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Can a modern product like SSL’s X-Desk really compare with their classic large format consoles? If so, you may finally be able to mix through the same mix bus as the many of the best engineers in the world. I put the X-Desk’s summing to the test against the 9000J, and also did some serious thinking about this seemingly stripped down mixer. I’ll do my best to provide an accurate summary of its analog summing.
Many regard SSL mixers as the highest quality consoles in the business. The mere presence of a classic SSL console virtually confirms a studio’s legitimacy. The previously inaccessible sounds of SSL’s compressors, EQ’s and preamps are finally within reach thanks to SSL’s X-Logic series of outboard gear. But the power of an SSL mix bus has remained out of the reach of smaller studios even in the modern market. Nearly every professional recording studio I’ve been to in New York City boasts an SSL J or G series console in at least one room. On the other hand, I’ve yet to come across a single project studio with a 9000J wedged between its tiny walls.
The X-Desk offers an SSL-quality mixing console without the cost of expensive features. It’s important to note that nearly every feature on an SSL console is expensive, so most have been left out. Actually, the mic pres, EQ, dynamics, and automation all lie on the cutting room floor. If you’ve ever had the pleasure sliding the faders of an SSL 9000J, then you know how their silky movement oozes quality. The X-Desk faders don’t exactly ooze quality, if anything they sort of dribble inadequacy.
Before you go bashing SSL for stripping so many features from the X-desk, consider what’s out there on the market. There are numerous analog summing options in the same price range that are literally just rack-mounted summing boxes. These analog summing units don’t typically give you very much flexibility in the analog signal routing. This means that you don’t really have the ability to run parallel compression, or even create a reverb send.
At least the X-desk comes with some faders. It is, in fact, a 16-channel mix bus, but it’s worth noting that only 8 of those channels have faders. That means that the other channels have to be attenuated through a volume knob rather than a fader. This is a classic trick that nearly died out in the age 128+ channel consoles and DAWs. There are also two mono Aux sends, talkback, 2 stereo returns, and 8 channel inserts. Combining these routing abilities with a handful of X-Rack effects will give you the same tools used by the highest-level recording engineers.
So what’s so great about analog summing? When you record sixteen separate signals into your DAW they are converted into separate digital representations of the analog inputs. Digital signals are different than analog signals because they’re represented by a finite set of numbers rather than a continuously alternating current. One’s and zeros = finite representation, alternating current = infinite (or continuous) values. Bit-depth and sample rate are the keys to understanding digital conversion. The bit-depth refers to the finite number of values that will represent the various pressure levels of the analog wave. The sample-rate is the frequency at which that pressure will be recorded, or in other words, how often the computer will take a snapshot of the sound. These two finite values combine as a digital representation of your analog waveform.
The digital representation usually sounds fine, but the approximation becomes more noticeable when digital signals are summed through digital calculations. This is sort of like rounding a number for use in a math equation. Rounding from 10.4 to 10 might seem trivial, but when used as a multiplier or to divide another number the difference can be magnified. When you “bounce” your sixteen digital tracks the result might not sound bad, but it also might not sound quite like a professional mix. Even a well-recorded song can fall flat when mixed entirely in the box (or in a DAW). Summing a mix analog can often allow the tracks to blend with one another with much more natural results. Try listening to this example (right click to save) of a track bounced out of Pro Tools compared with the analog summed version. The example is a loop that switches from Pro Tools bounce to analog sum every four bars, starting with the Pro Tools bounce.
If you can’t hear the difference the first time, then try listening closely to the overheads on the drums (or the symbols). The difference is clearer in the details picked up by the overhead mics and the timbre of the cymbals. The bass frequencies also blend more naturally, and the stereo spread has a more natural quality too.
Since the mix bus is really what you get with an X-desk it was the mix bus that I set out to test. To see how the X-Desk holds up against a classic SSL console I wanted to sum a mix through both and compare the two mixes. My 9000J was in the shop, so I turned to my buddy engineer/producer Anthony "Rocky" Gallo; head engineer at The Cutting Room Recording Studios. Rocky and I used the 9000J in the studio’s room A to conduct the tests.
We decided to compare the summing in the X-Desk with the summing on the 9000J by summing the same track through both consoles. We ran the output of the studios Pro Tools rig through the X-desk and tracked the output of the X-Desk. We had to use a DB-25 to XLR snake connected to an XLR-TT snake in order to make the connection.
As we listened to the mix Rocky had to struggle to keep his hands off the “EQ IN” button on the 9000J in order to give the X-Desk a fair fight. He managed to resist temptation so the EQ and dynamics sections were left out to keep the signals the same.
When the results were all in we both felt that the tracks sounded extremely close if not exactly the same. There is either no difference at all between the two mixes, or the difference is negligible if there is one. Now that I don’t have to take SSL’s word for it anymore, you also don’t have to take mine; judge for yourself and see if you can hear the difference. The first clip (right click to save) (9000J) here is of the mix summed through the 9000J, and the second clip (right click to save) (X-Desk) is through the X-Desk.
The final verdict was that SSL wasn’t fibbing when they told us that their SuperAnalogue summing would stack up against their classic consoles. Rocky and I both felt that the sound was definitely on par with the 9000J. It is true that this little unit is a far cry from having anywhere near the same amount of features of the famous 9000J, but don’t overlook the fact that the X-Desk does offer the most essential feature for a tiny fraction of the cost.