The Waves SSL 4000 Collection is a faithful emulation of two classic SSL consoles from the ’80s—the 4000 E and 4000 G. The originals were responsible for the sound of countless recordings, with their distinctive EQ and dynamics sections lending that “sheen” that defined the sound of pop and rock tracks in the ’80s and ’90s.
Waves has modeled the complete channel strips from both the 4000 E and G series—which featured slightly different EQ characteristics—and the collection also provides a separate G-series EQ and the famous Buss Compressor from the G-Series center panel.
But—vintage pedigree aside—what do these processors offer over and above the many other EQ and dynamics plug-ins out there, including the ones that come with every DAW? Here are a few tips and suggestions for getting the most out of the SSL 4000 Collection.
1. Channel the ’80s
Obviously, one of the reasons for going with a set of processors like this is their ability to emulate the sound of the vintage gear they’re modeled on. In this case, that’s the sound of the console(s) probably used on more recordings throughout the ’80s and ’90s than any other single piece of gear. What gives both the originals and these models their particular quality? Most people would attribute the characteristic “SSL sound” to the EQ sections, primarily. Compared with the relatively broad, smooth curves of many competing products (like the classic Neve EQs), the SSL’s EQ—captured faithfully here—offers up the potential for an edgier response. Sharper curves and a wider “Q” (bandwidth) range let you dial up a bit more of the distinctive ’80s crispness and punch that characterizes the sound of so many recordings from that era. And the included dynamics section, with its variable attack and soft-knee response, provides a compression characteristic between the sound of vintage tube and FET units and the squash of modern devices.
2. Alphabet soup: A/B E & G
But the 4000 Collection doesn’t just provide one sound. There are no less then three variations of the classic SSL EQ on tap here—the ones in the E-series and G-series channel strips, and the separate G-series EQ, which is based on a different circuit than either of the two versions included in the channel strips. Each has its own slightly different response. The E-series channels strip’s EQ was developed with the input of George Martin (how’s that for a pedigree); while similar in layout, the G-series channel strip EQ has a slight pre-boost dip and pre-cut rise—a response characteristic prized in the classic tube-era Pultec EQs—that distinguish it slightly from the E-series curves.
If you’re having trouble honing in on the best EQ settings, trying the same settings with both the E and G channel strips can offer a subtle but distinctly different tonal imprint, which can sometimes help nudge you in the right direction.
Audio Example 1—Acoustic Guitar 1) All EQs Bypassed, 2) E-Channel EQ, 3) G-Channel EQ with identical settings to the E-Channel in (2), to highlight the differences; 4) G-Channel EQ set to more or less match the tonal curve of the E-Channel:
3. Get that Analog edge
All of the 4000 series plug-ins feature a switch simply labelled “Analog”.
This may seem like a throwaway—an extra effect on top of the modeled character—but it is, in fact, part of the key to that character. While duplicating the curves of a particular EQ and the response of a specific compression circuit (like the ones in the original 4000 consoles) can go a long way to emulating the sound of the original gear, there’s more to it than that. The original analog components had a unique way of breaking up when driven, and those non-linearities (distortions to the layman) are a major contributor to the classic “sound” so sought after in models like these. While there may be situations where you just need the most neutral, transparent response possible, the point of collections like this is not neutrality, but color! Making sure this switch is on (it should be by default, but you never know) will insure that you’re getting all the analog “character” that makes these processors so distinctive, and so like the originals they’re based on.
4. Pump the drums
Compression has always been used in recording—originally it was meant to simply contain the dynamic range of music to fit into the limitations of traditional analog media (tape & vinyl). But talented and creative engineers started to use it as an effect, even as far back as the Beatles and other ’60s recordings. With dynamics on every channel of the classic SSL 4000-series consoles, compression really came into its own in that era, where it was used liberally on any channel that needed a little extra push. The SSL compressors—both the channel strip dynamics sections and the G-series Master Buss Compressor—helped to define the sound of the modern drum kit, with punchy compression on both individual drums, and on stereo overheads and drum masters.
For that kind of push, instantiating one of these channel strips on each track—kick, snare, toms—and possibly a G-series Buss Compressor on the Drum Master, can take a more traditional, laid-back drum sound, and both tighten it up and add a little bloom (ambient tail). Add a little of that characteristic crisp SSL EQ, and you’ve got that bigger-than-life ’80s drum sound you grew up with.
Audio Example 2—SSL 4000-series compression on drums: Bypassed (1st 4 bars); On:
5. Add the “Glue”
Of all the things the SSL 4000-series consoles are known for, one of the most famous is the ability of the G-series Master Bus Compressor—the stereo dynamics processor in that console’s center panel, strapped across the L/R output—to add what’s come to be known as “the Glue” to a finished mix.
Fig 5 The Waves SSL 4000 G-series Master Buss Compressor.
Long before people were routinely smashing the hell out of their mixes with digital brickwall limiting (in the never-ending “Loudness Wars” for greater level), engineers would take a more subtle approach when it came to the master stereo bus. A little gentle compression (a medium-low ratio, subtly applied), with the compression circuit that was built in to the 4000 G console, was renowned for adding that final touch that could make all the elements of a mix gel—providing the “glue” that would hold the mix together. This gave rise to its nickname (the “Glue”), which has become a catchphrase for that final bit of master bus processing that helps keep up a mix’s energy and “push”, but does so without robbing it of its musical dynamics and punch.
And nothing does a better job of this—in the opinion of a great many experienced engineers—than the SSL 4000 G Master Buss Compressor. Duplicating the response of the original’s twin-VCA design—along with the “Analog” characteristics of the actual hardware—insures that this version is capable of that same magic. Just strap it across the mix bus and take advantage of its unique properties. But—like with any dynamic processing—just be sure not to push too hard! As I said, a medium-low ratio and a gentle hand will be the ticket to get you where you want to go.
Audio Example 3—The “Glue”: The SSL Master Buss Compressor applied to a mix: Bypassed (4 bars); On (4 bars); Bypassed (4 bars); On (4 bars):
The Waves SSL 4000 Collection offers a comprehensive set of tools, not only for those used to working on the original, who want to recapture that experience, but also for newer engineers and mixers, who are looking for a bit of the magic that launched a thousand records. With a judicious touch, and a little creative experimentation, you too should be able to find ’80s Nirvana with this capable bundle.