SSL duende
does this unassuming 19-inch rack unit really pack in all the mixing and processing power of a 32-channel SSL? GeorGe SHiLLinG cracks
his knuckles and puts it to the test...
uende iS a Spanish word,
mysterious power that all may
feel and no philosophy can explain.’
But I’m going to try anyway! SSL’s
Duende (UK£850.21 + VAT) comes
as a 1U rackmount box that houses
a board with 40-bit floating point
DSP processing engine chips. Despite
the manual talking of squeezing
the processing into a 1U rack, there
is mostly air inside: Duende could
easily have fitted into a rather smaller
package, but the smart 19-inch format
means that most studios can screw it
into the bottom of a rack and impress
clients. The box is very light, and
apart from the DC connector, the rear
simply provides a pair of FireWire 400
connectors (which normally make
the PSU redundant). Accompanying
the unit in the elegantly packaged
box is software that installs the
accompanying plug-ins onto your
computer. These come in Audio Units
and VST formats as standard, and the
latter are wrapped into RTAS versions
using a second installer. Included with the unit are the
Channel Strip and Bus Compressor plug-ins: optional
add-ons currently comprise Drumstrip and X-EQ,
which only demo for a short time unless purchased.
Installation is straightforward and quick. I suffered
stuttering audio problems that SSL initially ascribed
to buffer problems, and a reinstallation seemed to fix
it. But when the problem returned, two reinstallations
failed to cure it, and it turned out that chaining the box
after a DVD writer on the FireWire bus was causing
bandwidth choking. There was little indication in the
manual that Duende needed to be first or have its
own dedicated FireWire bus; perhaps this should have
been obvious.
On a Mac the control panel is installed to the
Other section of System Preferences.
There is nothing to control here,
but the page that appears displays
DSP slot usage (there are eight slots
across four chips), along with driver
and firmware versions, and a serial
number. One Duende allows you to
use 32 mono or 16 stereo plug-ins
at up to 48kHz — the four different
plug-ins each use one of the 32
memory slots available. Numbers are
halved for 88.2/96kHz operation. As
with other wrapped/powered plug-ins,
these still seem to use some of the
host computer’s horsepower, although
Duende is slightly less taxing than the
UAD-1 PCI card, for example.
The Channel Strip looks rather familiar, and is
based on the EQ and Dynamics section of the C200
digital console, which was itself modelled on analogue
SSL desks. EQ can be switched between E-Series
and G-Series style. +/-20dB Gain knobs are provided
on input and output, both accompanied by level
metering. The Input has a polarity flip, and the output
a Sidechain Listen button. Just as on a K-series, the
Filters can be switched to the Dynamics sidechain,
or moved to the first point in the chain (instead of
after the EQ). The 4-band EQ is smoother and cleaner
than the Waves SSL 4000 collection version — there
is no modelling here of analogue distortion, but it
sounds silkier than I recall the Waves version, even
with the latter’s Analogue emulation
disabled. Nevertheless, it has a very
powerful analogue feel to it, just
slightly smoother and sweeter than
using an analogue SSL.
There is an obvious difference
between the E and G modes, as
expected. The technical differences
are well documented: suffice it to
say that the G is glassier while the E
is more rock ‘n’ roll. The Dynamics
resolution section will be familiar to SSL
console users; it’s excellent
and is switchable Pre-EQ
(there is a useful signal flow
display at the bottom). Both
the Compressor and Expander/
Gate work just like the original
desk sections, with similar LED
indications of gain reduction.
It’s all thoroughly convincing;
more ‘digital’ sounding than a
4000E/G, but powerful and super-sounding processing
for any kind of music.
The Bus Compressor is another familiar-looking
design, with a lineage going back to the famous
Quad Compressor of the 4000-series desks. For sure,
there are subtler compressors available, and it may
be mainly down to the fact that these were built
into desks that they became such a popular tool.
But for whatever reason, the SSL Bus Compressor
is a familiar and enjoyable sound across a mix.
With a mono version also provided, you can try this
across anything. The Auto Mode sounds particularly
good for drums. Auto is the safest mode for the mix
bus, otherwise things can get a bit rubbery or start
pumping. Initially I wasn’t sure that this sounded
quite as instantly gratifying as one built into a big
analogue desk, and the enormous meter’s needle
looked rather flickery, but set up carefully it did the
business, gluing the mix together as promised and
adding a bit of excitement. All the familiar controls
are present: however, the designers missed the trick
of Waves’ version, which has the AutoFade function
bolted on.
Drumstrip is the first available add-on plug-in for
Duende. It comprises an interesting combination of
five processor blocks, each with individual bypass.
The processing order can easily be changed at will
using the display at the bottom. Adjacent Peak and
RMS metering is provided for both input and output,
and there is also an unusual ‘Dynamic History Meter’
that displays the dynamic range covered over the
last second or so. A Gate provides separate Open and
Close thresholds, and Attack can be set super-fast. It
works really well, with no nasty clicking, but lacks
sidechain EQ or external keying.
The Transient Shaper is similar to the SPL Transient
Designer hardware box. No-one seems to have made
a plug-in quite as good as that hardware, but SSL has
made a brave attempt here. An unusual innovation is
the Audition mode, which enables the Amount to be
set to catch the peaks required. There’s a Speed knob
to set the transient decay, and a Gain control to send
the required amount of signal to the detector. It does
sound really good, adding some nice crunch in ‘Inv’
mode (to soften the transients and add body) but
despite all these extra knobs, and as with Sonnox’s
fiddly Transient Modulator, the range seems not quite
as extensive as that of the SPL, although there’s
usually plenty enough here to work with.
Separate HF and LF Enhancers are provided,
along the lines of Aphex Aural Exciter and Big
Bottom processing. These are extremely powerful
and surprisingly good, bringing some bottom end to
signals that start out with virtually none, and adding
strong HF to dull signals, or just a little extra sparkle as
required. These use Drive and Amount knobs, plus a
Frequency knob for the HF, and a Turnover frequency
knob for the LF processor that acts downwards from
the selected frequency. Also included is the simple but
fabulous Listen Mic Compressor which was available
as a VST as the LMC-1, but now features a Wet/Dry
knob and an EQ In button. It sounds wonderful across
a drum bus — for a subtler effect you can blend with
the wet/dry knob, or crank it for the full-on Phil
Collins. The EQ In/Out allows a choice of full-range
audio or the slightly telephoney character of the listen
mic circuit.
X-EQ is the second add-on plug-in, a ten-band EQ
with a comprehensive selection of variable filter types
and bell shapes, developed in collaboration with DSP
software house Algorithmix. Its graphic appearance is
similar to PSP Neon, but X-EQ lacks the linear phase
processing of that particular plug-in, taking a more
conventional approach, albeit with some of its own
unusual and unique features. With this plug-in SSL
has introduced a proprietary file management system
for presets. Confusingly, therefore, there are three
ways to load and save presets in Pro Tools: using the
Pro Tools settings bar at the top, using the VST bar
at the bottom, or the SSL Load and Save just above
that. However, the SSL system ensures cross-platform
This is the only Duende plug-in to come with
a library of settings, which SSL claims are based
on settings used by ‘top mixing engineers’. This is
perhaps slightly silly, as surely you adjust EQ by
using your ears or even meters, rather than by dialling
up presets. As with most good plug-in EQs there is a
graph with draggable nodes for each band, along with
mouse-controlled adjusters and direct numerical entry
of values. However, the graph dragging was less than
smooth on my system, making small adjustments
tricky. There are High and Low Pass filters with 648dB/octave slopes (in 6dB steps) and five different
filter types including Butterworth, Gaussian and
Bessel. 20dB boost and cut is available for the High
and Low Shelf bands, which use the Q control to set
No less than nine different bell curves are available
for the six parametric bands in Serial mode, with
various different constant and proportional Q,
symmetrical and asymmetrical settings. Parallel mode
works like a traditional passive EQ and the sonic
signature is noticeably different, remarkably clean
and thoroughly enjoyable, particularly for mastering
applications. Helpfully, A and B settings slots allow
quick comparisons, while an FFT Spectrum Analyser
can be superimposed on the display, enabling easy
spotting of problem frequencies. Linear EQ aside, this
really has to be just about the most comprehensive EQ
plug-in available, and it would surely take months or
years to really get to know the sonic implications of
all the different curves and modes.
With all the plug-ins there was a problem with the
Pro Tools auto delay compensation: when I hit the
host’s Bypass, everything went audibly out of whack.
There is a Bypass within each plug-in, which works
fine as long as you know to use it, but it’s a nuisance
having to either open the window to bypass, or make
the plug-in inactive. There was no such problem with
Logic’s PDC, and SSL says this will be addressed.
But apart from such teething troubles, the Duende
provides a great source of mix processing. Channel
Strip and Bus Compressor provide excellent breadand-butter SSL processing, while Drumstrip and X-EQ
both push into unique territory. It’s all very good, and
I suspect there is more to come. ■
traditional and modern SSL processing;
extra processing horsepower.
uses some host CPu power; a-dC
problem in bypass; too much latency to
track with; unnecessarily large box.
SoLid State LoGiC, uK:
uK, Sound technology:+44 1462 480000