A number of years ago we ran audio through 3 different versions of the SSL 4000 E-Series EQ and compressor channel strips. The 3 versions we used were the Waves Audio emulation, UAD emulation and the Solid State Logic SSL X-Rack module. All emulations claim to emulate the iconic SSL channel strip accurately but do they? In the audio clip below you will hear how each of the emulations compare to the analogue hardware on a simple drum loop. We have used the exact same settings on all 3 versions of the SSL 4000 E-Series channel strips. This gives an accurate side by side comparison of each version. As a plugin that claims to emulate the hardware the aim would be that whatever setting you apply on the hardware, if it's copied across to the software it should sound near identical.
From listening to all 3 versions we have come to the following conclusion.
The first emulation in the audio demo is the Waves Audio emulation. If we were to be doing a star rating system this would get 2 stars out of 5 and that's really being generous. As a compressor and EQ channel strip without the name SSL on it, it would be an OK channel strip. The fact that it is branded as an SSL 4000 E-Series channel strip it is meant to emulate as close as possible the analogue hardware. When it's looked at in that sense it falls short massively. Let's just put this out there straight away. This is not a SSL E-Series compressor and EQ. It's a standard channel strip you would receive stock with any DAW with an SSL skin. There is little to no likeness between the Waves version and the hardware. The black knob which is beautifully warm and full on the hardware is thin and flappy. The compressor sucks and dips in ways only a cheap compressor would. The highs are harsh when compared to the same settings on the hardware. It just doesn't compare in any way shape or form to what it is trying to emulate. All it compares to is parameter control. The parameters are all the same. At a price of $249 RRP it's quite frankly a rip off. When you consider for around the same price you can buy the UAD version which we will talk about next.
The UAD emulation is something quite spectacular. Not only do you get the standard E Series emulation but you also get the updated version which includes unison pre amps emulating the SSL pre amps. In this comparison the original E series emulation was used which doesn't include the unison pres. Making this an accurate comparison between the 3 units. The UAD version captures everything the hardware has. Looks and sounds near identical. As a plugin it makes the Waves version look and feel like a kids toy. Additional features the UAD version supports that the Waves version does not are the option to switch from black to brown knob for the low end. This is a feature you will find on the X rack version of the SSL hardware and ensures an accurate emulation between the two. For the audio comparison we used black knob as this is the only option in the Waves version. Another excellent feature incorporated into the UAD version is the option to use the filters in dynamic sidechain mode. This allows you to control where the compression is applied in the frequency range. For instance in some cases you may want to allow the kick drums low end punch to push through the compressor and not be compressed below 100hz. This can be done by setting the low shelf at around 100hz.
When compared to the hardware in sound you will notice the UAD version captures a great deal of how the hardware sounds and feel. No ducking and pumping can be heard, like you do in the Waves version. The EQ when increased in the high end doesn't become crazy harsh and digital sounding. The low end when increased has more fullness and body to it. All in all if you are looking for a digital version of a great channel strip skip passed waves and go straight to UAD. Nobody is being fooled by boosting the price up 100 times it's value to make people think it's a great product anymore. Which is why you will always find Waves products in a constant sale at $29 each month. At $29 it's not a bad price but don't think for one minute you have anything like a SSL channel in your arsenal.
The analogue hardware of the SSL 4000 E-Series is what these plugins are trying to emulate. The price of this chain in stereo would cost you £2714 and in mono would cost £1357. This is quite steep for a producer to pay just for a channel strip. But at the end of the day you get what you pay for. For me I like to use both the hardware and UAD emulation in the box. The analogue hardware is used on buses as the audio signal leaves the box and is summed through the Solid State Logic summing console. Whilst in the box prior to summing I may use the UAD emulation if needed. I will only use the UAD emulation as I know what sound can be achieved from the hardware and can replicate this is digital form.
Whilst the UAD version sounds great in the low end, I don't think any amount of accurate emulation will 100% capture the way the black and brown knobs work. They just can't be beaten for fullness and their big fat sound. When using the EQ pre dynamic you can really drive the low end into the compressor and create a wonderful tone. You can hear in the audio demo above how well the compressor controls the drums. Adding great punch to the transients and ensuring the drum mix is consistent throughout.
The conclusion on what we have heard is, the Waves version at a similar RRP to the UAD version is quite frankly a rip off. It is not an emulation it is a standard channel strip you would find anywhere in your stock plugins. The UAD version is the emulation to go for. It is accurate to the hardware so much so you would have a hard time telling the two apart. At a price of $299 for 2 versions of the plugin, one of which is unison enabled which is great, this is by far the best version to use. The hardware in X-Rack form is expensive at £2714 for a stereo pair of EQ's and compressors, but you get what you pay for. An original channel strip that looks sounds and feels just like the original 4000 E-Series channel strips found on the console.
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