Anyone who’s ever heard music recorded and mixed in the ’80s and ’90s has heard the sound of the classic SSL 4000 consoles. These boards were more or less the standard in high-end studios for many years, until they eventually gave way to SSL’s 9000 series, and later digital consoles. But the 4000, while perhaps not as clean and transparent as the later models, had a sound all its own, and one that engineers all over the world came to love, and rely on, to record and mix some of the biggest albums ever. Many people still gravitate to the sound of these consoles, now long out of production, and with the coming-of-age of digital modeling, they can have them, without having to worry about maintenance and parts, via one of the many plug-in emulations of these classic boards.
The Real Deal
Fig 1 An original SSL 4000 console.
The SSL 4000 came in two versions—the original 4000E, which established itself as the de-facto studio standard, and the later 4000G, updated with additional routing options, somewhat cleaner circuitry for greater transparency, and slightly different EQ characteristics. The 4000 channel strip EQ—both the E and G versions—has its own “character” (as distinct from EQs in SSL’s competitors, like Neve and API), perhaps a little more aggressive, some would say a little more “rock & roll”. The G-series EQ introduced a proportional-Q design, which meant that, with the same settings as the E-series EQ, it would sound noticeably different—you get different curves, for what many feel is a smoother sound, at typical EQ settings. However, with the broad range of adjustment available, you can get pretty much any sound you want with either, it’s just that the different versions tend to push you more in one direction than the other—the E-series toward more presence and edge, and the G-series toward more gentle tonal shifts. That said, I hear people describe the differences in contradictory ways—it really does depend heavily on exactly what kind of EQ tweaks you’re dialing up, but there’s no doubt that either gets the job done!
The other component of the original SSL 4000 channel strip was its dynamics section, which included a noise gate and compressor on every channel—a first for consoles in that era. The ready availability of compression undoubtedly led to its much wider, and more aggressive, use in mixing, a trend that still continues today. And for many people, the jewel-in-the-crown of the 4000 series was its G-Master Buss Compressor, a final compressor strapped across the main outs, that achieved an almost legendary reputation for being able to magically “glue” all the elements of mix together, making it more cohesive.
Quite a while back, Waves introduced a set of plug-ins emulating the SSL 4000, including complete E and G-series channel strips, a separate G-series EQ, and the G-Master Buss compressor. Since then, many others have also set out to duplicate the analog magic of the 4000, but these Waves plug-ins remain one of the most respected, and most popular, bundles, for lovers of the classic SSL sound.
Fig 2 The Waves SSL 4000 Collection.
The four plug-ins in the Waves SSL 4000 bundle are faithful recreations of the originals, down to the last detail. Let’s take a look at them, starting with the channel strips.
The 4000 E-Channel & G-Channel
The E-Channel and G-Channel share the same layout and features, for the most part—I’ll describe the E-Channel, taking note of any differences in the G.
Fig 3 The Waves SSL 4000 E-Channel & G-Channel.
The E-Channel lays out the original console strip in two sections, side-by-side. On the left are the four-band EQ, plus highpass and lowpass filters. On the right are the channel Compressor and Gate, each with its own (LED) gain-reduction meter, a Trim knob and Phase (polarity-reversal) button, and the output fader and meter. There’s also a switch labelled ANALOG—this lets you enable or disable Waves’ digital emulation of the original console’s noise and distortion characteristics. This is, of course, part of the “sound” of these processors, so it would normally be left on. However, for situations where a more modern, less “characterful” sound is needed, the option to turn it off is there. The BYPASS buttons for the EQ and Dynamics differ from the DAW’s channel strip Bypass function, in that, while they bypass the processing on that section, they don’t bypass the simulation of the analog circuitry—what audio would sound like running flat through the console’s electronics.
As in the originals, the order of the Filters, EQ, and Dynamics sections can be changed—two buttons control the re-ordering. Normally, the Dynamics section is first, followed by Filter, then EQ, but engaging the SPLIT button in the Filter section makes it precede Dynamics (Fig 4). The CH OUT in the Dynamics section moves it to the end of the chain, after the Filter and EQ (Fig 4).
The Filter & EQ can also be routed to the Dynamics’ sidechain input, via the DYN S-C button (or the FLT DYN-SC button on the G-Channel). Different combinations of that button plus the SPLIT and CH OUT buttons provide various routings, as shown in the diagrams in Fig 4 (from the Waves manual)—the routings are different for the G-Channel.
Fig 4 Filter/EQ, Dynamics, & Side-Chain Routing Options for the E- & G-Channels.
Another difference between the E- and G-Channels is the EQ. Besides any under-the-hood difference in sound quality—from the emulations of the different analog electronics and EQ circuit designs in the original consoles—the EQs also have somewhat different layouts. The E-Channel EQ is a four-band, with fully parametric controls for the two mid bands, and semi-parametric controls for the high and low bands (Fig 3). The BELL buttons switch the high and low bands from Shelving to a Bell curve (like the mid bands). As you can see from the screenshot, each band covers a pretty wide frequency range. The G-Channel EQ is also four-band, but the high and low bands are fixed Shelves—instead of the BELL buttons, there are HMFx3 and LMF÷3 buttons, which shift and extend the respective frequency ranges of the high-mid and low-mid bands.
Fig 5 The settings used for the E- and G-Channel EQs in Audio Example 1
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
The SSL G-Equalizer
Fig 6 The Waves SSL G-Equalizer
The separate G-Equalizer plug-in, despite the name, is similar to the E-Channel EQ, with a slightly greater gain range than the E, and slightly different EQ curves. It’s modeled on the rack-mount version of SSL’s G 292, a different design than the E-Channel EQ (242) and G-Channel EQ (384) circuits. A Phase button and Trim knob are included, but the Lowpass Filter of the Channel EQs is omitted.
Master the buss
The Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor is modeled on the master buss compressor from the 4000G, which, as I mentioned earlier, has achieved legendary status as the secret ingredient to finish a mix, the “glue” that pulls everything together. But this plug-in will also sound great on individual instruments, especially drums.
Fig 7 The Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor.
The original was a VCA design, which is faithfully modeled here. The G-Master has the usual compressor controls—Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and Make-up Gain. There are Ratios of 2:1, 4:1, and 10:1—2:1 is probably best for mix bus applications. Attack and Release span a wide range, and Release can also be set to Auto, for a program-dependent response, like many classic compressors.
Waves has even included the controls for creating an automatic Fade-Out (remember, the original was a master bus compressor, in the days when console automation was not as quick and easy as DAW automation is today). If you are using the plug-in on the master outs, this feature does create some nice, smooth-sounding fades when enabled—you can set the fade time with the RATE-S knob, from 1 to 60 seconds.
Finally, as in the other SSL plug-ins, ANALOG disables the analog circuit emulation component, for a cleaner but less “Characterful” sound.
So what is the special quality of this compressor that’s made it so popular with so many engineers and mixers? I recorded two quick examples. The first is the G-Master on drums (Audio Example 2), where it adds some nice “push” (there’s also a touch of the G-Equalizer as well). Ratio was set to 10:1, with a fast (1ms) Attack and Auto-Release.
Audio Example 2—Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor on drums:
The second example is the G-Master on the mix bus—its main application (Audio Example 3).
Audio Example—Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor master bus:
I hear some people argue endlessly about plug-ins like these—which emulation is the “best”, and “do they sound exactly like the original”? But I think that misses the point—the Waves SSL 4000 Collection not only captures the quality—the sound and vibe—of the originals, in spades, but it also offers an interface that’s so familiar to those accustomed to working on the real thing, that they can instantly achieve the sounds and effects they’re used to getting from the original hardware—and that’s a big part of the appeal of these plug-ins! A friend of mine, who was an SSL devotee, then working in his own smaller studio, was ecstatic to get a hold of plugins that let him utilize the techniques he’d developed over the years on actual 4000-series consoles. And users new to the SSL universe will be pleasantly surprised at how these models really do add something of that classic analog sound to tracks and mixes.
Pros: Authentic-sounding emulations of classic SSL analog hardware
Cons: None, really.