Softube Console 1 MKII by Arthur Stone
Tomorrow's World: It's more difficult to be critical of products than I anticipated when starting the Gearslutz reviews. Primarily this is due to the design and quality of the products. In the 50 years I've been making music the capability and reliability of automated devices has improved exponentially; the future (as told by Raymond Baxter and Judith Hann on BBC TV's Tomorrow's World 1975) has arrived...just in time.
The Softube Console1 MkII is a great example of that promised future fulfilled: the hardware controls Softube plug-ins which are inserted into (one or all) DAW channels and run on the host computer. In addition to the stock SSL4000E-series official emulation, a SSL 9000K-series, Summit Grand Channel, and Brit Class A (Neve-style) are available as extra purchases, as are the rest of the excellent Softube plug-in range (many of which can be inserted into the Console 1 channel strip. No audio passes through the hardware, just software control.
The Console 1 MkII hardware bears all the familiar hallmarks of it's ancestry in the industrial revolution (mass-produced folded metal protecting the internal mechanism/familiar dials and buttons) and encompasses the latest miniaturization of electronic circuitry and digital control systems. Designed by Softube of Sweden. Made in China.
In today's connected world, the paradigm shift is towards distributed manufacturing and its no longer as relevant where an item is manufactured (albeit ethically-manufactured) rather the provenance of manufacture; is it a trusted network?
The original Console 1 MkI was hand-manufactured at Softube HQ but now the manufacture is automated in China. Personally I have zero issue with this as nowadays good gear manufacture is more distributed. What is more important is whether the gear works and is reliable and not compromised in materials, components, design or manufacture. By streamlining the manufacturing process Softube have achieved significant cost-saving and the MkII is almost half the price of MkI. It's not just a case of off-shoring manufacture to increase profit; this is a serious, quality product with excellent engineering standards – hardware and software.
So on paper and in hardware, Console1 MkII (C1 from here on) has the potential to be one of those products that lead to the paradigm shift in audio tech and how we can make music. The big question is: does it sound good?
Out-of-the-Box: The C1 arrived neatly-packaged: included is a 6ft/2m heavy-duty USB cable (looks like a type1 or 2 with white plastic inside connector) and a double-sided sheet with set-up instructions.
Although C1 is a simple plug-and-play device the software needs to be installed and licensed first; (in my case) this was not straightforward and it took a couple of days to get it to work. The analogy I would make here is that installing a large-format console is not straightforward either but the end result is usually worth the installation hassle; and so it is with the C1.
Set-up and first use: The purpose of the C1 hardware is to control the Console 1 plug-in in the DAW: the hardware has buttons and endless rotary encoders to control (from left to right) input level, high-pass and low-pass filters, a shaper/gate, EQ, compression, drive and character, and ouput level. LED metering accompanies each stage. The C1 hardware feels good; by this I mean that it has enough weight to sit solidly on the desk, and the physical resistance of the rotary encoders is well-measured in terms of effective human haptic touch. An analogy might be a car's steering wheel that is too loose (how many encoders feel) as opposed to adaptive power-steering; or another analogy is like gain-bunching on a preamp...twiddling to find the good spot. The C1 just feels right (as Pete Townsend noted in his recent Softube demo)...and that's important.
So lets turn the unit on. Just needs one USB cable (supplied) to a PC or Mac and hit the 'On' button to display the screen. The buttons feel more Industrial Revolution than the future; there is a distinct mechanical click when pushed and this click is not soft and seems to be distributed across the metal surface of Console1. The click has the same sound and feel as a Yamaha 01X mixer but not quite as bad as the old plastic Boss BBRW recorder. The click can easily be heard and the buttons could not be pressed without being picked up by a large-diaphragm mic in the same room. On the plus side they seem solid, reliable and have a positive feedback that operation has occurred (something not always evident with soft click switches). In fairness to Softube the switch does appear to change a physical contact which perhaps leads to a better product than other methods; also, C1 is touted as a mixing tool not for recording (sans preamps). In practice and with a little forethought in a tracking session it needn't be an issue.. A click worth paying for. A good honest click....but still a bit irritating in a quiet studio.
Prior to plugging in the USB the software needs to be downloaded and product activated with a 16-digit code that comes with the hardware. To do this a Softube/Gobbler/iLok 'all-in-one' account is required and this remains active on the computer as a virtual dongle.
To get started I plugged in the C1 into the PC via USB. The PC (W7) recognised the C1 and downloaded the driver automatically in 20 secs. The printed acrylic top screen is, for our purposes, state-of-the-art – in addition to the legends, buttons and encoders it's LED's communicate the channel status. In a darkish environment (and darker) the LED's are bright enough to smear out the legends printed onto the C1 chassis; off-angle it's not so bad and the control panel can be learnt and remembered instinctively in time.
Whilst browsing the “Softube Console 1 WOW!!!” thread on Gearslutz I noticed some comments about not liking the 'accelerating knobs' (no pun intended!); my initial impressions of the rotary dials had been positive – a nice solid feel within a human-friendly haptic feedback. So what are 'accelerating knobs'?
I couldn't find out. All I know about 'accelerating knobs' is that there is now an option to turn it off. In practice there is a discrepancy between when the knob is turned and when the display/VST reacts. For example, a quarter rotation turn might be needed before any corresponding activity happens. This can be distracting.
I checked the Softube website: it's very good IMO. Easy to find data in a couple of clicks (apart from knob data). Extensive feedback on various DAW compatibility and the ongoing bug fixes or upgrades. Impressed. The Softube manuals are also clear, interesting and informative (even beyond C1) – you can learn about the hardware gear modelled and also good tips for use. Good communication for beginners and pros.
Among the many fixes and upgrades available in the latest update is the ability to turn off accelerating knobs; also, fixes for the CPU display freezes. So that just leaves the button click.
Sound tests: The E-series with it's flexible EQ and snappy dynamics worked well on a lot of my older songs and pepped them up a bit...like a nice cup of mint tea. They were originally created with Propellerhead Reason's SSL-style emulation 9000K mixer; when I tested a full mix 'The River' I opted for the 9000K but found that the EQ was more broadstroke than the Reason version which was more similar in sound and capability to the 4000E channel strip. So I restarted the session with the E-series and having muted just the Reason channel strips, I replaced them with the Console 1 plug-in; it was close but the fact that Softube have an official emulation is clearly heard. It's remarkable in comparison. No disrespect to Reason.
The two mixes both went through the Reason SSL-style bus comp and a 50Hz high-pass filter and then Reason's stock Maximizer (rather than Ozone as usual). They are quite hot and only mp3 but the differences in mid-range detail, soundstage, and representation of source are clear IMO. The Console 1 also introduces or highlights a lot of complex dynamics that creates interest rather than a flat 2D'ness.
The shaper/gate gets an honourable mention for it's transient-shaping capability. Nearly worth the price of admission on it's own.
Anyway I liked C1 a lot.
Software: No audio passes through the hardware controller – just bi-directional MIDI data to DAW plug-ins. I wondered if the Softube plug-ins I have purchased for Propellerheads Reason – as ReFills, which although similar to the VST versions, are proprietary to Reason – would work with C1? They did not but also Console 1 didn't interfere with them. In fact, C1 isn't at all intrusive into the DAW session; the plug-in is loaded and you're free to do as much externally or within the DAW session as you like.
The installation of the plug-ins was straightforward: download and run installer; however I could not get the software licensed for use on my Windows 7 PC. I experienced the stages of grief: denial, acceptance, anger/frustration, depression. You know what I mean!
I should say at this stage that the eventual benefits easily outweighed the hassle but I'm recounting this tale as it may help others. I went through a dark cycle of reading the excellent C1 instruction manual, the Softube website Q&A, the Gobbler Q&A, the iLok Q&A, and Gearslutz forum, looking for clues as to where I had gone wrong and re-trying to license the software. The basic premise of the licensing system is that you do not need a physical iLok; instead a virtual dongle does that job. The method employed is to have a joint Softube/Gobbler/iLok account and verification software – but, in my case, this would simply not work and eventually I had to download and install the iLok License Manager. Then it worked. I could have saved a couple of days of mild frustration.
In fairness to Softube they have to protect their beautiful product from theft and this is the method they use. I don't like having licensing apps running on my PC but, like having to install a large-format console, the results are well-worth it. Another point is that the PC ecosystem is diverse: many different spec'd computers running many operating systems; it's impossible for manufacturers to identify problems that are unique and specific to a given set-up in advance – some beta-testing will occur in the wild.
The Softube plug-ins are Gearslutz-reviewed by diogo_c here: Softube Volume 1
The Console 1 MkII is also compatible with Universal Audio plug-ins via Apollo Central:
Hybrid DAW-outboard use: I didn't incorporate the C1 into my main system for the review but if I were keeping it it would have ended up in my iZ RADAR Studio on the channel outputs of Reason; from there, sixteen channels summed in hardware and then a 2-bus mixing/mastering chain. Sometimes I will import back into a DAW for some finishing plug-ins. I knew this would work well and C1 will be great for hybrid use.
DAW-only use: The internal DAW components work without the hardware controller attached – just as a normal ITB session. This is great for mobility.
Hardware/software integration: With the exception of the rotary encoder 'catch-up' (which isn't too big an issue IMO) the hardware-software integration is smooth and reliable with no noticeable latency; the visual (and sonic) feedback of encoder moves is easily discernible without having to be too focussed on the screen. The more C1 is used, the more muscle-memory and confidence in the encoders increases. Eventually operation becomes largely intuitive and the screen is there to confirm an action rather than guide it. Although it may seem like a paradigm shift to not rely on mouse and keyboard for part of mixing, in practice it's a liberating and comfortable process.
Although the Console 1 MkII package is a controller and plug-in (capable of controller-independent use), in practice it feels and operates as one; as a soon as the encoder lag is compensated for by operator muscle memory, the feel is much more like using a high-quality analogue (or digital) desk or outboard unit.
Aesthetics and ergonomics: The C1 sits nicely on the desk; it is well proportioned for sitting in front of or behind a QWERTY keyboard and mouse and is slightly elevated over the keys so that the USB outlet doesn't snag; whilst situated to the rear of the keyboard it's height allows for a smooth work-surface contour and reflection zone for the monitors. When not used it can be placed to the side or disconnected easily. Equally the C1 would fit nicely into a custom unit e.g. wood frame or additive-manufactured 3D printed frame. The unit would also sit nicely in a rack-shelf for accessibility. It's main position should be centre-field between the monitors and it's dimensions and weight make it perfect for that functionality without eating up to much desk real-estate.
In daylight (indoors studio with window) the screen-printed 2mm tall text is surprisingly legible, white against the darker background...like the Clear Text font on a hi-def screen; the yellow SHIFT-text is slightly less clear. The text disappears in a dark room and a lamp or overhead light (or torch) is needed to read the legends; if the C1 is situated on the desk in front of a computer display monitor that might also provide enough light for reading.
In use I began to adapt to, and unconsciously-memorise, the rotary encoders in about an hour; channel buttons are lit to signify position so that's not such an issue and there are about a dozen unlit buttons that are seldom used. Low-light visibility of the legends was less of an issue than I had anticipated; also I realized that the C1, with all it's functionality, was less daunting to learn than I first thought – there was an immediate and intuitive melding with the interface (even flying blind in low light) and that is the mark of great design and ergonomics.
Sit back in a comfy chair, feet up, in the monitors sweet spot or with headphones on...and mix.
What if...? OK so I'm mid-session, Kylie and Danni are groovin' in the kitchen, cookin' breakfast, whilst I mix down their latest hit – C1 is rockin' it and I'm going into the Softube Summit master bus from the Softube E-series SSL emulation...and....the internet breaks. What happens next? Does the C1 session quit? Does it need to be constantly authenticated in realtime or will it work offline? Will my eggs still be sunnyside-up?
Answer: it's all good. In the video I unplug the C1 hardware mid-session and it runs as usual and the software components can be controlled via the plug-in. The same applies if the internet is disconnected; the hardware controller and software operate as usual (provided correct license is installed).
If the hardware is hot-unplugged the session just continues as normal but with control via the VST plug-in, albeit without the large display screen.
Sound quality: 5/5 As a long-time fan of the SSL-emulation (and hardware 4000E) sound I'm very impressed with the character of the Console 1 software. It is easily bright, smooth, detailed and....sounds like a record. It doesn't sound exactly like a £50,000 console but it's close enough for £500.
Without relying on hyperbole, it is safe to say the E-series plug-in adds a crystalline frosting without losing warmth in the important places in the spectrum – harmonics complimentary to the source were emphasised. The character of the E-series plug-in doesn't create a generic sound that smears all sources. The Neve...oops sorry – Brit Class A, 900K and Summit channels all sound excellent too; each has a different tonal character and dynamic response. I'd say the 4000E works on everything (even pre-existing mixes) whereas the others are more specific; I'd probably only use the Brit A and 9000K if I'd tracked specifically for their sound. Softube made a good call with the stock channel.
Ease of use: 4/5 Point lost for all the licensing/install and lack of DAW sync (Reason) but once up-and-running they only issue is adapting to the knob movement (no pun intended) and memorising controller positions. You may have a 'sync-compatible' DAW for full feature compatibility and have no issues with install (probably) so consider it a 5* in your situation. There is some lag with the encoders but I did adapt to it somewhat during the relatively short review period; I think one would still be aware of it after some time – fortunately Softube released an update today to switch off accelerating knobs! Whether this fixes the lag I don't know. I guess so. What this does show is that Softube is responding to feedback and developing the C1.
Features: 4/5 The hardware is solid and very well-designed and finished. The software screen display of the mixer and strips is first-class: clean, simple and ergonomic, and it makes the perfect backdrop for actually listening to the music rather than watching it in the DAW. The knob/dials and buttons work very well despite needing some familiarity with button positions in low-light. A point is lost for mechanical noise when using the buttons (as it's easily picked up by a mic) and it can be a little irritating in a quiet studio.
Hardware not fully-featured in all DAW's. Not too much of a problem in Reason after setting up templates but only some DAW's will be able to utilise the full capability.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 The main reason you'd want this is because it makes your music sound better than without; considering a good plug-in suite can cost £500 then the controller makes it a 5* deal. If you use Softube and Apollo plug-ins then the price/value ratio improves as there are specific control templates.
Recommended for: Despite losing a couple of points I'd thoroughly-recommend the Console 1 MKII for anyone working ITB who wants a good sonic return for their money; although the SSL (and Brit-A) emulations are effectively plug-ins that run on your computer, the controller really adds to the way the sound is shaped and massaged. The Console 1 workflow also assists in organising and taming mixes quickly and intuitively; much faster/nicer than mousework. Basically the Console 1 MkII improves sonics and workflow.
I really enjoyed opening old Reason sessions and breathing new life into them.
Pros: Great sound; brings the music alive with dynamic vibe. Hardware is intuitive once learned. Cool workflow. Great results. Sounds like a record.
Cons: Slight learning curve. Button noise. Plays nicer with some DAW's than others.
Consoled or disconsolate?: In addition to the paradigm shift from industrial revolution to distributed additive manufacturing, the Console1 also encompasses the paradigm shift in audio engineering: it emulates the classic console designs of the last century whilst interfacing with the digital environment.
Just as a 1975 Tomorrow's World predicted a better future with Kraftwerks' first UK TV appearance, so Softube's Console1 MkII heralds a better, better future where hardware and software play nice together instead of fighting like stags.
Credits and references:
Softube Console 1 WOW!!!
Softube - Console 1
Softube Volume 1
All photos used with permission of Softube and Arthur Stone.