Solid State Logic AWS-900 Analog Workstation System

Solid State Logic AWS 900 Analog Workstation System

Reviewed in August 2004 by Mel Lambert

Digital audio workstations are a remarkable advance ... sometimes. If your model lacks a decent analog front end, or a properly implemented multichannel monitor section, or a full-function autolocator/transport controller, more than likely your workplace is gonna be ... ahem ... cluttered. But riding to the rescue, as in all good Westerns, comes Solid State Logic with a very nicely implemented analog/digital hybrid system that will go a long way to solving most if not all of your problems. And all at a bargain $87k price.
   In essence, SSL has taken 24 channels of its fine-sounding XL9000 K-Series SuperAnalogue pre-amplifiers, EQ and channel elements and mated them to a very clever logic system that makes use of standard HUI command protocols. So, if your DAW follows these edit/mix/plug-in/transport commands - and most do - it's just a matter of hooking up the relevant MIDI connects, plugging in mic/line inputs to the AWS 900, outputs and returns to the workstation, monitor connects to your 5.1-channel monitor array, and we're off to the races. Everything you'll need to run a tracking, overdub and remix session is right in front of you, within easy reach of the sweet-spot mix location; no separate controllers for the DAW. Nor a batch of outboards hidden under the console, nor fader trays parked adjacent to an analog mixer. It's all there in the AWS 900, ready for action.
   All I/O signal routing, monitoring and signal processing control is permanently available on the AWS console. SSL's SuperAnalogue technology is designed to offer bandwidth in excess of 192 kHz, while 24 channels of ultra low-noise dual impedance mic pre-amps match those of the new XL Series - sweet and very smooth sounding. EQ is magic: a choice of switchable twin-curve E Series or G Series four-band parametrics, plus an assignable array of SSL dynamics sections offering gate, expander and compressor/limiting. Also offered is the very useful G Series compressor across the stereo mix buss. Motorized faders provide not only conventional audio control but also control record/replay levels within the attached DAW. Metering is provided on all channels and main outputs - the latter with precision VUs just like a top-of-the-line SSL console.
   The right-hand DAW control section is festooned with useful features, including transport controls, autolocator, programmable buttons for custom functions and everything you need under your fingers. Usefully, SSL has included dedicated buttons for the Alt, Option, Shift and Control keys we need for contextual controls that litter command menus for such DAWs as Pro Tools, Logic and Nuendo, plus duplicate keyboard ESCAPE, UNDO, SAVE and ENTER buttons - saves reaching for the ASCII keyboard and/or mouse.
   Time and time again, I was left with the distinct feeling that somebody at SSL's Begbroke HQ not only spends a lot of time with DAWs, but understands that modifier keys are the magic ingredient when speed in money, and we have refined our chops over long hours of editing and mixing sessions. The adjective I kept returning to time and again was "Integrated" -this beast packs a lot of power in a small package, and oozes with ergonomic thinking.
   In terms of signal topology, during tracking, overdubs and remix the 24 analog and/or playback signal paths pass through a dual mix-buss design that provides full control of input sources and DAW tracks for mixing and separate assignment to 5.1, stereo or stereo down-mix monitor outputs. For added flexibility, EQ, assignable dynamics and insert ports can be set up in any order within the signal path. An array of eight dedicated track busses route pre/post-fader signals to DAW tracks. Two main busses handle Record and Mix assignments, while effects and cue/foldback sends - in stereo and mono modes - are available from all 24 channel modules, matched by four stereo effects returns. A bevy of solo modes include a very useful Solo in Front. Channel meters are complemented by a quartet of VU meters for the L/R Record and Mix, plus eight Buss Outputs.
   Mimicking an in-line design, the assignable rotary control and level fader on each channel strip can be swapped to adjust analog level and/or DAW levels; the assignable control can also be set to other functions, as necessary. While controlling playback/mix levels within the companion DAW, the 24 available faders can be bank switched to control other tracks, as necessary. (And, oh yes, all 24 faders can be swapped to control a bank of aux levels for setting up those devilishly intricate effects-send mixes.). Console metering can also be switched to display input or DAW metering, while a central TFT color display shows DAW status and plug-in settings, plus a variety of console data.
   The workstation control section provides direct access to all major DAW mixing, editing and automation parameters, plus plug-in settings. Setting parameters are displayed on a color TFT display surrounded by dedicated control keys. Master and individual buttons per channel switch the fader element to either the analog console layer or the DAW control layer.
    A bank of four rotary encoders with companion pushbuttons and assign keys - plus page up/down keys - control the DAW's plug-ins and DSP functions. More controls would be nice - current reverb plug-ins, for example, feature a high parameter count - but this quartet lets you get where you are going quickly and easily. Automation, grouping, editing and function-key selection is handled via a bank of 16 soft keys. Usefully, DAW faders can be bank swapped in groups of 24, to bring the key channel closer to the central sweet spot.
   For controlling the myriad workstation functions, one option might be to incorporate an array of assignable buttons and knobs, all of which take up acres of real estate and need the reach of an octopus. SSL has obviously spent some money on ergonomic textbooks, because the AWS solution is elegant yet purposeful. All functions are a button push away, and map to a central array of well-labeled controls. Sure you might benefit from more controls, but at what cost of mind numbing complexity? For my money at least, I could live with the AWS 900's solution; it puts power in front of you but not at the expense of unnecessary confusion.
   The built-in logic switching enables some neat tricks. The two stereo Cue Sends and four Mono FX Sends can be used for other purposes via the EFX re-assign section, which thence serves as a source for the eight busses or the channel Direct Output. In this way, Cue/FX Sends can be set to route to a pair of independent foldback sections that enable creation, for example, of a zero-latency headphone output. Two separate foldback mixers can be set up with level control, cut and AFL, and sourced from Cue STA, Cue STB, Record, Mix, external source or control room monitors. The quartet of Stereo Returns feature Level, Cut, AFL and discrete routing to foldback outputs, plus direct access to Record and Mix busses with Pan and Width Controls. So much from so little!
   Within the Master Panel (pictured right) either of the two main stereo busses can be assigned to the master fader, and a stereo compressor inserted as necessary. Compression controls match those of a G-Series console, and add a continuously variable threshold and make-up. A handy Insert Sum enables sub-mixing via the stereo bus insert to the main busses; +10 dB of useful boost can also be added to either buss. Solo modes include latching destructive, Stereo AFL, mono PFL, inter-canceling ALT, Fleet and non-latching. A neat Solo-in-front option provides a mix of LR with the selected AFL signal.
   In terms of monitoring various signals from the analog input of DAW replay section - or combinations - the AWS 900 really shines. Two independent 5.1 mains plus two stereo "mini" outputs are available, and can be fed from the Stereo Downmix Summing Matrix, with independent bass/LFE management. An external source selector sums, assigns and routes up to four 5.1 sources, with source selection to control room, studio LS and headphone feeds. Monitor sources include Record and Mix Busses, Track Busses, four 5.1 sources and four stereo sources. Whew!
   MIDI implementation seems to have been made correctly, with full Mackie HUI compatibility and fast data throughput; a MIDI IN/OUT pair is used for each group of eight DAW channels, which dedicates the full bandwidth of a 16-channel MIDI interface to carry AWS control and status data to/from the workstation. I discovered that under Pro Tools V6.4, for example, 42 dB of gain control is mapped to 80% of the channel fader scale, compared to more than 50 dB on a normal analog console fader. In fact, the expanded DAW fader scale maintains better than 0.2 dB of resolution in the main working area, with a smooth taper outside that region. Although the analog section is currently non-automated, under DAW control SSL has pulled a few extra tricks that enable the plain-vanilla automation of Pro Tools, for example, to be extended to offer a bunch of additional modes; after all, SSL knows about console automation! [STOP PRESS: A Total Recall upgrade package that scans all analog faders, pots and switches, and stores settings on the host DAW as MIDI data for manual reset, will be available for the AWS 900 by late 2004; price $4,495.]
   My reservations are pretty minor. I can live with 24 analog signal paths - sufficient for most tracking sessions involving a basic rhythm section, vocal and instrumental guide tracks - but would liked to have seen more on-surface faders for DAW control. Given that the bank switching is very fast and intuitive, I can live with the compromise. I would also like to have seen the control section in the physical center of the console, between 12 channels east and west, but it's not much of a reach to the right-hand area. The color scheme is okay, but it's sometimes hard to see the legends under dim lighting levels. Some orange or bright green colors might have been used, rather than the familiar, but low-contrast, SSL grays and white, yet it's surprising how soon you learn the uncluttered surface features.
   All in all, even a few minutes on the AWS 900 Analog Workstation System convinces you that there are two types of DAW users. There are users who haven't experienced this miracle - and who blunder along with major compromises - and those that have seen the light. Knowledge is power.

My sincere thanks to Matt Derbyshire, product executive, and Phil Wagner, senior VP of SSL's Hollywood office, for providing access to the new AWS 900 Analog Workstation System. Check it out at SSL regional offices and GC Pro outlets.

 

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