Softube Console 1
By Phil O'Keefe |
Integrated hardware / software channel strip and mix controller
The DAW revolution has been wonderful for home recordists and has provided musicians with the tools needed to record and edit quality audio, but as an engineer who has spent years behind a console, the "console sound" and console style interface have always been things I've missed; indeed many engineers in "big studios" still prefer to mix using a large-format console, and a mouse and keyboard are often considered a poor substitute. While there are universal controllers on the market designed to give you some tactile control over your DAW mix, most are generalist devices intended to work with a variety of programs and plug-ins, which means they often require somewhat extensive setup and configuration on the part of the user. That's fine if you have hours and hours to get everything mapped out, but it can be intimidating for many users, and a definite drawback when all you want to do is get to work and make music. Today we'll be taking a look at Softube's Console 1, which combines software and hardware into a very interesting product that is intended to minimize the setup hassles while giving you the tools you need for a great mix, and providing a purpose-built, pre-mapped hardware unit to control it all.
- Console 1 is a unique mixing system that utilizes both a dedicated hardware controller, their own On-Screen Display, and DAW plug-in software. It is designed to work with a variety of 32 and 64 bit DAW programs on both Mac (OS X 10.8 or later) and Windows (7/8.1) computers, and supports VST2, VST3, AAX Native, and Audio Units plug-in formats. AAX DSP is not supported; there is no onboard DSP in the Console 1 hardware, although you can run Console 1 natively on a DSP-equipped system. A dual core CPU, a minimum of 1GB RAM, a unused powered USB 2.0 port and 900MB of free hard drive space are required, as well as a minimum screen resolution of 1280x800. Mono and stereo plug-in instances and sample rates of up to 192kHz are supported.
- Installation requires a free iLok account, but not an actual iLok dongle. A double-sided single sheet quick start guide is included in the box with the license code and basic instructions for software download and installation, and it walks you through how to get up and running with Console 1. An in-depth PDF manual is also available. Installation instructions are clear and the process was not too complicated.
- The audio from each channel of your DAW with a Console 1 plug-in inserted is routed to the Softube Console 1 system, processed natively, and then sent back to the same channel of your DAW. Other inserts placed after Console 1 can be used in your DAW as usual. Console 1 includes Softube's SSL SL 4000 E modeled console / channel strip emulation software, complete with four-band "black knob" E242 EQ, high and low cut filters, channel compressor, gate/expander, and harmonics/distortion. SSL XL 9000 K based console emulation is also available as an extra-cost ($329 MSRP) option for Console 1, but was not tested as part of this review. The Console 1 manual hints that additional channel strips will be released as options in the future.
- Softube's own Transient Shaper is also included, and other plug-ins from Softube are also supported. For example, if you own one of Softube's EQ or dynamics plug-ins, you can swap it into any channel in place of the SSL compressor or EQ. This can be done on a channel by channel basis. A Plug-ins Control application lets you choose which Softube plug-ins will be visible in your host DAW software.
- Softube recommends inserting the Console 1 plug-in on the first insert of each channel of your DAW, including aux sends, busses and the master bus. Presonus Studio One 2.6, Cubase 7.5, Nuendo 6.5 and Ableton Live 8.4.1 or later all support automatic transfer of the DAW's track name and number to Console 1. Pro Tools 11.2.1 and Logic Pro X 10.0.7 and later support the transfer of the DAW's track name, but not the track number to Console 1. If you use Pro Tools or Logic, you'll need to enter that information manually. Interestingly, it loads track numbers but not track names when used with Pro Tools HD 10.3.8 on my test platform - a 3.5GHz quad-core i7 running Windows 7.
- Even if the hardware is not connected the Console 1 software will still run and plug-in settings can be adjusted with your mouse, which means you can use it with your laptop on the go without the hardware controller if necessary. Also, it's possible to select channels and adjust the various parameters using the Console 1 hardware without turning on the On-Screen display, which is great for encouraging you to "mix with your ears and not your eyes", if you tend to suffer from that temptation.
- Once you've completed the relatively quick set up, you can control pretty much everything from Console 1's hardware, with all the changes being instantly represented by the On-Screen Display, if you have it turned on. An auto display mode brings up the on-screen display when you adjust a physical control, and quickly fades it out when you stop.
- The On-Screen display can be viewed with either a numerical / graphic display (above) or a numerical / knobs display type. Either way, a meter bridge, complete with track names is shown at the bottom of the display.
- The Console 1 control surface is quite impressive, with subsurface LED indicators for all knob positions, as well as meters for input and output levels, the gate, and the compressor's gain reduction. Best of all, there are dedicated buttons and knobs for practically everything. Console 1's controller is strictly USB bus-powered; no external power option is provided. The hardware is made in Sweden, has a metal housing, and is roughly the size of a computer keyboard, although a bit thicker, heavier and substantially more robust. The USB port is located in the rear.
- The Input section provides control over input gain, complete with level indicators. You'll also find a fine adjust / shift button in this section (shift functions for a few individual controls are labeled in orange on the hardware), along with the (on-screen) display on and auto buttons, phase invert, and preset/save preset buttons. Variable low and high cut filters are here as well, and can be assigned to the compressor if so desired, which can be useful to prevent unwanted frequencies from triggering it.
- Across the top part of the hardware unit are buttons for page up and down, as well as 20 buttons for selecting channels. You can have as many channels as you want (and that your system will support - CPU use is very reasonable), and they're switchable in banks of 20 with the Page Up / Down hardware buttons. There are also buttons for assigning an external sidechain to the Shape and Compression sections, and another for selecting what order you want for the signal path, with EQ/Shape/Comp, Shape/Comp/EQ and Shape/EQ/Comp options. The tools you need for duplicating and grouping tracks are also located here, as well as a History "undo" feature.
- The Shape section, which combines the modeled SSL gate with Softube's own Transient Shaper, has on/off (bypass) and Hard Gate buttons. Hard Gate switches between hard and soft gating. Gate and Gate Release knobs are also present. The useful Sustain knob adds sustain or shortens the sustain of sounds, depending on which side of noon you turn it. There's also cool Punch control that adds (or subtracts) beef and impact. A "- 0 +" hardware meter helps you keep track of what's going on.
- The EQ section also has its own on/off button. Like the SSL EQ it is based on, it is a four band EQ with two fully parametric midrange bands. The high and low frequency bands can be set as cut, bell or shelving equalizers and have separate Gain and Frequency knobs, while the midrange bands have knobs for Q, Frequency, and Gain.
- As with the EQ and Shape sections, the Compressor section has its own on/off button, and turning off any unneeded section of the channel strip reduces CPU use. In this section you'll also find the expected Ratio, Threshold, Attack and Release knobs and gain reduction metering. There's even a very useful Parallel Dry/Wet ratio knob for adjusting the relative amount of compressed and uncompressed signal.
- The Output section is where you'll find the Solo and Mute buttons, as well as a rotary Volume control, output meters, and Pan/Balance knob. There are also two controls that are intended to simulate how hard you're hitting the console. These are labeled Drive and Drive Character, with the Drive knob providing increasing amounts of character, while the Drive Character knob changes the nature of the distortion and grit, with darker tones found by turning it counterclockwise, and more emphasis on distortion in the highs when rotated clockwise. These are powerful controls that can add some great sounding subtle grit and glue to your mix, and can even be used to add more radical and obvious distortion when desired.
- For "total recall" capability, all Console 1 settings are automatically saved with your DAW sessions. Load the saved song again next week, and Console 1 will be right where you left off. Everything can be automated too, as you'd expect.
- Console 1 is a mixing tool. It's not intended as a tracking device, and there are no mic preamps or other tracking-related functions or tools.
- Console 1 is not a DAW controller. Its Volume control only affects the Console 1 channel strip, and like the other Console 1 controls, it has no effect on non-Softube plug-ins or the host DAW's faders or controls.
- For those used to using physical consoles, the Console 1's rotary Volume knob may require a bit of getting used to; some engineers may prefer a fader instead of a rotary control. Still, once you adapt to using a rotary Volume knob it's possible to get precision level setting adjustments from it (especially if you use the Fine Adjust button with it for even more precise control), and all of Console 1's controls have a very solid, sturdy and professional feel to them.
- Since only a single channel's worth of controls are available at once, you can only use the Console 1 hardware to adjust one channel at a time. Unlike a physical console or some DAW controllers, you can't control the volume levels of more than one channel simultaneously.
- When used without the Console 1 hardware, the larger On-Screen display is unavailable; adjustments are made via the mouse and the plug-in window's smaller and harder to see knob display mode.
- Sonar X3 users are strongly advised by Softube to wait for the next Sonar update before purchasing due to VST compatibility issues between the current version of Sonar and Console 1.
If you're used to mixing exclusively in the box, Console 1 may require a bit of a paradigm shift. It's probably best to think of it as analogous to a separate hardware / software mixing console as opposed to a "DAW plug-in" - just as with an external mixer, selecting mixer channels on Console 1 will have no effect on the selected channel of your DAW, and Console 1 channel selection is usually handled with the hardware. But as with a hardware mixer, the benefits of Console 1 are significant, both sonically and in terms of workflow. Console 1 really does give you many of the benefits of a large format analog console without the expense, and in a much smaller physical format. The availability of the SSL XL 9000 K channel strip option and the ability to use Softube's other plug-ins with it are additional plusses.
Mixing with Console 1 is a blast! The improvements in workflow and ease of use that the Console 1 system provides are undeniable, and the terrific sounding software really does give you the vibe and sound of an analog SSL console. With Console 1 I found myself using the mouse much, much less, and getting better sounding results more quickly; tweaking the mix much faster, more intuitively and more efficiently than I could with just the mouse and keyboard, or even with the assistance of my HUI-style controller, although I feel a universal fader controller is still a useful DAW companion, even with Console 1.
I love that Console 1 gives you great graphics with the On-Screen display, but that you can also turn it off while adjusting things and focus on what you hear instead of what you see. I was particularly impressed with the fidelity - it really does sound a lot like a classic E series SSL, with its clean yet slightly brash character that works so well for a variety of styles - and I am impressed by how well Console 1 can simulate the way one sounds when pushed, courtesy of the Drive and Drive Character controls. You might think you can get similar sounds with other plug-ins, and that may be so to a degree, but I seriously doubt you'll get them as fast as you can with Console 1. While I do wish it used a linear fader instead of a rotary volume control and that it could be used to select DAW channels and control the DAW's faders too, the rest of the interface was extremely intuitive, fast and fun to use, and really made a significant difference in how quickly and efficiently I could work. It's true that you can only control a single channel at a time with it, but nearly all of the controls for that channel are right there in front of you, and there's minimal need to mess with menus or multi-function controls that can slow you down. Let's face it - Console 1 takes up a lot less space than a SL 4000 E, and costs much less to run and maintain too. With killer sound, solid hardware with dedicated knobs and buttons for nearly everything, and an impressive user interface that makes mixing fast and fun again, Console 1 is bound to be a big hit, and it deserves to be. This is seriously cool equipment folks, and highly recommended.
Softube's product web page
Softube Console 1 demo video
Have questions about mixing? Want to discuss Console 1 or other recording-related tools and topics? Then be sure to check out the Studio Trenches forum right here on Harmony Central!