SSL UF8 DAW controller hands-on | Engadget

My studio setup, like many bedroom producers’, is a hodgepodge of random nonsense. Honestly there are a lot of pain points in my current workflow, but one of the biggest is mixing. I use a Tascam 424 Portastudio (yes the kind that records to cassette tapes) as a submixer, before moving over to Ableton where I do most of the heavy lifting. You can’t beat a modern DAW for its expansive set of controls and automation but, clicking and dragging knobs and sliders just feels disappointing. Solid State Logic’s (SSL) UF8 gives all those virtual controls a physical incarnation. It’s not the first mixing controller, nor is it the cheapest, but it’s definitely one of the more comprehensive and premium options on the market.

At $1,299 the UF8 is not for casual hobbyist musicians. You need to take your craft fairly seriously to drop that amount of money on something relatively niche. Remember, it’s just for mixing and transport controls, you’ll still need a separate controller to actually, you know, play music on. But I will say that, after a week with the UF8 on my desk, I get the appeal.

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Physically this thing is nothing but pure pleasure. The entire device is encased in metal, and the top has a nice brushed texture. The motorized faders are smooth and quiet, and the encoders offer just a hint of resistance — they definitely make my Tascam feel like a toy. The faders definitely aren’t silent, but they’re not distracting as long as you’ve got the speakers at a reasonable volume. This is definitely a pricey luxury to have on a controller, but not a useless one. If you’re bouncing back and forth between your screen and the faders, you want the two to mirror each other.

The buttons also make it quick and easy to select and arm tracks for recording, to mute or solo them and even tackle things like send effects or control your various plugins. Training myself to stop relying on my mouse and keyboard has been hard, but when I remember to reach for the UF8 first it’s always an enjoyable experience from a tactile perspective.

The basics are pretty obvious if you’ve used a mixing console or DAW. There are eight faders (one for each channel); with select, mute and solo buttons next to them; eight encoders across the tops of the faders that default to controlling the pan of each track; and a small display that gives you information about each track, feedback about parameters and indicate what the encoders and soft keys along the top are controlling at any given time.


Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

The problem is that some of the more advanced tools (like controlling plugins) might be a few button presses away, and it’s not always immediately clear how to get there. The eight screens give you a good amount of information, but the controls and labels are constantly changing. I’m sure I’d get used to it in time, and it’s an unavoidable byproduct of putting so much power in a relatively compact form factor, but it can be a bit disorienting.

For instance: Let’s say I have a simple session set up with drums, a soft synth and bass on tracks one, two and three respectively. All the tracks also have a compressor and an EQ plugin on them. If I want to tweak the settings for the EQ on track two, first I have to select the channel in normal mode, not record mode. Then, all of the indicators under each channel will change to list the various plugins on that channel. Meaning that, even though the large label on the screen over track one says “Drums” the small text underneath it will say “ANLG”, because Ableton’s Analog synth is the first plugin on track two which is currently selected. And while the fader on track one will still control the volume of the drums, the encoder that normally controls panning now won’t do anything when you turn it.

From here I’ll have to find the EQ plugin (which, for the sake of argument we’ll say is after the compressor and under track three) and press the encoder under it. At which point all the labels for the encoders will change again to reflect the controls of the EQ plugin. From here you’ll turn those knobs to find the settings you want. And you may even have to flip through multiple pages of parameters. Again, this puts comprehensive control at your fingertips, but it can be a bit confusing while you’re still finding your footing.


Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

The depth of the controls is truly impressive, though. Out of the box the UF8 works pretty seamlessly with Ableton, Logic, Studio One, Cubase and Pro Tools. There are templates for each DAW that you can select and then customize to your needs. There are three “quick” keys on the top left that you can program to perform certain tasks, like switching between arrangement and session view in Ableton, or opening your plugin browser. On the top right corner are six softkeys which change what the row of eight buttons across the top do. The first spot is set in stone, but the other five banks of controls are user assignable, so they can start and stop playback, set punch in points, turn on looping or even trigger keyboard shortcuts.

Tweaking all of those settings too is super easy with the SSL 360 app. It even has its own dedicated button on the face of the UF8. So if you suddenly wish you had one-button access to save your project or go full screen, you can immediately hop into the configuration tool and do that. (Honestly, one-button save should be in the default selection of controls, but I digress.)


Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

If you take the time to learn the UF8 and customize it to your workflow, I could see it being a big asset. As much as I’m used to doing most of my mixing and such with a keyboard and mouse, having faders that I could push around in real time and control multiple tracks at once was amazing.

But price will be a limiting factor here. While SSL says the UF8 is designed with both the professional and the hobbyist in mind, I have a hard time seeing too many weekend warrior musicians picking one up. $1,299 is a lot to ask even for something this premium feeling. Instead I imagine this will fit better in the homestudios of professional producers and as an add-on to SSL’s massive professional consoles, like the $50,000 Origin (which the UF8 just happens to slot perfectly into the center of).

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