Join Ryan Hewitt for an in-depth discussion in this video Touring the SSL channel strip, part of Drum Mixing: Techniques.
- Before we get started with our course, I thought I'd give you a rundown of the SSL console that I'll be working on. It's an SSL 4000 E series, classic mixing desk, started in the 1970s. It's the first console to feature a compressor and a gate on every channel. It's renown among rock and pop mixers for having a real punchy sound. It's bright and aggressive, and one of my favorite consoles to mix on. The channel strip starts for me at the bottom. Channel fader, small fader, aux sends, EQ, compressors and gates, input stage, and multi-track buses.
So let me show you exactly how all this stuff works. The channel fader down here, when we're mixing, is what controls the level of the signal on each track going to the stereo bus. We have a pan pot, that can pan it left to right in that stereo bus. 'Course we have our cut button to turn it off, and the solo button so we can hear only that track amongst everything else. The small fader's an interesting one, it's had many functions, but today, during mixing, it's gonna serve as another aux send, basically. The way I set up the desk is that this fader is going to take the signal from the large fader and apply it to the multi-track buses, which I'll show you in just a minute.
We can also solo that fader, we can cut it if you like. This console was designed during the era of tape recording, so these switches are mainly designed for controlling the tape machine. It can arm the track, and tell the tape machine to get ready to record something. So we're not really gonna be concerned with those ones. The pink knob here is the trim for the multi-track bus that's associated with this channel. So we're playing with channel six at the moment, so this is the trim for bus six. It's a multi-track bus, normally used to feed multi-track tape machines, but in mix mode, we use it to feed effects, delays, parallel bus compressors, things like that.
Next we have the auxiliary sends. It's the same as in your digital workstation, you can send these to any piece of gear you patch in. So today I have a couple of reverbs that we'll use with the drums patched in on aux send one and two, and I have a parallel bus compressor on the stereo aux send. On this desk, all these auxes are buses, so we have four mono and two stereo that are always the same. So aux one is aux one no matter where you go. In Pro Tools we have 10 aux sends that can be stereo or mono as you like on an individual basis.
They can also be routed to anything you want from any channel at any time. So we get a lot more flexibility in Pro Tools versus on a piece of hardware. There's also a pan knob here for the stereo cue. Next we have the equalizer. SSL EQs are renown among rock and pop mixers for being, again, aggressive and very detailed. I think they sound great on drums, and that's why we're mixing on this console. It's a four-band semi-parametric equalizer. It's got a low frequency adjustment that can be either shelving, or a bell.
A shelf, of course, adjusts everything below the frequency that you pick here, while a bell, when you press this button, will adjust a bell curve around the frequency that you select. And you can boost or cut that by 15 dB. It's pretty aggressive. The low-mid frequencies here, with the blue knob, is a fully parametric, low-mid adjustment. You can boost or cut any of the frequencies you select here, and you can select the bandwidth of that boost or cut with the bandwidth control. You can make it really sharp and dig in to a specific frequency, or you can make it more broad, and make it a more colorful tone control.
I use the low-mid adjustments in a variety of ways, mainly I use it to create clarity in that area of the mix. So with drums, you can take away the boxy sounds, same with acoustic guitars. But you can also add a low-mid characteristic chesty sound to a vocal with that frequency range. The green knobs are the high-mid frequency adjustments. It's the same as the low-mids, but with a different frequency range. So again, you can boost or cut 15 dB over a variety of frequencies and a variety of bandwidths.
Again, from tight to broad curves. Same as with the low-mids, you can use this for a number of things. With drums, you can make things bright and then increase the perception of the attack. In vocals, I use it to add character to the upper mid-range of the voice. You can really accentuate where their vocal chords are vibrating, it's a great sound. I really, really like it. The high band can also, like the low, be a shelf or a bell. So in this case, the shelf will adjust everything above the frequency that you select.
And the bell will again put a bell around the frequency you select. And you can boost or cut it 15 dB. Again, like a really nice, silky sound on the top end. It's great for bringing out detail and cymbals, guitars, vocals, et cetera. Also part of the EQ section are the filters. So we have a low cut and a high cut, which will of course cut everything below the frequency you select and cut everything above the frequency you select. To use the EQ section, of course you gotta turn it on, as indicated by the green light.
This will turn on the EQ and the filter section. If you wanna use just the filters, you can hit the split button and that gives you just the filters without engaging the circuitry of the EQ. Moving on, we have a dynamic section. This is based around a DBX VCA. It's a great sound. Again, keeping in the theme of this console, very aggressive. I really like them on drums, 'cause you can make them punchy and keep the dynamics limited. That's what they do, they're limiters. So the green knobs address the noise gate and downward expander.
By default, it's an expander, which is a softer version of a noise gate. I prefer that sound over when you press the button and get a hard knee noise gate. This doesn't seem to work as well for me, so I leave that off in general. You can adjust the release time of the gate, the depth of the expander and gate, and the threshold at which it acts. We'll get into that later when we use them on some real drums. Above the gate is the compressor. Again, a hallmark sound, everyone knows what this is, and it's just inimitable.
It's the only one that sounds like this. We have a release time for that gate to tailor its release to work with the music. We have a ratio up here. Ratio is an interesting thing, and is the root of all compression, really. It's determining how much you're compressing something, how you're controlling it, and what the effect of that compressor is going to be on the sound you feed it. So for example, if I set this to four to one, and I set my threshold to say, minus 10. If we have a signal, that's 4 dB hotter than minus 10, should be minus six.
It will only give us one more decibel out. So the signal will actually only be minus nine. Math is complicated. But anyway, do some research on this. Check out what it's doing, but more importantly, listen to what's happening and understand what the compressor's doing. The other cool control on this compressor is you can pull this knob and get a fast attack. So you can be really brutal with the compression. And again I'll show you that on some overheads and some room mics later, it's really fun. Above that, we have our input stage.
So we have our line trim, for when we're mixing, and our mic pre-control for when we're recording. Above that, we have multi-track buses. This console has 32, so we have 32 buses to send stuff to fun things to play with. So today, I got a couple buses going to the parallel bus compressor. We might have some going to another reverb, we might have some going to a distortion box. It's really limitless, except that we only have 32. In the box, you have as many as you want. So there are advantages and disadvantages of working both ways.
Again, hardware is limited to what we have on hand, but if you're in a digital workstation, you have a lot more flexibility to route these things around to different places. At the top of the section, of course there's a good old fashioned analog meter. That's showing the level of the instrument that's coming into that track and for me it's a good visual reference as to what's happening on the console. When I'm mixing, I'm looking at the stereo bus meters to give me an idea of where the feel is for the console. So you can get too hot, and get distorted and clipped. Or you can be too quiet, and not take advantage of the signal to noise ratio.
When I'm mixing at home on my DAW, I still have a set of analog meters for my bus to know where I am, and to make me feel comfortable that my levels are in the right place. So that's the channel strip. On this console, we've got 64 of them that will all be pushed up, and they're all gonna feed the stereo bus. So the stereo bus is over here. So this is the stereo bus fader. Generally, I like to have it all the way up, but sometimes you gotta bring it down to keep our stereo bus levels in check. The coolest part of the SSL console is the bus compressor.
This thing has been on more hit records than probably any other compressor in the world. Every SSL had one, I think they were the first company to put one on the strero bus on every console. So it's just like the channel strip compressor, only stereo. We'll get into that later, once we start mixing some drums. So that's the console. It's pretty exciting, if a little intimidating. But it's basically 64 of the same thing, followed by a fader and a compressor. Fairly simple, your DAW is way more complicated and if you understand that, this shouldn't be too tough.
So, that said, let's get started.
- Ryan's philosophy of mixing
- Checking phase before building the mix
- Panning and creating stereo image and depth of field
- Building detailed sounds for each drum
- Creating groove by balancing inputs
- Adding parallel compression, distortion, and reverb