SSL goes Live as Gabriel heads Back to Front27 November 2013
An unexpected foray into the live desk market from a broadcast and recording studio stalwart, Solid State Logic’s SSL Live was surely the console launch of 2013. Now, seven months on from its global introduction at Prolight + Sound, the desk is making its debut accompanying Peter Gabriel on the latest phase of his Back to Front tour.
Anyone familiar with the recent history of SSL will be unsurprised by the association with the Real World founder. Together with broadcast entrepreneur David Engelke, Gabriel underlined his well-known passion for technology by purchasing the company in June 2005.
No fewer than three SSL Lives are part of the audio spec for Back to Front, which finds Gabriel performing his classic 1986 album, So, in its entirety, along with other selected favourites and some new material. One desk is situated at FOH, where it is run by Ben Findlay; another is reserved for Gabriel’s in-ear and on-stage monitor mix, handled by long-time studio and live associate Richard ‘Dickie’ Chappell; and a third is on monitors for the rest of the band, operated by Damon ‘Dee’ Miller from tour audio supplier Britannia Row.
For Brit Row, audio engineer Josh Lloyd recalls that discussions about using the new SSL desk started at the end of Gabriel’s last, orchestrally-inclined New Blood tour. Subsequent to the desk’s enthusiastically-received launch in spring, it was a natural choice for the latest leg of Back to Front, which reunites Gabriel with his mid-‘80s band of Tony Levin (bass), David Rhodes (guitar), David Sancious (keyboards) and Manu Katché (drums), alongside two recent additions on background vocals, Jennie Abrahamson and Linnea Olsson. @page_break@ The whole Brit Row team, says Lloyd, has been “really impressed” with the SSL desk, but in particular he singles out for praise “the entire approach to the surface. They have some very new ideas about how you approach mixing. They go for a touchscreen, which a lot of manufacturers do, but it’s very large and capacitive, so it’s highly accurate. It also allows you to pinch the EQ and drag it around; it’s really a very intuitive interface with which to mix.”
As SSL Live console product manager Jason Kelly observes, “each engineer has a very different workflow. So at FOH, the Channel Control Tile containing the small touchscreen is utilised for dynamically changing EQ and adjusting FX send levels, particularly on Gabriel’s vocal mics.” The same channels and VCAs appear on several banks of faders for ease of access, while there are also multiple masters configured “for driving the main PA as well as feeds to press, the video department to control visual effects, and a feed used to create a 24-bit 96kHz stereo mix that is available to purchase after each show.”
For Gabriel’s personal monitors, Chappell tends to mix mainly on VCAs and employs the Query function – which essentially allows the user “to ask a question of an input channel, mix bus or VCA to see exactly what it is being sent to or what is being sent to it” – to spill out each VCA when required. “He has a direct copy of Gabriel’s mix but is also able to solo individual channels if required,” notes Kelly. Praising the level of support delivered by Kelly and SSL colleague Tomos Wise, Chappell says he has been particularly taken by the Query function and the “interactive” nature of EQ adjustment. “The desk has become another musical instrument that I can play in the live situation without thinking how to work [it],” he remarks. “After a few shows it felt fluid and fun.” @page_break@ Over in monitor world, Damon Miller set up his desk as 96 inputs with 36 outputs for the band/crew and shot mixes. In what Kelly describes as a “very logical fader layout”, all mixes buses are on the upper fade tile, with vocal channels accessed from the faders directly below the main touchscreen and the remainder of the input channels arranged into banks of different instruments on the lower left fader tile. “Mix Select Mode is enabled and this calls whichever mix is selected to the assignable Quick Controls,” says Kelly. “The instrument and vocal tiles are then operated in flip mode, allowing the aux sends of each channel to be controlled from the faders.”
After an intensive rehearsal period in which he created a different scene for each song of the change-heavy set, Miller was nonetheless comfortable with the desk by the time Gabriel took the stage for the first show of 2013 – at Denmark’s memorably named Jyske Bank Boxen arena on 28 September. “The SSL console sounds very precise and clean,” he says.
With several demo consoles currently traversing the globe for presentations and trade show appearances, there has been no shortage of opportunities to garner feedback about the SSL Live. Still, “there’s nothing like taking a console out on a proper tour and seeing what falls off (fortunately nothing!),” says Kelly. “There were no big problems, but with any new desk of this complexity we always expect a few minor issues to be identified as it’s put in front of different engineers and used in different situations. The console software is continually evolving with bug fixes and feature additions, so most of the minor issues we encountered on the tour have already been resolved.” The 2013 tour reached a pinnacle with two shows at London’s O2 Arena that were filmed in the new Ultra-HD format, 4K, by OB specialist CTV. With Back to Front an undoubted huge hit, Gabriel is already preparing for another round of shows in the spring. Meanwhile, Brit Row managing director Bryan Grant confirms that the SSL Live has already become an important part of its touring arsenal. “Although they’ve come late to the live console market, SSL’s reputation as a leader in the studio console market has meant that engineers are very interested in checking out the console,” says Grant. “From the results that were achieved on the Peter Gabriel tour, I believe that the SSL Live is already a serious competitor in the touring market.”
Pictured above are (L-R) Dickie Chappell, Dee Miller and Ben Findlay