SSL Fusion : The Inside Track
Fusion is a brand new analogue mix bus processor from Solid State Logic. The unit has taken a full two years to design, and over that time SSL has used a selection of industry producers, mixers and engineers to provide feedback and workflow suggestions to help them during product development.
I was privileged to be asked by SSL to be part of that team and was involved from the initial concept discussions through to testing and providing feedback of the final prototype. Since being announced, the interest has been considerable so now seemed a good time to cover a few of the questions that I’ve been asked following its release.
Fusion - What are the controls?
Fusion - How does the Vintage Drive sound?
Traditional tape recordings through analogue consoles naturally provided harmonic content and transient smoothing so when the industry went digital we had to choose to add this either at the tracking or mixdown stage.
The Vintage Drive section was something that intrigued me as I’ve always used harmonic distortion from hardware units like the Crane Song HEDD, Dave Hill Europa, Culture Vulture and 'In The Box' with UA plug-ins and Avid’s HEAT. The idea of adding Even or Odd harmonics is not a new concept, but the way we add them, and why has changed.
The Vintage Drive is a new design from SSL, but with a nod to their VHD preamps that they’ve been implementing on their Duality and AWS consoles for years. Vintage Drive is much more of a distant cousin though and has taken the VHD concept and turned it into a brand new circuit providing something new. This sounds nothing like the VHD drive stage that SSL users may be familiar with.
Rather than “crunch”, it has warmth and depth - and even though you could drive the input and be creative with the distortion it provides, I think you’ll end up with the Drive around 5-6 and the Density tweaked to taste. The Density below 3 provides more even-order emphasis and taking it above 3 tends to emphasise odd-order harmonics. The more the density increases the ‘thicker’ I feel it makes a track.
The Drive also goes up to 11….because (as anyone who’s seen Spinal Tap will know) ‘it’s one louder isn’t it?’
Fusion - Can’t I do all of this in Software?
Yes, you can. But the same could also be said about every piece of hardware out there.
The answer perhaps should be ‘But do you WANT to?’ Many of us run hybrid setups these days, and the instant recall of software has meant that labels and artists know we can create an infinite amount of alternative mixes and recalls.
But is this a good thing? It’s very convenient yes, but is that enough to make it ‘good?’
When engineers say they can “do it all in the box”, are they really saying that they prefer the ability to make instant recalls, and that they’re simply happier with this workflow? This is exactly where software wins out. I also choose to not use hardware inserts within Pro Tools HD, as I find that software allows me to hit the instant recall spot every time.
But does it sound better? For me, no. I still use hardware to track through and for printing tracks - and I always use hardware on my mixbus, in conjunction with software afterwards.
As software has got better, and computers have got faster we’re probably now at a golden age for digital processing, and it’s hard to deny there are many excellent software plug-ins that will allow you to make great sounding recordings.
But why stop there?
Why not use the best software available AND the best hardware available and use what each is good at, rather than having to insist that one is better than the other. It’s like the Mac v PC debate, it’s not relevant these days, pick your weapon of choice and crack on.
Fusion - Does it have the SSL Bus Compressor inside it?
SSL already make a very good bus compressor, as do many other companies. SSL know this and understand that mixers have their preferred compressor, whether in hardware or software. So rather than duplicate something, and significantly increase the price, why not give the choice to the end user?
By including an insert point on the FUSION you have several places where you can position your favourite compressor. Before Fusion, on the Insert PreEQ or on the Insert PostEQ.
Fusion - Is there Attack, Release and Ratio on the HF Compressor?
The HF compressor has been designed to just provide ‘top end’ smoothing - something that is ‘tape like’ which you can use after the EQ. I find that by boosting the Violet EQ HF you can tame it musically with the HF compressor without bottlenecking or squeezing the signal.
The Attack, Release and Ratio have all been set by SSL after much tweaking to provide the most transparent settings. Sure, this may not work for everything - but by just getting the green LED to illuminate gently it can work smoothly when required.
Fusion - Are all the pots stepped - and why no Digital Recall?
In a way, we know DAW software has spoiled us. Compared to the days of tape editing we’re no longer forced to make a decision as we know we can defer it to later with another mix revision. But what many successful producers and mixers will tell you is that committing to a sound and moving forward with a concept is far better than never making decisions.
When they use hardware they have to do that. They use a particular piece of equipment for the sound, and the emotional connection, the vibrations of sound and then move on.
The Fusion is a new product but one which is based on those tried and tested chains of equipment, and tweaked by SSL designers who have had many years of experience with how hardware can affect and translate the audio based on feedback from producers and mixers who have used their gear for years.
Having all the pots stepped would increase the build cost, and then probably cause issues for those who want to ‘play’ the device by dialling through to a sweet spot which may or may not be between indents.
There is enough space for manual marking on the device, taking a photo with your smartphone or using some 3rd party software (eg. Session Recall) to store and manage your settings.
This is not to say that software controlled analogue isn’t something I’m keen on, I am, you only have to look at the Bettermaker range of equipment to see how something can be implemented beautifully. But these tend to do one process at a time. With Fusion, it is a range of audio processing, and because of that, each section may need to be treated differently.
The pots are centre indented on the controls that need it and stepped on the EQ switches and HPF.
Fusion - Is it made in China?
It’s engineered at SSL, Oxford and assembled in China. As part of the larger Audiotonix group, SSL now have access to larger manufacturing lines and they are taking advantage of this. I know that they have been in complete control of setting up Fusion production and have test equipment linked directly back to SSL in the UK where they can view the test data, and monitor the builds.
This is a new area for SSL and one they are very conscious of having to get right, but to be able to manufacture to their specifications, and still allow the price point to be something that many people can get excited about is exactly what they have set out to do. SSL have years of history behind them, but they aren’t going to sit still. For the end user, this is a very exciting time.
Fusion - What does the EQ sound like?
We all have our favourite EQ’s and know that over the years many hardware sweetening EQ’s like the Pultec, GML8200, Massive Passive, TG Curve Bender, Dangerous BAX and Maag amongst others have been successfully used over many a mix bus.
So what do we really want from a Mix Bus EQ? Well, it tends to be a bit of ‘air’, ‘ bite’ and ‘ weight/bass’.
SSL looked at this and consequently designed the Violet EQ to provide minimum-phase shelving filters for frequencies we tend to reach for. I also find the +/9db of gain is nothing like any other SSL EQ I’ve used before, providing plenty of headroom.
Fusion - So who is it for?
I know that may sound a bit trite but let me explain a few different scenarios…
1. You work ‘In the box’: you have a great sound and mixbus chain - you strap Fusion on afterwards and experiment with the Drive, EQ and Imager and print back into your session.
Very quickly you can hear what the hardware is doing, and how you can benefit from adding some analogue processing to your zeros and ones.
2. You work 'Outside the box': you have some great gear, some hardware EQ’s, Compressors and maybe a desk? Connect Fusion to your insert point and keep using them, with the added flexibility of the processing from the Fusion as well as your other hardware. Bypass what you want, leave in what you like.
3. You work HYBRID…. you work mostly 'ITB' but have some hardware. Use Fusion over your mix bus and create processed In The Box mixes. Then strap your other hardware either before, after or on the insert of Fusion. Print and process with plug-ins again for limiting and loudness maximising afterwards.
Why stop there? Since I’ve had my unit I’m now tracking through it at line level after my preamps for anything from some extra drive to the EQ or just for the transformer sound and widener on synths.
Fusion - Flexibility is key
Many of the most successful mixers and producers don’t reinvent their workflow on a daily basis. They stick to what they know works for them and then they tweak when necessary.
This is what SSL have tried to do with Fusion – providing users with the tools that are mainly used all the time, but allowing the flexibility to tweak or bypass particular stages based upon your needs.
I believe SSL have tried to cover as many needs (and some perhaps you didn’t even realise you needed) in the Fusion. With a price point that can benefit everyone from the most experienced mixer to those trying out hardware for the first time.
Fusion Audio Examples - Raw and Processed
Below are two audio examples - first is a dry pop mix and the second is the same mix processed through Fusion.
The settings used are below :