Technology

Solid State Logic C200 Digital Console

It's not often that a manufacturer such as SSL produces an entirely new concept in digital console technology, and it's even rarer for a writer to become overexcited about a new console. Yet, both ca 5/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

It's not often that a manufacturer such as SSL produces an entirely new concept in digital console technology, and it's even rarer for a writer to become overexcited about a new console. Yet, both cases are true with the launch of the C200 Digital Production Console. Designed for large-format music recording, live-to-air and offline mixing applications, it's also flexible enough for new high-ground markets such as DVD-Audio, multimedia, post-production and even film.

HERITAGE AND PEDIGREE

Sound too good to be true? Yeah, I thought so as well, until I spent the day at SSL headquarters just outside of Oxford, England, to check out the C200.

The C200 is an evolution of MT, and takes the concept of the traditional in-line control surface and marries it with the advantages of digital technology, such as resetability, automation and lots of channels. Building on MT's success and drawing feedback from a host of users worldwide, SSL has applied what it learned to next-generation DSP in the form of the Centuri processor core. The new Centuri processing platform is the first to be used in the C200 and the smaller, broadcast-oriented C100 console (previewed in last month's Mix).

IN-LINE CHANNEL STRIPS

Glancing at the C200's control surface, everything is right at hand; like many analog desks, it provides the user with a familiar operational interface. I reviewed a version with 48 in-line channels; however, the Centuri processor has enough power to handle up to 96 channels of processing. Though it's built in physical 8-channel “bays” (with a minimum setup consisting of two bays, plus the master control center section), all channels can be accessed individually. It can also be built in set groups or random combinations directly from any channel strip if you prefer to remain in the central master control area.

Banks of channels can be “moved” around the console for individual functionality at the flick of a switch. The master section's large flat-screen monitor display, coupled with the additional flat-screen displays at the head of each channel bay (showing the parameter details for that channel bank), not only make the C200 look impressive, but also directs the user's eyes to the potential channel traffic as groups of faders move around. The desk's bright, easy-to-read and instructional displays make it the most user-friendly digital control surface I've yet encountered.

In the channel strips, all channels provide 4-band parametric EQ, high- and lowpass filters, independent compressor/limiter and gate/expander sections. SSL provides preprogrammed emulations of your favorite EQ type dedicated to each channel. In addition to the standard C200 EQ, the console includes E and G Series EQ, and a “Quad” compressor. Parameter functions can be copied and pasted from one channel to another or to multiple channels. There are also 32 user-function EQ settings that can be saved into EQ libraries; because of the hard drive's sheer size, an almost limitless number of libraries can be saved. In real terms, this means EQ settings can be saved for every track, plus EQ settings from your work on previous albums could be recalled and used for your next project.

The Centuri core provides matrix I/O options with up to 512 inputs and outputs at 48 kHz (256 inputs and outputs at 96 kHz). There's no actual patchbay with the C200 (though one can be used if required); for routing, each channel's external insert point can be assigned to any analog or digital device, and then switched pre- or post-channel processing in either the channel or monitor paths. This is indicated with red (dynamics section) or green (EQ section) LEDs.

The C200 offers global feedback from the channel strip and associated para-meter settings displayed on the screen above it or the option for a more in-depth interrogation from additional displays located in the master control area. Pressing the Set button determines the flexibility of the signal processing, such as placing the compressor before the EQ or splitting their functions. This functionality is shown graphically in a small “process matrix display,” which provides a color-coded flowchart showing the dynamics in the channel path or the monitor path. Additionally, the main master section display shows the dynamics in real-time graphic mode for an accurate assessment of the data. An 8-character electronic scribble strip provides a quick-scrolling label for each channel.

MULTIFUNCTION DISPLAYS

Besides the C200's 48 multitrack buses, there are 12 aux buses. The auxes can be configured as mono or stereo, and are available simultaneously from both the large and small fader paths. Aux presets are available for the more common chores (i.e., headphone foldback, etc.) and like EQ, aux user presets can be stored in libraries, quickly recalled, and copied and pasted to other channels or groups of channels.

Auxes can be flipped to operate with either the large or the small fader. An A/B button provides channel banking between the small and large faders. Both large and small faders are touch-sensitive. All are motorized; the motorized function can be switched off if required.

PANNING AND AUTOMATION

Information is displayed on the scribble strip, the channel display immediately above the channel, the master control section and the master control monitor. The buttons on the control surface themselves are very sensitive to the touch, without being touch-sensitive. However, with the slightest finger movement, a controlled parameter's information is changed in one, two or several displays.

The central display can also show data from an external device via a standard VGA connection. Therefore, info from Pro Tools, SADiE, Nuendo, Logic, etc., can be displayed directly on the C200's central screen without additional cumbersome laptops or monitors perched and taking up unnecessary space. The C200's control tools — the tablet/pen, mouse and transport/function buttons — are automatically configured to the specific DAW/sequencer system connected to the desk. It also accepts RGB signals (with a converter), so the screen could double as a picture monitor for DVD, television or film production. Wow!

For straightforward stereo production, a large fader left/right and a small fader left/right pan is all that you need. To do 5.1, you'll need more control: The small fader can be set to handle front/back panning levels. The 12 main buses can then be combined to form simultaneous 5.1 program outs, a master 5.1 compressor, a dedicated master fader and an 8-channel insert point — all easily applied, stored or recalled.

ROUTING

The 12 buses are displayed in a user-determined matrix with LCR/Ls/Rs/sub, and Stereo Mix L/Mix R program points. Several surround and 5.1 presets are also preprogrammed into the matrix, and user-determined options can be named and stored. This gives joystick-style control without needing a joystick on the console. SSL determined that a joystick seems to imply it's an out-and-out film console, which the C200 isn't. But now you know why I originally said this mixer could be used for post-production and film. SSL user feedback seems to indicate preferences for the on-screen type of display; after all, real-time fader movement can be saved, stored and edited exactly the same way as with a joystick.

The automation can be locally or globally turned on or off, and changes made in several levels. For example, if you want to mix simultaneously in 5.1 on the large faders with a stereo mix on the small faders, you could then globally or individually automate parameters for full automated 5.1 and stereo panning, and A/B between the two. This is great for DVD or television production. With a fully fitted DSP complement, you could have 192 fully automated 5.1 channels at 96 kHz — scalable in any configuration!

FRAME SIZES

From the routing matrix in the master control section, you can route to any channel — or range of channels — and patch into the large fader, the small fader or the insert point for that path. For my field test, a TC Electronic M5000 and Lexicon PCM90 were controlled. It was simple to assign the device to a channel or group of channels, and then control — via the master control section on the C200 — the effect parameters in real time or through some timecode trigger function, EDL or MIDI control.

CENTURI PROCESSOR CORE

It's easy to source an FX device and route the left channel/right channel across an 8-channel group. When routing, just choose whether you want the source to “increment” or “sum.” This is great, because most digital consoles tend to make each task within the operating system far too complicated to use in real-world situations.

The C200 can be provided in a frame as small as two bays of 16 channels with a master section, much like the broadcast-oriented C100. However, as all 96 channels have dedicated buttons within the master central section — regardless of how many bays are in your frame — DSP power will determine the number of channels needed. Your budget and space restrictions will also determine the physical frame size for your needs. Sure of the C200's potential, SSL foresees its multiple uses: in configurations from stage sound, live sound, in the back of a truck and from a television post console to music production. It's even possible to configure the control surface to remove the central master control area and mount the central monitor on an external screen. This gives more faders for your space — ideal for inside a truck perhaps?

The heart of the system is the new Centuri processor, housed in a 15U chassis that hosts up to six DSP cards, each of which can handle up to 32 channels per card at 48 kHz, but are switchable to 16 channels per card if used at 96 kHz. The console provides a full 48 mix buses and 12 aux sends — either at 48 kHz or 96 kHz. I/O card options cover just about every need, with analog, AES/EBU digital and MADI all available, operating at 24 bits and with sample-rate conversion for digital I/O as standard.

FUTURE-PROOF?

In short, whatever your setup, requirements or media application, you'll never run out of I/O processing power. SSL even provides a single card slot for GPI (General Purpose Interface) I/O, with up to 60 GPI inputs and outputs available, so that in a conventional recording environments, for example, the master control section's “source bus” buttons can be used for individual and trigger serial track-arming and the like.

In addition, the Centuri core's internal routing card may be fitted with up to four fiber expansion cards, each daughter card handling up to four fiber links. This is especially important for live and stage applications using either the SSL C-SB (C Series broadcast stagebox) fitted with up to eight inputs per card — 48 mic inputs in total — with the stagebox placed up to 550 meters from the Centuri core, or the SSL C-SuperPre (C Series super pre) remote preamp with up to 24 mic/line inputs and optional insert points for analog processing before conversion. You can even add optional redundant PSUs for added resilience, and with up to 16 stageboxes possible using the fiber links, huge orchestral/scoring sessions should not be a problem.

The Centuri core has an RS-232 port for local processor diagnostics. In real terms, if your desk ever goes down — the worst nightmare for any digital console owner — then the SSL's tech engineers are only a phone call away, anywhere in the world. Connecting your console using the SSL NetBridge system (a secure log-in facility) allows techs to discover and, even more importantly, solve the problem via remote access. C200 software updates can be uploaded either at a predetermined downtime or covertly in the background during operation so that the C200 can expand with new or updated operating systems as they become available.

According to SSL, a typical studio system starts around $275,000. However, the C200's control surface really does match up to just about everybody's wish list. Not only does this board offer an entirely new digital control surface with every bell and whistle, but one with a tried-and-tested tradition, which end-users helped to determine.

For that reason alone, I expect the C200 to be very successful. It will live up to its billing because it really does provide everything that you would want.

Solid State Logic, 212/315-1111, www.solid-state-logic.com.


The former editor of Audiomedia, Rob Alexander is a musician, engineer, journalist and globe-hopping bon vivant.

Learn about channel functionality, broadcast control and more.

Examples of the SSL C200's screens