Ivan Komlinovic reviews Softube’s DAW controller, the Console 1 Mk2

I first read about the Softube Console 1 Mk2 a few years ago. There was a lot of YouTube videos showing functionality in different DAW’s outlining pros & cons and user opinions on different forums. Back in 2014 I found the unit too pricey for another mouse/keyboard replacement and I already had SSL 4000 channel from Universal Audio in my plugin’s arsenal, so a retail price of £720.00 was kind of overkill for me. But that did not stop me from keeping my eye on the product’s development and user opinions.

Let’s open with the first thing I was wondering when Console 1 started to interest me. What is the difference between the Mk1 and the recent Mk2 models? Softube moved production in China preserving high standard quality checks. The Mk2 has more visible LED indicators used across its working surface and secondary functions (send 1, send 2 and send 3) are printed below DRIVE, CHARACTER and PAN knobs. All secondary functions (shift +) are printed in silkscreen in orange colour to be more visible instantly and differently perceived from primary function (in white print). The Mk2 also comes with one new major product update, UAD2 plugins compatibility!

People just loved it. The majority of the reviews pointed on workflow as the most enhanced component when integrating Console 1 in the studio. Fast, hands-on mixing with extremely informative GUI and “one knob per function” pre-mapped layout of the surface itself which sounded like a perfect match for every DAW based mixing environment.

Personally, I’m not very keen on having to map parameters manually to knobs on 3rd party MIDI controllers, so I left this concept years ago and ended up working in different stages but all ITB intervention were done by using mouse, keyboard and Mackie Control.

Before multi-channel recording I try to shape sound as close I can to final form but usually it changes radically later on. In a mixing process I tend to combine in the box (ITB) per channel processing and out the box (OTB) per channel/groups, mix bus processing then adding effects and additional EQing.

I became more interested in testing Console 1 the same day I noticed Softube opened its platform to UAD2 plugs in shape/EQ/compressor stages. I’ve a decent collection of UAD2 plugins and more than enough DSP power to overkill even the busiest mixing sessions I have done so far. I ordered the unit when Softube announced another discount at the end of 2018. I knew everything to know about its build, it’s very high-quality metal unit with very impressive layout and options under your fingers.

The box arrived well protected in dual cardboard including all that you need and nothing that you don’t need. I was blown away with integration in DAW. I use Cubase 10. When you install software and register your unit, it is ready to go. There are a few optional expansions to buy at Softube web shop and the unit is sold with SSL4000 channel strip.

No doubt if you have ever searched for a strictly dedicated pre-mapped DAW controller you would probably know about this one but still it is great experience to test how things work in the studio. My personal choice when Console 1 plugin is inserted into channel is to solve sections from left to right; The layout is extremely logical and you become a pretty advanced user in no time.

Below the upper left corner which gives you different option to view Console 1 GUI there is a 17-segment dual input gain meter. Right below is the input gain knob. On the right of the input gain meter there are high and low cut knobs with possibility to assign to compressors sidechain. At the bottom of first section there is shift/fine adjust switch and 3 switches for assigning filters to compressor, phase inversion and preset (load and save).

The next zone is Shape. In the case of SSL4000 it is classical SSL gate with additional transient shaper from Softube. I was blown away with this option. Especially with drums, you can efficiently combine punch and sustain with gate to get “that sound” you were looking for. You can turn this section on and off with dedicated switch and turn on hard gate. An 11-segment shape section meter does a perfect job if you don’t want to be focused to GUI.

EQ section; 4 band, 2 full parametric, 2 semi parametric with great visual feedback (integrated analyser with clear distinction between channels if inserted into stereo track). Low and high end bands are equipped with cut/bell/shelf switch, frequency and gain knobs, low and high mid bands and bell with additional EQ knob. Everything is straightforward here. Also, EQ activation switch is great to bypass just this zone of channel for comparation.

Compressor section; attack, release, ratio and threshold are pretty much standard controls but parallel is a great bonus in this section. Also, compressor has activation on/off switch. Everything clear in this section as well. An 11-segment gain reduction meter is very helpful but I noticed I am more focused to the one on a GUI. Still, this tool really gives you objective feedback on how much you compress.

Output section; Drive and Character knobs: Here you decide how much you want to drive signal and which specific part of range you want to emphasise. I have to say; Drive and Character functions are pure gold. I was blown away with the spectrum of different flavours you can get here in seconds, just by turning two knobs. There is also a Pan and Volume knob. Solo and mute switches are extremely useful for all you guys without any DAW controller with such functions. A Dual 17-segment LED output meter is at the far-right side.

At the top of the console the first thing you notice are switches for track selection and page selection (1-20, 21-40 etc). Well, now you have an idea what is happening here. I don’t want to go into details about all secondary functions you can recall by shift switch. However, there is the option for a whole bunch of other parameters.

One of the most attractive facts with Console 1 is a recent option to change some sections with UAD2 plugs. So, if you prefer to have UAD 1176 AE instead of SSL4000 compressor, you just go to shift+comp on console and scroll to 1176. Confirm it with OK and you are ready to go with no need to touch the keyboard or mouse. This same rule is applied to Shape and EQ sections. Further right on the panel there is a section order button; You can change EQ/Shape/compressor order for your needs and it is clear which order is selected with LED indication.

External sidechain is an option with ducking or keying (ducking/compression, keying/gate). For more information about how that works you can check the manual.

Another great feature is a history list for every instance of Console 1. You can independently undo actions for every inserted Console 1 instance. I love SSL4000 you get with Console 1. It’s the best sounding emulation I have ever tried out however, an idea to implement some other tools I have in my arsenal was my “go for it” indicator.

Right now, I am in most cases using SSL4000 and British Class A (NEVE) expansions interchangeable depending on situation. I find both SSL and NEVE great in most cases, and my UAD collection of dynamic processors is covering all possible scenarios if 4k or BCA don’t do it right away.

I’ve mixed only two tracks so far with Console 1 but my experience has been great. My studio is more or less hybrid and I am trying to get the best of both worlds (ITB/OTB). For every audio track there is dedicated Console 1 instances and in first stage of mixing my goal is to approach as much as I can to balance what I am aiming for when mixing is done however, my audio channels are not routed to master in my DAW. All outputs are routed to my Midas analog desk, where I am adding some more “juice” with sweet Midas EQ. I do some more dynamic processing with outboard compressors, playing with hardware reverbs/delays and choruses to get wider, higher and deeper soundstage, and do some extra distortion with some of my external units.

I was very satisfied with the final results and the CPU on my Mac Mini (late 2014) holds great against native processing on Console 1. Even though it sounds awesome and has many options it is not a drain on CPU.

Obviously, I haven’t found many cons especially with the new price tag which makes this massive studio assistant affordable to most home studio environments. I would love to be able to turn off auto gain in compressor section (I noticed this with SSL…) where auto gain is not perfectly calibrated and compressed signal is louder than input instead to achieve same subjective loudness. Some people would prefer if Console 1 was equipped with motorised fader. I get that, and without having MCU I would be on the same page however, a motorised fader would make it much more pricey (motorised fader + external PSU) and it would not be possible to have it USB powered as it is in recent form.

Working with Console 1 is fun, fast and much different from the same set of processes done without using it. Its tactile controls are responsive with quality components (switches and encoders). If I was in R&D for this product, I would definitely go with lower operating force value for tactile switches and encoders which are not as stiff, but even with these components my impression is very good. No external PSU is required just USB cable and you are ready to go. I was lucky to find a USB cable with L-shaped connector so my Console 1 is perfectly aligned with my old Mackie Control (the unit is shipped with standard USB cable).

The last feature I would like to mention is one I noticed purely accidentally which is fully functional Console 1 plugins work when the controller is disconnected. This is a great benefit for users who finish their projects in two different locations and have only one control surface. It is still fully operational on your laptop after the project is done in the studio. So, if any interventions are needed when you’re not in your studio the plugins are fully functional in plugin mode in DAW by using your beloved mouse or trackpad.

The Console 1 is built like a tank and full of options which are easy to personalise, it’s a great DAW integration and fast user support. I took one for a test with a plan to send it back but it did not happen. I am enjoying this too much to let it go.


About the author

Decoded Magazine Director and Operations Manager of Decoded Magazine Radio.