SSL’s new control surface is very much the SSL of control surfaces — at an affordable price!
Long renowned for their studio mixing consoles, Solid State Logic have responded to the project‑studio revolution with an impressive programme of diversification. SSL mixers are now available at all sizes and prices, from the mouthwatering Duality and Origin down to the compact SiX. But that’s not all: the company have also successfully colonised the market for studio outboard, 500‑series modules, DAW controllers, software plug‑ins and more.
A couple of years ago, SSL brought online manufacturing capability in China to complement their UK factory. This has enabled them to develop products like the Fusion mastering processor and the 2 and 2+ audio interfaces, at prices that wouldn’t otherwise have been achievable. It’s also made possible the new UF8.
SSL’s DAW control technologies originally appeared in the AWS and Duality consoles, before making their project‑studio debut in the Nucleus. This ingenious device combined a 16‑fader control surface, a four‑channel audio interface with high‑quality mic preamps, and a ‘master section’ with transport and monitor control. It’s a mark of how successful the concept has been that even though the original Nucleus was reviewed in SOS June 2011, the updated Nucleus 2 remains a popular product today.
The UF8 draws on many of the ideas behind the Nucleus, and as a starting point for understanding what it’s capable of, you could do worse than imagine turning one of the Nucleus 2’s two banks of eight touch‑sensitive, moving faders into a standalone product. Like the Nucleus, the UF8 achieves its mastery over recording software through the MIDI‑based Mackie Control and HUI protocols, and with three Layers available, can provide simultaneous control over multiple DAWs. And, like the Nucleus, it aims to offer a great deal more than basic level and pan control, with a big complement of assignable buttons and context‑sensitive controls.
At the same time, though, the UF8 also differs from the Nucleus in several significant ways. In place of the Nucleus Remote software, SSL have developed a new package called SSL 360 to handle MIDI data transfer and set up the UF8’s many configuration options. Whereas the Nucleus transmits its MIDI data over Ethernet, the UF8 does so through a USB connection. There are also quite a few differences in detail concerning the layout and operation of the two products, and the UF8 is designed to be used in multiples of up to four units.
Since the two are not identical, and as it’s been nearly a decade since the Nucleus was covered in depth in Sound On Sound, it’s worth giving a broad overview of the UF8’s features here, even where they do overlap. And whereas Mike Senior tested the Nucleus mainly with Reaper, in its MCU guise, I’ll focus here on the UF8 as a HUI controller for Pro Tools.
Physically, the UF8 is an impressive unit that lives up to the high standards of build quality we expect from SSL. It can be used flat on a desktop or tilted to a comfortable angle using supplied legs, and can also be rackmounted if you purchase the optional rack kit. A deeply recessed bay in the back panel hosts the small amount of necessary socketry: DC power from an external laptop‑style power supply, a Type‑C USB port for connection to the computer, a Type‑A USB port for connection to further UF8s, and two quarter‑inch jacks for footswitches. There’s no power switch, but the review unit didn’t object to being turned off at the wall.
The 100mm motorised faders are smooth and precise, and their touch‑sensitivity was flawless for me. Also worthy of note are the high‑quality colour LCD TFT panels associated with each fader, which incorporate 12‑segment ladder meters and can display detailed information relating to track names, automation modes, plug‑in parameters and more. They also bear a horizontal ladder indicating the value of whatever is being controlled by that channel’s V‑Pot rotary encoder.
Anyone designing a surface that can be used in multiples has to address the awkward fact that only some control‑surface features need to be scalable. We all want the option to add more faders and pan pots, but few of us need four sets of transport controls or jog/shuttle wheels. Different manufacturers resolve this issue in different ways. For example, the most obvious competitor for the UF8, Avid’s S1, is designed to be paired with the Avid Dock, which incorporates all that ‘non‑scalable’ functionality, leaving the S1 itself with a fairly streamlined complement of controls. SSL have taken a slightly different approach; as yet, there is no partner unit which can provide dedicated transport control and so on, so the UF8 has a lot more buttons than the S1. To ensure that these don’t become redundant in a multi‑unit configuration, however, SSL have made many of them multifunction or user‑assignable. This also ensures that the UF8 can be adapted to the different feature sets available in all the DAWs on the market.
Assigning user functions to controls is the main raison d’être of the cross‑platform SSL 360 software, which must be installed prior to use. At the topmost level of configuration is the Layer, which tells the UF8 which DAW package it’s talking to. There are three ‘slots’ into which Layers can be loaded; these are switched using dedicated latching buttons at the top left of the UF8 panel, where you’ll also find a dedicated 360 button which tabs the 360 software window to the front in Mac OS or Windows.
Five Layer options are available at launch: Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live, Cubase and Studio One. Pro Tools is the ‘odd one out’ in that it uses the HUI protocol rather than MCU, but this is among the settings that is hidden from the user. SSL are working on supporting other DAWs too but, in the meantime, it should be possible to adapt one of the existing profiles to a DAW that isn’t explicitly supported. By the time you read this, there should be comprehensive video tutorials available on the SSL site explaining how to set up the UF8 with each DAW.
A Layer comprises various behind‑the‑scenes settings such as fader scaling, along with a default selection of assignments to the various controls. These fall into three groups. Three dedicated Quick Controls at the top left of the front panel would usually be set up to access the most‑used shortcuts for a particular DAW; so, for example, in most of the preset profiles, the first Quick Control operates whatever keyboard shortcut is used to toggle between the mixer and the arrange window — Command+= in Pro Tools, F3 in Cubase, X in Logic, and so on. Two footswitch inputs are likewise assignable, and all the DAW profiles set these to Play and Record by default to enable dropping in on a previously recorded take.
The bulk of the assignable control belongs to the eight Soft Keys. These are the buttons at the top of each channel above the OLED panels, and each can have up to five assignments, which are switched in banks. In theory, each Layer can thus have up to 43 assignable controls, not counting the footswitches. This would be impressive in its own right, but what makes them even more useful is that they’re not restricted to replicating the DAW’s own keyboard commands. You can actually enter a series of keystrokes and key combinations, which will then be fired off in order when you activate the relevant Soft Key.
The upshot of this is to implement a form of macro functionality even in DAWs that don’t officially support macros. For example, a quirk of Pro Tools is that if you choose New Playlist for Selected Tracks, the new Playlist is automatically named if you have multiple tracks selected, but not if you only have one selected. No problem: you can set up a UF8 Soft Key to trigger the Ctrl+\ shortcut for the command followed by Enter to make the resulting dialogue box go away. Or, if manual drum replacement is your thing, you could have a Soft Key that repeats the sequence Tab (to transient), Command+V (to paste) over and over again.
The Soft Keys can also replicate the function of the modifier keys Shift, Ctrl, Option and Command (or Shift, Start, Alt and Ctrl as Windows users know them). This is invaluable for working with Pro Tools, where you frequently want to do things like operate a Solo button with Command held down, or invoke Ctrl to temporarily suspend a group. The flip side of this is that neither these nor the transport functions have dedicated UF8 keys. So if you do want to invoke modifiers and operate your DAW’s transport from the UF8, you’ll have to use up a few Soft Key assignments, and their position at the top of the surface means they don’t really fall under the hand in the way that you’d want them to.
The remaining UF8 buttons and controls aren’t user‑definable in the same way, but many of them offer multiple functions, some of which are tailored to the specific DAW selected in the Layer. For instance, each channel’s Sel button usually acts to select that channel both on the UF8 and within your DAW — it’s the equivalent of left‑clicking the channel with the mouse — but three buttons on the right‑hand side switch these Sel buttons to alternate functions. They can be made to act as record‑arm switches, or to bring into play the Automation mode buttons in the UF8’s lower‑left corner. And that’s not all: all three buttons also have additional functions that are accessed by pressing and holding. For instance, holding down the Norm key allows you to clear all mutes or solos by pressing a single channel’s Cut or Solo button.
The arrow keys at the lower right‑hand corner likewise have dual functionality. Depending on the setting of the central button, they can either act as cursor keys, moving the Pro Tools edit cursor around, or as horizontal and vertical zoom buttons.
Between the Selection Mode and Cursor buttons is a large rotary controller labelled Channel. This too has multiple functions, which are chosen using the three buttons beneath it. With none of these selected, the encoder banks the UF8’s faders left or right in single‑channel increments, complementing the eight‑channel increments made using the Bank buttons. In Nav mode, the controller moves the playhead around, giving you at least some of the functionality of a jog/shuttle wheel. In Nudge mode, the controller is supposed to nudge the selected clip left or right, but I couldn’t get this to work. Possibly the neatest option, though, is Focus mode, in which the controller acts like a mouse scroll wheel, such that hovering the mouse over any plug‑in parameter brings it temporarily under the controller’s spell.
And talking of plug‑ins, the UF8 can also handle sends and inserts, courtesy of the centre‑left panel of buttons. By default, these operate in Send mode: press a number from 1 to 5 and the V‑Pots then control the level of Send A, B, C, D or E rather than pan. Alternatively, you can press Flip and have the faders control send levels while the V‑Pots take a turn on channel level. Engage Plug‑in mode instead, and pressing a number brings up the floating window corresponding to insert slot A, B, C, D or E on the selected channel. If that slot already contains a plug‑in, you’ll see its first four parameters displayed on the first four OLEDs for adjustment using the V‑Pots. Page buttons and the rightmost V‑Pot can be used to scroll through to other parameters. Finally, you can also select Channel mode, which focuses all the V‑Pots on the selected channel: the first five adjust Sends A‑E and the eighth its pan control. (All of this is somewhat DAW‑dependent, and most client programs that use MCU rather than HUI aren’t limited to showing only five sends or four plug‑in parameters at a time.)
The UF8 abounds with nice design touches, one of which is that all its buttons have multiple illumination states. If a button is brightly lit, that means it’s active. If it’s completely unlit, it means that pressing it will do nothing in the UF8’s current state, while a dimly lit button indicates that its function is available if needed. Thus, for instance, the Automation buttons are all unlit until you choose Auto Selection Mode, whereupon they all become dimly lit to indicate that you can now use them to change the automation state of the selected track.
Speaking of automation, the UF8’s faders proved to be excellent tools for writing volume data. They are fast, reliably touch‑sensitive and offer exactly the right amount of resistance. Automation that you write makes full use of the HUI protocol’s 9‑bit fader resolution, to the point where it’s possible to write changes so small that they don’t trigger the fader motors to move on playback.
What is apparent from writing automation and from some other aspects of the UF8’s operation, though, is that MIDI‑based control protocols and especially HUI are showing their age. SSL have done a heroic job of bolting on additional functionality and working around the limitations of the protocols, but ultimately they can’t overcome these limitations altogether. Take something as simple as track names: it’s all very well having high‑resolution LCD panels, but since Pro Tools only ever communicates four characters over HUI, you’ll still end up checking on screen to confirm what ‘T1D2’ or ‘RE11’ actually are. Likewise, SSL can’t be held responsible for the fact that Sends and Inserts F‑J are relatively inaccessible to the UF8, or that only four Pro Tools plug‑in parameters can be displayed at once.
That means that in a ‘What can it do?’ contest, the UF8 is always going to come second to Avid’s S1 and Dock, which communicate using the more advanced and proprietary EUCON system. Those surfaces allow you to do things like set up and modify Mix Groups, spill VCA Groups, employ advanced automation techniques and more. It’s not SSL’s fault that the UF8 can’t do any of those things, and I’m sure that if Avid were willing to license the technology, SSL would build an amazing EUCON controller.
Refined, beautifully made and designed with attention to every last detail, this is the Rolls Royce of MIDI control surfaces.
However, the UF8 also has some major positives. For one thing, the apparent cost similarity to the S1 breaks down in the real world, because the S1 really needs to be used with a tablet, and ideally paired with a Dock and a second tablet, all of which would bring the total cost to at least double that of a UF8. For another, I found the UF8 and SSL 360 a lot more approachable and easier to get to grips with than the S1 and EuControl. It’s not much use having endless functionality available to you if you never overcome the learning curve required to access it! And for another, the Mackie Control protocol is more widely implemented than EUCON, which is officially supported only in Pro Tools, Logic or Cubendo. It should also be remembered that HUI is something of a worst‑case scenario, and that the situation with MCU hosts will be better in many respects.
Ultimately, complaining that HUI and MCU are limited is a bit like saying that all keyboard instruments should use MPE instead of boring old MIDI. These old protocols couldn’t have anticipated everything that we now want to do with our DAWs, but they are still perfectly adequate for their core job: replicating the tactile experience of using a hardware mixer. The UF8 does this in fine style, and a lot more besides. It’s clear that SSL have put a huge amount of experience and thought into its design, and although you can buy moving‑fader control surfaces for much less from the likes of PreSonus and Behringer, no‑one who compares them side‑by‑side will think the UF8 poor value for money. Refined, beautifully made and designed with attention to every last detail, this is the Rolls Royce of MIDI control surfaces.
- Very nicely constructed, with clear and bright colour displays, high‑quality touch‑sensitive faders and smooth rotary encoders.
- SSL 360 and the Soft Keys offer a great deal of DAW control beyond what the core MIDI protocols support.
- Friendly to set up and easy to use.
- Can operate three DAWs simultaneously.
- Up to four UF8s can be hooked together with relatively little unnecessary duplication of controls.
- The ageing MCU and HUI control protocols limit the UF8’s capabilities when it comes to things like plug‑in editing.
- Although the Soft Keys can operate DAW transport and act as modifier keys, they’re not ideally positioned for this.
The UF8 wrings every last drop out of the familiar MCU and HUI protocols by pairing MIDI fader control with extensive and massively customisable Soft Key functionality.