The idea of digitally controlled VCAs is far from new — but this implementation feels like the future!
There have been several computer‑controlled analogue level automation systems released over the years, so to some extent Wes Audio’s ngLeveler reinvents the wheel. But what a reinvention it is! Essentially, you have 16 channels of VCA‑based level control in a black 1U 19‑inch rackmount box, with a bunch of LEDs that tell you what’s going on inside it. The specs are good, with low distortion and crosstalk, plenty of headroom, and hardware digital control resolution of 2500 steps per channel. This translates to a very clean‑sounding device, which offers very smooth analogue level adjustment. From an end‑user point of view, once you’ve hooked up your gear to the ngLeveler’s analogue I/O, it’s really all about the cleverness of the software control app (which usually runs in the background) and the DAW plug‑in (which runs in Mac OS and Windows hosts that support AU, VST2.4, VST3 or AAX). That said, there’s also the possibility of integrating third‑party control surfaces.
A good chunk of the 63‑page manual is dedicated to setting things up, not because the ngLeveler is complicated but rather because you have the option of USB or Ethernet connectivity, and the manual necessarily goes into some detail about the different scenarios. For the purposes of this review, all you really need know about that is that the ngLeveler supports direct connection by USB or Ethernet, or Ethernet via a LAN, and that I had the review unit working successfully in all those setups.
The software side of things (for my Mac, at least) is a hefty 472MB download, and this unpacks to install nearly 1GB of data on your computer. The reason for this is that it includes the control software and plug‑ins for all the ‘ng’ units in Wes Audio’s portfolio: the installer checks all connected units for their firmware version and updates any for which there’s a newer version. So while the download could be lighter, it’s great that owners of lots of Wes gear have such a low‑hassle way of update everything. With only the ngLeveler connected to an M1 MacBook Pro, this firmware check and update took under a minute.
Once installed, you have the two pieces of software I mentioned above. The GCon app opens automatically on boot‑up and sits on your OS’s menu bar. This is where you take care of all the admin: updating firmware, configuring MIDI ports for hardware controllers and so forth. The DAW plug‑in communicates with the hardware (and any configured control surfaces) via the GCon app. All versions that are compatible with your OS appear to be installed automatically, so in my Reaper‑based Mac system I could see AU, VST2 and VST3 versions; it might have been nice to have the option to install only those I required. The plug‑in can be inserted on any track in your DAW project, since it doesn’t receive or process any audio — it’s just for control and metering — but in practice, to make it easy to locate, I found it was best to give it its own dedicated, labelled track.
I’ve used plenty of Wes gear connected by USB over the years and it’s always worked smoothly right off the bat. This time, I found I had to iron out a wrinkle. Everything had appeared to install perfectly, and audio signals were clearly flowing through the hardware as they should, but when I instantiated the control plug‑in it identified no attached hardware, despite the hardware being connected via USB. Restarting both my DAW and the hardware didn’t solve this, so next I tried rebooting the Mac and, finally, it worked as I’d expected. A more detailed reading of the manual suggested that the installer should have prompted me to reboot my machine, which is a necessary step. It didn’t, so that’s a potential ‘gotcha’ to watch out for, though thankfully it’s easy to overcome.
The hardware connections are all on the rear panel. These comprise four AES/Tascam standard DB25 D‑sub connectors for the audio I/O, an RJ45 port and USB‑B port for the control connection and firmware updates, and an IEC inlet for the internal universal switch‑mode power supply. So that side of things really couldn’t be simpler. Around the front there’s an on/off rocker switch, along with three LEDs to indicate when the unit is powered up, when it’s connected to a computer, and when data is being received. Thirty‑two more LEDs, one pair per channel, indicate input and output signal present. It couldn’t be less confusing!
A tour of the plug‑in GUI quickly reveals what functions this mysterious 1U black box can perform, as well as the immense amount of control you have over it from your DAW. When you first open the plug‑in, you’ll be in Fader view, with 16 separate silver‑capped virtual faders, one for each channel. These set the level over the full gain range of the VCA (full attenuation to +15dB). A button at the bottom allows you to switch to Trim view, which is differentiated on the GUI by its red fader caps. In this view, you have much finer control over a smaller range (‑10 to +5dB). Importantly, both settings are active simultaneously, so you could, for example, use your DAW’s automation system to move the regular faders, and then use the Trim faders to apply an offset without overriding that automation. When in Fader view, a number below each fader displays the corresponding Trim fader’s setting, and in Trim mode it shows the main Fader level. In both views, input and output level meters appear to the right of each fader by default, though either or both of these can be turned off. A final level control is the input pad, which applies 6dB attenuation.
Each channel can, individually, be soloed (muting all other channels), muted, or set to solo safe (ie. not muted when another channel is soloed), and has the option of switching in a THD processor. The THD button cycles each channel through three distortion settings: off, medium and high. We’ve seen this facility on other Wes processors so I won’t dwell on it too long here, other than to say that having 16 channels of this subtle coloration available is really handy. For a while, I used the ngLeveler along with the Dangerous 2‑BUS‑XT (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) to process a number of subgroup busses, and the flexibility this combination gave me to massage the tonality without using other processors was a pleasant surprise.
Above each pair and each quad of channels, there are a number of useful grouping controls. Adjacent odd/even channel pairs can be linked, as two mono channels (whereby they retain separate controls) or as a single stereo track. In the latter case, the tracks become one, with a single control set, and when used with an external control surface they present as a single channel too, so you could, for example, use one eight‑fader control surface to control eight stereo pairs without changing banks. A more novel channel‑linking mode, Link Opposite, can be applied to an odd/even channel pair, or to two channel pairs. As the name implies, when channels are linked in this way and you move the fader of one up or down, that of the other travels the same distance in the opposite direction. The idea is that you can send a signal from one channel to a processor, and bring the return to the other channel: as you ‘drive’ the processor by moving the ‘send’ fader up, the ‘return’ fader comes down to compensate for the level change. But you can also use it to crossfade between two mono or stereo signals.
As you ‘drive’ the processor harder by moving the ‘send’ fader up, the ‘return’ fader will move in the opposite direction to compensate for the level change.
A final linking facility is provided at the bottom of the GUI: each channel can be assigned to one (or none) of four channel Groups, and you can specify which of the following Group parameters you wish those channels to follow: Level, Trim, THD and Pad. Change this on any channel withing the Group and you change them all. It could be handy for all sorts of reasons, for example to treat multi‑channel mic arrays as one or give you separate control over the OH/room and close mics on a drum kit recording.
There are a number of other nice, convenient touches. The GUI can be scaled to 100, 125, 150, 175 or 200 %; as a reference, 150% nearly filled the screen of my 16‑inch M1 MacBook Pro. Alongside the expected preset save/recall system, an A/B/C compare facility allows you to experiment with and audition different balances or, say, THD settings across the board, with a single click. You can copy and paste settings between scenes too.
Settings are, of course, all saved and recalled with your DAW project, and pretty much any aspect of the plug‑in can be automated. Interestingly, if you link two faders and then move either to record automation to your DAW, that automation is written only for the fader that you move. When reading the automation on playback, both faders will move but only for as long as they remain linked in the plug‑in. This arrangement is necessary, since otherwise the onboard linking would fight against the incoming automation data. I mention it here as it has the potential to confuse if you fail to read the manual!
For all the slick brilliance of the plug‑in control, it’s worth returning to where we started: the hardware. In use, it is every bit as clean and pristine as the specs suggest and, THD ‘icing’ aside, you wouldn’t know it was there. It had no problem coping with high input levels, or passing on sufficient levels to drive the next device in the chain.
I used the ngLeveler in a number of different scenarios during my review tests. I’ve already mentioned using it alongside an analogue summing system for processing subgroups sent from my DAW, and in that role the stereo grouping was really handy. Such a ‘virtual faders’ role, effectively replacing the faders of an analogue console, is probably what this device will be used for most. But you needn’t let your imagination rest there, since it’s possible to have multiple devices connected to your computer, and you can use them to control and automate levels pretty much anywhere in your signal chain. I tried, for example, using the ngLeveler to automate the aux send levels from my analogue console’s channels, riding the levels to outboard reverbs and delays, and that worked really well. I really valued the Link Opposite facility too, as a means of driving outboard gear into saturation or greater gain reduction without me needing to tweak the hardware.
There’s genuine potential for one or more ngLevelers to breathe new life into vintage analogue consoles, and the possibilities if you were to integrate them into a wider hardware setup based around Wes Audio’s other plug‑in controlled processors are almost jaw‑dropping Hmmm... I wonder if Wes will ever deliver a console with this tech embedded!
Physical control surfaces are integrated using the GCon app — this acts as a hub, communicating with your control surfaces, with the DAW plug‑in and the ngLeveler hardware.
The currently supported control surface protocols are HUI and Mackie Control, and these can be set up in a couple of ways: In Server mode, an attached control surface manages the ngLeveler exclusively, while in Server Mediation mode the control surface manages both the ngLeveler and your DAW, with any controls not being used by the ngLeveler (eg. transport controls) working with your DAW in the usual way. In either mode, it’s possible to have any number of control surfaces managing any number of ngLevelers.
The manual also details how EuCon devices can be used, as well as indicating which knobs/faders/buttons on typical control surfaces are mapped to which functions. I tested the control surface support with my old Behringer BCR2000, connected over an M‑Audio MIDISport 8x8s to a Windows 10 machine, and it worked as expected. Whether you need physical faders is an interesting question: my Windows system has a touchscreen, and because you can make the plug‑in fill your screen it’s pretty easy to control with touch.
- Superbly conceived plug‑in control.
- Decent build quality.
- Good, clean sound, with optional THD coloration settings.
- Multiple units can be used together.
- MCU and HUI control surface support.
This may not be the first level automation box to hit the market, but it’s by far the slickest implementation I’ve seen to date, and could be useful in a number of different scenarios.