Plugin Alliance bx_console SSL 9000J Review
Put a top-tier SSL mixer on your desktop without the expense or space requirements.
Plugin Alliance has collaborated with the Solid State Logic (SSL) team to create bx_console SSL 9000J. It’s a software model of the SSL 9000J studio mixer. Officially authorized by SSL and referencing the original design schematics, the Plugin Alliance developers employed their proprietary Tolerance Modeling Technology. TMT emulates each individual electrical component of the original. TMT models the tiny variations and deviances in component values that result in 72 slightly different channels. Plugin Alliance claims that this more accurately models the minor deviations between individual channels that happen in a hardware console.
Keeping It in the Box
If you’re familiar with the SSL console or any plug-ins modeled after SSL’s hardware, you’ll know you can go far with what’s available in the channel strip. High and low filters, 4-band parametric EQ, compression, and a gate/expander are yours at the touch of a few buttons and knobs. Add some effects and level rides, strap a buss compressor across the mix, and many top-tier mixers call it done. The SSL appeal is largely down to a workflow that is both quick and powerful.
The J-series consoles implemented a pretty significant sonic change from the legendary E-series. The general consensus was that the bottom end is bigger and deeper and the top end was extended and smoother on the J-series (and later K-series). Whereas many rock and pop producers still love the aggression in the E-series consoles, the J-series has become a favorite of hip, rap, and R&B mixers. It’s also exceptional for modern rock and pop.
Rise of the Plug-In
When I read that Michael Brauer had a hand in refining the bx_console SSL 9000J plug-in, my ears perked up. A few years ago, Brauer mixed an album I produced for U.K. artist, Rumer. I spent two weeks with him at Electric Lady Studios in NYC. We were sitting at the very 9000J desk he had mixed numerous hit albums on. Michael’s console sounded fantastic, and he was on record about the accuracy of the modeled software. Consequently, I had to take the plunge.
My first impression is that the plug-in is easy on the eyes. It draws a nice balance between a realistic 3-D vibe (for those familiar with the hardware) without overdoing the skeuomorphism. A simple drop-down menu can change the GUI size, which affects all instances in the session. Recently while working on a mix, I was able to easily open up all of my drum track channel strips at 50% size on my second monitor. I could also make tweaks to them more spontaneously as a collective.
Filtering and Dynamics
Anyone who has worked with Solid State Logic mixers knows you shouldn’t take the markings on the consoles literally. The board is designed for turning the continuous knobs and listening. As a suggested workflow, first grab the filters to clean up any mud down low or smooth out any excess top-end harshness. The highpass filter defaults to a range of 20Hz–600Hz. Engaging the x3 button multiplies those frequencies a factor of 3 and changes the range to 60 Hz–1.8 kHz. The lowpass filter works in reverse by dividing the default frequency range by a factor of 3 when its button is engaged.
bx_console SSL 9000J’s dynamics section is quite impressive. Once you know how to approach it, you can quickly get that SSL sound going. One technique is to start with the ratio all the down to 1, set the release at its fastest setting (.1), and lower the threshold all the way down to -20. Then slowly bring up the ratio until you get the desired amount of compression registering on the yellow lights. This is a very fast way to get a sound to sit in the mix. You can later tweak the release, ratio, and threshold as necessary. But at this point it’s about listening in context to the rest of the mix.
The compressor attack is program-dependent from 3ms–30ms; however, you can switch it to a fixed attack of 3ms. The compressor’s knee defaults to an over-easy characteristic. Clicking the Peak LED changes that to a hard knee that operates more like a limiter.
Two features you’ll find in bx_console SSL 9000J but not in SSL’s hardware are two small screws. One can set a wet/dry mix for doing parallel compression on the spot. The other is a full-range HPF for removing excess low end triggering the compressor. Turning the screws gives you a numeric readout of the setting. In stereo instances, a Link button ties the detection circuit together to both channels for the compressor.
If you work with live drums, the gate/expander section will help you clean up the bleed in a matter of seconds. This section defaults to the gate. Double-clicking the Hold button or clicking the EXP light changes the mode to expansion. Again, it’s really a matter of learning the interactive feel of the threshold, range, hold, and release knobs. Finally, the dynamics section can be set pre- or post-EQ, and a Key button activates the external side-chain.
EQ or Better
The SSL EQ has a distinguishable color and edge; when you hear it, you recognize it. The plug-in has that sound more than I’ve heard in any other algorithmic emulation. For my tastes, it isn’t always the right sound; however, this J-series console EQ is fuller and more open sounding, and this makes it much more versatile.
Each band gives you some leeway. The LF and HF can be a shelf or bell. The LMF and HMF have bandwidth control. You can multiply or divide their frequency ranges by a factor 3 (similar to the filter section). This allows for interesting overlap between bands. It also makes it possible to do narrower boosts or cuts at the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum using the mid bands that can bookend the HF and LF bands. The filters default to follow the EQ in the signal chain, but a SPLT button places the filter at the front of the path.
A button marked E switches the EQ to an E-series mode. This changes some of the characteristics to mimic changes in the bandwidth shape of the LMF and HMF bands, making them constant-Q and with a shallower slope. It isn’t intended to be a bonus E-series EQ, but it’s there for anyone who prefers the broader bandwidths available in the E-series and can hear the difference.
Lastly, we get to the master section. As mentioned earlier, the plug-in employs Plugin Alliance’s TMT. That’s intended to give you a complete console experience by not having any two channels that sound exactly identical. There’s a lot of debate as to the usefulness of it as a workflow, but I leave that to the user to decide if it’s worth the required headspace to implement.
My opinion is that the minor deviations between left and right in a stereo signal are a good thing, as that’s reflected in the real world. So, I leave the Analog button engaged, which employs two consecutive channels with their minor deviations on any stereo sources. I do find it usually enhances the imaging a bit for stereo tracks. Beyond that, I don’t worry about assigning different channels to multiple tracks.
Plugin Alliance suggests setting up your template and assigning different channels to your tracks ahead of time. That’s not a bad idea if you want to use bx_console 9000J as your starting point for all your tracks. Since the plug-in defaults to TMT channel 1—the one that most accurately reflects the hardware channel modeled—I tend to leave it there as I add more instances for mono sources. After all, if the source signal is different, the sound will necessarily be different, too.
To my ear, sometimes the differences between channels in TMT can be a little too apparent, and there’s no way to dial that back. I wish the plug-in had a global TMT percentage amount or something similar. Auditioning 72 channels on every source to find the one that makes it just perfect seems antithetical to the spirit of the SSL workflow.
Occasionally, I might hit the Random button a few times to see if I hear something I like a bit better, but that can quickly turn into a rabbit hole. You might find it interesting to save alternate versions of your mix and hit the Random All button to hear what happens to your mix when you change TMT channels on every source.
The real star for me is the tiny THD screw sitting up in the right corner area. This is where you can dial in saturation, and it is a magical little better-maker. The default is the off position, which is fine since the J-series was known to be a cleaner console than the previous incarnations. The range is from -120db to -30dB, but I don’t really know what that means. I do know that you can turn it up until it feels good, and you can also get some useful distortion out of it, as well.
The bx_console SSL 9000J is clean-sounding overall and CPU-friendly. But if you’re lacking some grit and density on a track, then grab that little screw and give it a twist. Try not to smile. For me, it makes all the difference in making this sound like a real console.
The plug-in has a few other cool features, like the ability to solo the Mid and Side signals on a stereo instance, dial in some analog noise, engage a polarity reversal button, and switch metering between inputs and outputs.
Ultimately, the point is the plug-in’s sound, and bx_console SSL 9000J truly delivers. After a couple months of consistent use with the plug-in, I grasp the SSL aesthetic much better now. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve found the best approach is to use the markings only as a suggestion, make my best guess of where to start with the settings, and then just turn and listen.
This is the first time I’ve been happy to explore the Solid State Logic sound from the beginning using it on most or all tracks. Not only does it remind me of my time sitting at the real desk that this plug-in was largely modeled on, but it’s also a versatile channel strip that sounds amazing in its own right. The ability to have all the extended sonics of the J-series and then rough it up a bit with the THD saturation makes this a very versatile tool.
Supported platforms: Mac/Windows; AAX, AU, VST3, VST3 plug-in formats