flexible it is. Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning quite how good these SSL plug‑ins sound. The 4K B channel strip, in particular, really does deliver that up‑front, in‑your‑face quality that makes SSL consoles so enduringly popular.
- Excellent build quality, with smooth fader, high‑quality colour screens and a very nice jog/shuttle wheel.
- Provides comprehensive transport and session navigation facilities alongside detailed single‑fader channel control.
- The main display can be turned into a very useful hardware meter.
- Offers handy additional plug‑in control when combined with SSL’s UC1.
- It’s not SSL’s fault, but their units can’t offer the level of control over third‑party plug‑ins that is possible with EUCON.
- SSL’s Plug‑in Mixer is not quite the finished article yet.
- Wall‑wart PSU with too‑short cable.
Solid State Logic complete their trio of controllers with a neat device that offers much more than just transport, navigation and single‑fader channel control. The UF1 is also a highly specified hardware meter, a plug‑in controller and more!
£598.80 including VAT.
Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000.
SSL +1 (818) 643 7040.