The almost universal trend towards using computers and hardware controllers has made business tough for the big console manufacturers - but the clever ones are fighting back with some innovative thinking, to create products that offer the best of all worlds.
As an 'older' sound engineer, the ergonomic elegance of mixing on large analogue consoles is something that I miss enormously when working with computer DAWs, and I've been fascinated by the painfully slow evolution of hardware controllers as they reintroduce some of those ergonomic advantages that we all used to take for granted. But even with the latest incarnations, such as Euphonix's Artist series of hardware controllers, a bunch of moving faders and some buttons and knobs still doesn't really provide all the answers. Every project studio will need a few microphone preamps and monitoring controls at the very least, and most of us still want to use a few favoured outboard processors sometimes. The result, then, is often a messy combination of computer, audio interface, hardware controller(s), monitoring controller, external mic preamps and outboard — and a mess of cabling! Not exactly the ergonomic elegance of a proper console, and arguably less flexible and more time consuming and frustrating to use too.
Of course, the big console manufacturers have had a tough time in this changing market, but SSL, in particular, have embraced the idea of combining the best of analogue console functions and ergonomics with computer control integration — and they've applied it across their entire analogue console range, from the big studio Duality desk, through the AWS900 project studio console, and down to the latest member of the family: the Matrix. All three desks share common operating paradigms and philosophies when it comes to integration with the DAW, but give you very different analogue audio facilities related to their size, cost and intended application. Not surprisingly, the new baby of the group is also the smallest and has no signal processing facilities beyond gain trim, routing and panning. But it more than makes up for that with very clever insert routing matrices that help to make it the perfect solution for a lot of project studios. And whereas a Duality console will set you back something in excess of £100k and an AWS900 just under half that, the Matrix can be all yours for just £12.5k (plus the VAT) — which makes it something of a bargain first SSL console!
The Matrix is styled very differently from any other SSL console, yet it is still instantly recognisable as an SSL board, thanks to the distinctive buttons and knobs used across the control surface. The desk comes in a one-size-fits-all chassis — and there are no options to expand it: it is what it is. But what is it exactly?
Well, Paul White and I went down to the SSL factory at Begbrooke, near Oxford, to have a play with a final pre-production model in one of the company's well-equipped control rooms. From an analogue signal path point of view, the Matrix is best described as a 16-channel, line-level only stereo mixing desk, with SSL's familiar in-line signal path structure and SuperAnalogue circuitry throughout. Being an in-line desk, each of the 16 channel strips has two inputs (line and DAW), and in total the desk is capable of accommodating up to 40 inputs for mixdown. So if you like the idea of mixing outside the box with a SuperAnalogue mix bus, the Matrix will provide that for you — and with Total Recall functions too.
It looks like a mixer, it feels like a mixer... and actually it is a line-level mixer, but the SSL Matrix does much more. The motorised faders (which are the same as those on the Duality console) double up to provide control over your DAW, and the layout should feel familiar to anyone who has used a large console or something like a Mackie Control.
Reassuringly, the motorised faders used in the Matrix are exactly the same as those in the Duality console and, as with that desk, no audio goes through the fader: the audio level is controlled by SSL's own MDAC technology (Multiplying Digital to Analogue Converter). This makes it easy to implement remote control from the DAW. Also like the AWS and Duality consoles, those motorised faders (and most of the other controls) can be used as a multi-layer digital workstation control surface — and in fact you can control DAW channels and analogue input channels simultaneously, if you want.
But that's not the clever bit. The heart of the Matrix — and its unique selling point and advantage — is a comprehensive internal analogue signal router that allows the connection of up to 16 external devices and lets you use them in any combination via any channel insert points, at the push of a button. You could, for example, hook up all your various mic preamps, outboard equalisers and compressors, reverbs, A-D and D-A converters and anything else, and patch them individually or in predefined chains in any order into any signal path. You can even run channels out from your DAW, through any combination of outboard, and back into the DAW, if you want to. Now that's what I call integration!
The routing facility is derived in part from the Duality console and uses the same SuperAnalogue design principles to make a pair of independent switching matrices using a balanced, virtual earth approach. One matrix deals with the 16 channel sends to the outboard devices, while the other handles the 16 returns from those devices. The whole router is very simple to control from a bespoke Java window on the DAW computer, complete with memories to save and recall specific equipment chains and routing setups. The desk has no stereo inputs as such, so the Matrix is unaware of stereo linking, but it is easy to create device pairs and route them accordingly.
Other, more typical console facilities in the Matrix include four mono and one stereo aux send per channel, in-line DAW monitoring, SSL's useful 'SuperCue' headphone mode (to avoid monitoring latency), separate master stereo record and mix buses (with insert points that can be used as additional mix inputs), and four stereo effects returns. There are also full stereo monitoring facilities, with independent main and nearfield speaker outputs plus a separate 'Artist Monitor' send, and two analogue and one digital external monitor inputs, complete with an 'iJack' input on the front panel for easy connection of an MP3 player.
On the DAW-control side, programmable function keys and encoders, plus predefined instruction sets, make working with all the common DAWs pretty straightforward — including driving plug-ins and virtual instruments from the Matrix's control surface. Ethernet MIDI connectivity is used to minimise cabling and maximise data transfer rates, and the Matrix works with both HUI and MCU control protocols, with up to four DAWs simultaneously... if you're mad enough!
Looking around the rear of the console, it is festooned with 25-pin D-sub connectors, all wired to Tascam's familiar balanced analogue interface standards. There are separate sockets for line inputs 1-8 and 9-16, two more for the corresponding DAW channel returns, and another pair for the channel outputs to feed the DAW's inputs. Then there are four more D-subs for the routing matrix to accommodate up to 16 external devices' inputs and outputs.
Behind the master section of the console yet more D-sub connectors provide the four stereo effects returns and the aux and cue sends. More still cater for the master section mix and record bus outputs, insert points and monitoring section inputs and outputs. Proper XLR sockets are provided for the nearfield monitor outputs (making it very easy to wire in a pair of self-powered monitors), as well as for the AES3 input and output alongside the optical S/PDIF input and output. The remaining connectivity comprises a chunky multi-pin power connector for the fanless external PSU, an RJ45 ethernet connector for the MIDI interface, a B-type USB port for firmware updates, a couple of quarter-inch sockets for assignable footswitches, a 9-pin D-sub to link an SSL X-rack's total recall facilities, and another 9-pin socket for future GPIO ('General Purpose Input/Output') functionality, which is not currently implemented. There's also an SD memory card slot, and a button to change the digital interface alignment, setting the 0dBFS point to +18 or +24dBu.
Talking of digital interfaces, the stereo A-D converter's sample rate is locked to the digital input's clock rate by default (any rate up to 176.4kHz), but if there's no digital input it defaults to a sensible internally generated rate of 44.1kHz. The output is available on both the optical S/PDIF and AES3 sockets simultaneously, while the D-A converter can be fed from either the optical S/PDIF or AES3 inputs, and accepts any rate up to 176.4kHz.
The Matrix feels a fairly solid and substantial desk, although it is made of an unusual material. The desk framework is actually polycarbonate, but treated with a metal paint internally to provide electrostatic screening. During the desk's construction, this polycarbonate frame is placed face down and the various control panels and faders are loaded in to it, upside down. The electronics for each channel strip are carried on separate vertical cards in a fairly traditional console way, with eight-channel bus cards clipped across each group of eight channel-cards using computer PCI connectors. Short ribbon cables link the bus cards to the master board and connector panel. The LED metering boards clip into the upstand at the rear of the console, and are then hidden behind the connector panel section, which carries the CPU board and router electronics, as well as the digital interface's circuitry. Originally, the switched-mode PSU was also built into the connector panel, but it proved difficult to keep it sufficiently cool, so production units have an external fanless 250W power supply. Finally, a substantial steel base-plate is bolted into place to support and reinforce the entire structure. Impressively, the manual for the Matrix contains a complete set of detailed instructions, exploded mechanical diagrams, wiring loom diagrams and signal flow charts to explain how to access, fault find, and replace all of the individual boards and faders, should that ever be required.
The technical specifications for the Matrix are every bit as impressive as you'd expect of an SSL product, with headroom of +26dBu and a frequency response that is within 0.1dB from 20Hz to 20kHz and is only 1dB down at 80kHz. The worst-case noise, with all the channels routed to the output at unity gain, is below -77dBu, giving a respectable dynamic range in excess of 100dB. More importantly, the noise figure for a single line-input routed to its own direct out to feed the DAW is better than -89dBu, giving a very healthy dynamic range of 113dB. Distortion is below 0.002 percent for any signal path.
SSL have designed the Matrix to work as a controller using the Mackie Control protocol — which means, of course, that you can use it as a control surface for any of the major sequencers, including Pro Tools, Nuendo and Cubase, Logic and Sonar. In fact the only known problem to date is with Digital Performer (and that is something SSL are working to resolve — hopefully we should see progress on it very soon). Of course, there are more channels than you get on a Mackie Control, which means that the Matrix shows up in your system as a Mackie Control plus an expander.
Although the Matrix doesn't have all the same dedicated buttons as a Mackie Control, you can program any you need into the 16 assignable button locations if required. Actually, there are five banks of assignable buttons, giving 80 choices in all, and these can be programmed to access any function in your DAW that you can normally get to using key commands. If you don't think that's enough, SSL have also implemented a menu-driven system, whereby any one of the buttons can access a sub-menu of eight further choices, rather than being just a single key command. At the time of writing, default templates for Pro Tools, Nuendo/Cubase and Logic were being created — and they should be available by the time you read this — but as everyone seems to have a different way of working, changing the defaults to your own choices has also been made very straightforward.
I tested a unit with Logic (my DAW software of choice) at SSL's factory, just prior to the first units being shipped, and loved the solid feel of the metal data wheel and the large tape-style transport keys. The display is clear and shows exactly what you'd see on a Mackie Control, and most of the controls — such as V-Pots with integral push switches — should feel reassuringly familiar to Mackie Control users. To access Logic plug-ins it is necessary to push the button below the word Plug-In in the display (rather than the dedicated Plug-In button, which apparently only works for Pro Tools), but other than that, Mackie Control users should feel right at home.
On a more general note, I was impressed by the straightforward way in which the routing Matrix works: inserting hardware is much like dropping plug-ins into a DAW insert, although I think that there's some room for enhancement in this area, simply because of the dual role of the channel strips. Each channel can be set up either as an input or as a DAW return (or, in broader terms, as a record or mix path). Often you'll use different devices in the insert points for recording than for mixing, so it would be nice to have the Matrix switch in the appropriate device as you switch the channel input source, but there's an obvious problem with this idea, of course: if the device you want to use in the channel for Input mode is already being used elsewhere for a channel in mix (DAW output) mode it can't be in two places at once, so you'd need to be able to set some user preferences to decide how to deal with this situation.
The routing matrix only applies to the channel inserts — it doesn't extend to the aux sends or the master inserts — so you may not end up with an entirely patchbay-free studio, and you'll probably want to leave your favourite reverb device hooked up to send 1, and perhaps your favourite bus compressor to a master insert. Paul White
The raised meter bridge features dual LED bar-graph metering for each channel, plus Rec and Mix mode status lamps. The two eight-channel sunken control pods afford some protection to the controls, and in the case of the fader panels are designed so that computer keyboards can be rested easily on the surface without knocking the faders. The signal path starts at the top of the strip with an input-level trim control (±20dB) and status LEDS to show which input source is currently selected (line input or DAW return). Two adjacent buttons with LED indicators introduce a polarity inversion and activate the insert point.
Next is a level control for the direct channel send signal to the DAW, with indicators to show the selected source (direct from input, or pre or post channel fader). The next four controls are associated with the aux sends: a stereo cue feed with level and pan knobs (plus source indicators), and two mono sends switchable between four buses (1/3 and 2/4), again with source and mode indicators. Finally, there's a channel pan control, and two illuminated 'lozenge' buttons, the first of which selects the DAW input for in-line monitoring, while the second (labelled Sel) assigns the master channel 'focus' controls to configure the selected channel strip.
The lower portion of the channel strip contains a two-line alphanumeric display to identify the channel and DAW track names, plus a further V-pot control knob, three lozenge buttons, and the motorised fader. The rotary control is an encoder which can be assigned to perform any desired DAW function, while the buttons provide the usual channel Cut, Solo and Sel functions.
A lot of the channel-switching facilities are controlled from the Master channel strip to the right of channel 16. An array of more illuminated lozenge buttons allows the selected channel input(s) to be 'flipped' between line and DAW sources, control the source/DAW monitor switching modes, select the channel direct output source, configure the cue and aux source selections, and set up the channel routing to the record and mix buses. The fader at the bottom of the strip can be used as a master stereo bus fader, or as the selected channel's 'focus' fader — in which case it controls whichever channel has been assigned to it.
The bulk of the 'centre section' — although it occupies the right-hand side of the console rather than the centre — is dominated by the control room and artist's monitoring controls. Above and to the right of these are the record and mix bus master trims and insert summing mode switches. The cue and aux masters (with associated AFL buttons) and the stereo effects return facilities are all here too. It's all fairly familiar and self-explanatory, really.
However, the clever bits are arranged across the bottom of the master section panel, and in the panel mounted below the alphanumeric display. Eight programmable soft keys above this display strip, along with another eight below, are used to control the various DAW functions according to the legends displayed in the display strip — and the user can determine which functions appear on which buttons, if required. Below these soft keys are yet more illuminated lozenge buttons, which are used to select which DAW is being controlled (if there is more than one connected), which pre-assigned soft-key set is in use, the functionality of the channel Sel buttons, and the various V-pot control modes.
The bottom panel contains the master or 'focus' fader, along with a full set of transport controls and shuttle/jog wheel, and typical SSL transport automation controls such as RTZ, Loop, Last Cue, and so on. The Artist talkback button is placed alongside the transport controls too, for easy access. There's also a set of navigation cursor keys, a fader bank and channel scroll keys, and keyboard function keys including Shift, Opt, Ctrl, #, Esc and Enter — so you won't need to have a keyboard on hand to control your DAW most of the time.
Everything about this console feels instinctive and familiar, and the commonality of operating paradigms with traditional SSLs is reassuring for those who have that experience, but not overwhelming for those who don't. The facilities provided in the console, although essentially restricted to aux sends and monitoring, are well thought out and ideally suited to any project studio's needs. The SuperCue facility is a thoughtful inclusion that allows the artist to hear both their own source and the corresponding DAW track during the run-up to a punch-in, but only themselves (latency free) during the recorded section. The in-line signal path is very flexible, but the icing on the cake is quite definitely the automated insert matrix, which makes it so easy to patch favoured outboard signal processors into channels individually, or in complex chains. It is so easy to use, and brilliantly versatile — and I can see it making the Matrix console very appealing to some mastering houses and multi-function studios.
Since the Matrix lacks the mic preamps, equalisation and dynamics facilities that are standard in most desks, it doesn't really have a sonic character of its own. The SuperAnalogue circuitry is very clean and transparent, so if you are looking for sonic character, you'll have to rely upon your outboard preamps and processors to provide it. But rather than seeing that as a bad thing, I'd suggest it is an extremely good thing — because it means you can tailor and modify the sound in whatever way you choose, at the press of a few buttons.
I liked everything about the SSL Matrix — from its styling and its feature set to its ergonomics and its DAW integration. Best of all, you're not paying for a lot of features and facilities you don't need. It always seems so daft to buy a large console and then not only never use most of its mic preamps, but have to buy additional external mic pres to provide the range of sonic character that you require. With the Matrix you don't have that problem. You can use your existing outboard equipment, or just buy the outboard that you need — making the whole thing far more cost-effective and tailored to your own specific requirements. If you're looking for a top-notch DAW controller, but also want a very high-quality analogue mix bus, decent monitoring facilities, and a neat and simple way of integrating your existing outboard equipment — and you have the budget of a modest family car available — then I'd say that this is the desk to consider before all other options.
I don't think there is anything out there at the moment that provides an even remotely similar function set. Although there are other line-level mixers around from the Portico range, AMS Neve and ATI, I believe that only the Neve has DAW automation, and they are all far more expensive than the Matrix.
- Full SSL-standard DAW control functionality.
- Customisable control functions.
- Brilliantly flexible external device-routing matrix.
- Comprehensive aux and cue facilities — with SuperCue.
- Well-equipped monitoring section.
- Fanless power supply for zero noise.
- SuperAnalogue circuitry gives transparent sound quality.
- It looks like an SSL, but it won't scare the bank manager (much).
- Restricted to stereo applications — no surround facilities.
- No stereo channel-linking facilities.
- It may be the most affordable SSL console, but it's still expensive!
An innovative, compact, line-level console with comprehensive DAW-control functionality, sophisticated monitoring and cue facilities, and a unique routing matrix to integrate a wide range of outboard processors with complete flexibility.
£14,687.50 including VAT.
Sound Technology +44 (0)1462 480000.