SSL Alpha Channel
SSL seems an increasingly go-ahead and dynamic company, especially since the last change of ownership. The AWS900 moved SSL on from being the lumbering giant of stratospherically-priced giant consoles, but recently they have increasingly been innovating whilst maximising their heritage and reputation, with the Duality console headlining the product range. The Alpha Channel is one of the brightest examples of this new thinking, and priced at less than half the cost of their E Signature and XLogic channel strips, they are aggressively targetting the project market.
Despite the relative low-cost, this unit is British made, very sleekly designed and built, and really very well featured – you’d easily be fooled into thinking it was German or Far Eastern. The box even comes in a full-colour sleeve which makes the package look highly desirable. Taking the form of a conventional recording channel, the Alpha features a preamp which includes their headline-grabbing VHD (Variable Harmonic Distortion) circuitry, and a simple three-band EQ which is broadly similar to that found on G Series desks’ stereo channels. Dynamics are handled with a one-knob ‘Lite Limiter’. Connectivity includes analogue inserts and S/PDIF (up to 96kHz clocked externally).
The knobs are typical SSL, small, usefully colour-coded, and with a good amount of resistance to adjustment, making them sexy to tweak and hard to knock accidentally. The pushbuttons are something of a departure from conventional SSL components, but these illuminating buttons continue the great tradition of SSL visual clarity, showing their status clearly, and two of them even change colour with level to show peaks and limiting. The only slight criticisms are some unnecessarily tiny legending, and a lack of frequency calibration around the EQ knobs. The front panel is elegantly finished with a slight curvature, and includes an unlabelled power button that glows dimly in standby, inviting one to fire the unit up. The power supply is onboard, and despite the budget nature of the Alpha, it will work at all voltages with no switching required; there is even a separate earth grounding connection.
Input is via a Neutrik combi-jack on the front panel, and with a Hi-Z switch, phantom power, and a Pad, all sources are catered for. Output on the rear is via a balanced stereo jack; an XLR would have been preferable, but this is one of the very few signs of cost-saving. There is no input metering, but one of the illuminating buttons helps here, with the Pad button turning red on overload peaks. Next to the Gain knob is the VHD knob. With this turned down, one gets all the qualities of a SuperAnalogue mic preamp – it is as clean as a whistle, natural and open sounding, with possibly just a touch of perceived HF enhancement – otherwise it is often almost indistinguishable from the clean Prism Maselec reviewed in this issue. And there is plenty of gain, with an indicated 75dB, plus another +/-20dB on the Output Gain. With enough input gain, any overloads can theoretically be given a touch of 2nd, or increasingly 3rd order harmonics as the VHD knob is increased. But having heard the Duality version of this at a demo, I was somewhat disappointed with this implementation – on vocals it seems to sound little different than just overdriving the mic preamp, and this only seems to work just below the level at which nasty overloading occurs. The knob just seems to add a little subtle extra drive, and nothing much happens until the input gain is set precisely at the threshold of overloading with the Pad light turning red.
Full-on drive sounds rich on some instruments, but it is hard to set the Gain precisely for this to work, and this doesn’t have the warmth and crunch that I think I remember hearing on the Duality, which seemed more variable, and sounded great on a drum loop.
Next comes the Insert switching section – on the rear are useful separate Jacks for Insert Send and Return, and this can be set pre or post EQ, and by pressing Sum one can even combine the Insert Send and Return signals, perhaps for mixing compressed and uncompressed signal, or adding an effect. The High-Pass Filter can be switched to three different (all useful) corner frequencies; these cover most situations apart from special effects, when you can use the Low band on the EQ instead. Although not properly explained in the manual, SSL have made intelligent use of the extra channel of S/PDIF by making possible different processing arrangements on each channel, by different setting of the Insert buttons. For example, you can set one of the outputs pre- insert, EQ and limiter, and the other one post. One can therefore record both, and if, say, the EQ was great for monitoring whilst recording but turns out to be excessive, you already have a backup plan.
The three-band EQ is simple, classic SSL, and gives one just about all one needs for recording tasks. The High and Low bands cover a wide range of frequencies, and the Low has a Bell button for zoning in fairly tightly on certain frequencies, like black-knob E-Series. The mid-band is fully parametric, but only goes down to 0.3kHz, often not really low enough for taking out the boom whilst using the Low band to give some oomph. The High band is powerful without being harsh, perfect for general brightening.
The Output gain knob is accompanied by the Lite Limit button which enables a peak-catching limiter to avoid overloading the digital output. This is effective, sounding fairly invisible when used sensibly, but still lets through the odd slight overload. Attack is fast, release not quite so, and this easily sounds more funky on a drum loop than VHD! The green-lit button turns red at the threshold. At the far right an LED output meter and ADC Lock indicator give further useful visual clues.
Previous SSL outboard came at a premium price and it seemed one was paying extra for the name badge, but SSL are apparently now more serious about unit-shifting, and despite a few limitations, the Alpha Channel represents very good value, even if the attention-grabbing VHD section seems a bit of a let-down. For overdubbing individual instruments or vocals into a DAW, this is without doubt an excellent choice for the money. If you need more than one channel, multiple units make sense as the limiters can be linked, and for simpler mic channels on a budget, there is the newer VHD four-channel mic preamp.
Pros: Good value; Great sound; S/PDIF; Excellent build quality
Cons: Jack-only output; VHD disappointing; Limited EQ flexibility; Poor EQ frequency legending
Reproduced with kind permission from www.George.Shilling.Com. Copyright ©