The original 3U monster that was the SST282 Space Station has been reissued by Seven Woods Audio as this small desktop unit. Not content merely to offer all the classic sounds, though, the new incarnation has a number of fresh tricks up its sleeve...
The Ursa Major Space Station — the original SST282 3U rackmounting monster — was launched in 1978 as one of the first generation of digital reverbs, competing directly with the classic EMT 250. The Space Station was a multitap delay-based device providing echo, ambience, and reasonable reverb effects, and it remained on sale for the best part of a decade, until technology advances allowed far more sophisticated products at much lower prices.
To remove any confusion, let me just clarify that Ursa Major was the name of the company (based in Belmont, USA) which was set up by Christopher Moore to produce the Space Station. It quickly became a classic reverb — more than a reverb really — and its contribution became an identifiable element of much music of the time, especially as a guitar and vocal effect. In fact, the mystique of the Space Station has remained, and Chris Moore, working with Princeton Digital, has already produced a software replica of the Space Station as a TDM plug-in for the Pro Tools platform. Princeton Digital have been involved in the recreation of several vintage digital products, including the Eventide SP2016 reviewed back in SOS May 2004.
The new hardware incarnation of the Space Station has been produced by a company called Seven Woods Audio, again with the direct involvement of the originator Chris Moore. It has acquired a new model number along the way — SST206 — and has shrunk from a 3U rackmount beast to what initially appears to be a remote control but is, in fact, the entire unit! It has also gained a new state-of-the-art algorithm to supplement the original echo and reverb effects. The handbook includes a note from Chris Moore to explain that the new Room program is the 'best reverb that I know how to create with today's best hardware'.
The heart of the new Space Station is a single 140MHz Motorola DSP chip programmed with faithful recreations of the original Space Station's algorithms, some updated versions, plus the new Room reverb. The unique aspect, though, is that the unit is packaged in a slim panel with wooden side cheeks, which is designed to sit on a desk. It measures just 165 x 127 x 150mm (hwd) and weighs next to nothing, with a four-metre connecting cable which terminates in a pair of XLR connectors and a compact universal mains power supply. The latter accepts the usual IEC mains lead and operates on AC voltages from 90V to 260V, consuming less than one Watt of power.
Audio connections are provided only in digital form, with stereo AES input and output provided on flying XLR connectors. The SST206 is a stereo output device, like the original, but where it differs is that it accepts a stereo source where the original was a mono-input device. However, the stereo input is a convenient by-product of adopting the AES input format, and the stereo input is summed to mono to feed the delay/reverb processor. A dedicated Dry Level control allows a percentage of the stereo source signal to be passed through to the stereo outputs, if required.
The unit is optimised for use at a 48kHz sampling rate with 24-bit resolution. It will also operate happily at 44.1kHz and even 32kHz — although the control calibration will be inaccurate at these lower sample rates since the delay and decay times are related to the sampling rate. Similarly, it can also be used at 88.2kHz and 96kHz (but only with the SST Reverb and Echo programs), with proportionally shorter delay and decay times again.
The original Space Station (and its TDM plug-in version) was driven via a combination of rotary controls and buttons which configured the delay line's outputs and feedback paths in various ways. The fundamental design involved 24 separate delay-line taps. One was used for the echo effect, feeding back to the input through a decay control. In the reverb mode, the delay time of 15 taps was modulated before being fed back to the input. The last eight taps were called the Audition Delay Taps and were configured in pairs to feed the processor's stereo outputs. The buttons selected from 16 different tap configurations to provide different effect characters and overall decay times.
The new version shares the same delay-line topology, but employs twelve rotary controls to configure the unit: two black, three red, four blue (all with pointers and calibrated from zero to 10), and two without pointers. This last pair select the required program and delay tap pattern, which are indicated with LEDs. There is also a small bar-graph meter to show the summed input level, calibrated for -30, -15, -6 and 0dBFS levels. The controls are all clearly labelled in white against a dark-grey background, making the unit very easy on the eye.
The first black control sets the input level, while a blue control underneath sets the level of dry input signal sent to the outputs. The next black control sets the echo delay time (and doubles as the pre-delay time control for the new Room program). The red knobs adjust the overall decay with separate tweaks for the LF and HF decay times. The decay time is essentially a feedback control, passing some of the delay-line's output back to the input to extend the effective decay time. The input to the delay line passes through a simple bass/treble equaliser controlled with the LF and HF decay-time parameters, so these enable the character of the reverb or echoes to be tailored to simulate dark or bright spaces.
The last four blue knobs control the eight delay taps which generate the stereo output signal. The actual delay times associated with each pair of delay taps are governed by the Audition Delay Pattern, as set by one of the plain black knobs. The options include echo, two slap effects, two delay cluster settings called 'fatty' and 'cloud', three space repeats, four rooms, and four comb-filter effects.
The tap outputs are controlled in pairs, with the odd-numbered taps feeding the left channel and the even-numbered taps feeding the right channel. By varying the levels of the different taps, the character of the effect can be changed dramatically, and this is completely independent of the Echo Delay and Decay Time parameters — the virtually unlimited combinations make this a very versatile machine.
However, it is worth pointing out that the SST206 has no facility for factory or user presets — you have to create and adjust the desired effect manually each time you use the machine. For some, that will be a creative pleasure, while others will find it an intellectual challenge, depending on their respective points of view! Furthermore, the operation is not particularly intuitive at first sight, and the new model lacks the block-diagram graphic of the original to help explain what each control is doing. However, with a little practice and familiarity it soon becomes easy to adjust the parameters as required, and it is rewarding to create and shape the wanted effect.
The two original progams — the SST Echo and SST Reverb — each have two variations, as mentioned earlier. The accurate original algorithms impose a 7kHz bandwidth to the delayed signal with an 80dB dynamic range (11 bit), indicated with a steady-mode LED. The updated version is indicated with a flashing LED and provides a full 20kHz (or greater) bandwidth with 120dB dynamic range. It also boasts less modulation noise in the reverb mode and an 'infinite delay' in the echo mode.
The all-new Room program is a more conventional (in the modern sense) reverb algorithm featuring a true stereo input. When in this mode some of the controls take on new functions — Echo Delay becomes a Pre Delay, and the four output tap controls adjust early-reflection delay time and level, reverb level, and room size. The Delay Pattern control determines the length of the early reflections. This algorithm uses the full power of the Motorola DSP to generate a very sophisticated and natural-sounding reverb, which compares very well indeed to the professional Lexicon and TC effects. However, the mode can only be used at 44.1kHz an 48kHz.
The supplied handbook takes quite a bit of reading, made harder by the dense and uninviting layout. However, there is a lot of helpful information in there on how to get the best from the SST206 — which is needed given the less-than-intuitive controls. It is a great shame that the very clear and simple block diagram that featured so prominently on the original could not be squeezed onto the new control surface, and its ommision from the handbook is inexcusable. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that was never truer than in this case!
Hooking the Space Station up was simple enough. I used it in conjunction with a Yamaha DM1000 console, configuring a pair of AES inputs and outputs from one of the interface cards to act as an aux send and effects return. Since the device is optimised for operation at 48kHz, I performed most tests at that sample rate, although some material required me to use 44.1kHz, and I also ran a brief test at 96kHz. Although the parameters all become 10 percent larger at 44.1kHz, this has little practical effect on the character of the processing. With double-sample-rate operation, the new Room reverb mode is unavailable, of course, and all the other parameters have half their original delay lengths — which does have a significant knock-on effect for the sound and character of some effects, especially the longer delays and reverbs, for obvious reasons.
It's not impossible to use the SST206 at 88.2kHz or 96kHz, but it becomes a lot less versatile and flexible. As a result, I ended up using the slightly bizarre combination of a D-A/A-D converter combination on the input with a sample-rate converter on the output to allow me to operate the Space Station at 48kHz with 96kHz source material. Given that I wanted to use a particular effect with a 7kHz bandwidth, the lack of 24-bit/96kHz integrity hardly seemed to matter!
The sound of the SST206 is impressive, both in the original 'vintage' mode and with the full bandwidth and dynamic range. There is something special about the way the delay effects are generated and controlled that gives it a unique character — perhaps it is the slightly imperfect and grainy quality. Similarly, the SST Reverb mode has a quality that is identifiably 'vintage' yet eminently usable, especially for ADT and flutter echoes on keyboard and guitar parts, and for applying grungy, analogue-like delay effects to vocals.
The original Space Station was designed and used at a time when recording engineers were technically minded and were used to having to configure equipment by hand to create the desired effects. These days, I suspect 80 percent of home-studio users rely entirely on factory presets, particularly in the case of reverb and delay effects — partly through laziness and partly because the sophistication of modern effects processors makes manual adjustment a complex business. However, the new SST206 demands personal creative input to create and shape every single effect. Given the digital technology involved, it does seem strange that factory and user presets are not available, and that favourite settings therefore have to be noted on the supplied control template.
A technical understanding of what is going on under the panel is not essential for creating interesting and appropriate effects, but it certainly helps. Having said that, I dare say many will discover suitable effects simply through semi-random knob-twiddling — the range and diversity of sounds available in the SST206 is vast.
The new Room reverb is a very classy effect, with a very lifelike quality. A good example of this can be heard when you adjust the room size — as the size is reduced the sound takes on more distinct room-mode colorations that really do give the impression of a small, believable space. The ability to adjust the delay, length, and level of the early reflections separately from the main body of the decay allows a wide range of room characters to be simulated. More importantly, however, the reverb can be tailored to sit nicely in a mix without clogging up the space between instruments. I would rate this program to be the equal, on quality grounds, of many of those found in devices like the Lexicon PCM90 and the more sophisticated TC products, although the fact that each effect has to be dialled in from scratch makes it a little less usable than those more familiar references.
Overall, the Space Station is a well-designed, superb-sounding effects processor with a unique and attractive profile. It is relatively expensive and functionally limited in comparison with typical multi-effects processors, but it offers a range of effects which have a unique and attractive sound character and are highly customisable. It won't suit everyone — not least because of the need for hands-on control — but if you like rich, interesting delay effects and vintage-style reverbs, this is a fascinating product that delivers satisfying results.
- Accurate recreation of the original SST282 algorithms.
- Vintage sound character and effects.
- Attractive control surface.
- Sophisticated new Room program.
- Only digital I/O.
- No preset memories.
- Imposing handbook.
- No block diagram to explain controls.
An accurate recreation of the original Space Station's effects using modern technology in a very compact and elegant package. Supplemented with a brand-new and highly sophisticated Room algorithm, plus updated wide-bandwidth versions of the original SST echo and reverb programs.