SSL have successfully implemented comprehensive multi-DAW control across their range of analogue consoles, and with the Nucleus they've taken one step further into the project studio world by combining a 16-channel controller with an analogue monitoring path, two preamps and a USB soundcard.
Of course, this is SSL - so the preamps and monitor amplification use the SuperAnalogue signal paths (like the Duality and AWS consoles), the control is networkable to switch between three different DAWs, the preamps have balanced inserts and the soundcard offers up to 192kHz sample rates.
"Right off the bat 75% of our editing/mixing needs were met, leaving over 32 controls for assignment."
The Nucleus looks and feels much like its bigger siblings, from the faders and knobs to the jog wheel and transport controls. The control surface has two eight-channel sections flanking a centre section that houses the transport controls, utility function buttons and preamp/monitor controls.
Each channel comprises a fader, rotary pot, backlit buttons for cut/mute, solo and channel select, and a 10-segment level meter at the top. The two channel sections also feature a row of eight buttons for assignable functions. The analogue I/O at the rear is accompanied by the soundcard USB socket, four USB sockets for keyboards/mice/hubs, optical S/PDIF I/O, an RS-232 terminal (for SSL only - do not touch!), a quarter-inch TRS footswitch jack (for play/record), an SD card socket for set-up storage and an Ethernet socket for the controller data linkage.
The DAW control uses Ethernet-based ipMIDI to connect to up to three workstations, which the user can switch between using two buttons in the centre section (DAW 2 and DAW 3) - a function suited to post production studios, for example.
USB ports at the rear of the Nucleus allow a keyboard, mouse, memory stick and dongle, for example, to be routed to the recipient workstation without the need for duplication - though a USB switcher is necessary to re-route the Nucleus to each DAW.
For a single workstation, a direct Ethernet crossover cable between the Nucleus and the computer is the simplest and most effective method.
So which DAWs can be controlled via the Nucleus? Any that allows remote control via HUI, MCU or MIDI CC protocols. The unit ships with base set-ups for Pro Tools, Logic and Nuendo/Cubase, as well as a MIDI CC set-up. These can be copied and customised via the Nucleus Remote interface and stored on the supplied SD card for transportation.
For this review we used the Nuendo template for our DAW, as well as creating a custom MIDI CC set-up, which was also used to control synths. From the Nucleus Remote utility, the basic template can be quickly loaded to the unit and - provided your DAW is ready for remote control - work can begin.
Like any new control surface, it takes a little time to get oriented, but after a couple of hours' work we were familiar enough to start customising the control layout.
The main channel controls (Fader, Channel Select, Solo and Cut) aren't directly editable, and neither are the Bank/Channel navigation, Layer/User Toggle and Cursor buttons, but everything else is fair game.
Right off the bat, 75% of our editing/mixing needs were met, still leaving over 32 controls available for assignment. This is made possible by the upper row of eight buttons (V-Sel switches) on each side and the rows of push-button pots (V-Pots) beneath them.
In the base mode the V-Pots function as Pan controls and double as Insert/EQ/FX Send controls when necessary. The V-Sel switches can be assigned to a list of available functions through the Remote utility. The User 1 and 2 buttons pull up two more sets of control assignments for the V-Pots and V-Sel switches, only some of which are filled in the basic templates.
The two LCD screens (Scribble Strips) that separate the rows of V-Pot and V-Sel switches function as labels for the controls in the two User modes while displaying channel names and pan/parameter values in the base mode.
It's a surprisingly intuitive system that rarely foxed us, even during the initial stages; pretty soon we were merrily flipping between User control sets and working a project as quickly as ever.
The process of control assignment within the Nucleus Remote is quick and simple, with any changes taking effect instantaneously, meaning that set-ups can be tweaked on the hoof.
Clicking on the virtual V-Pot or V-Sel switch in the Remote utility presents the user with a choice of either standard DAW commands from a list or a keyboard shortcut. The V-Pot/Sel can then be given a six-character label that will show on the adjacent part of the Scribble Strip.
The possibilities are further expanded with a 'Menu' option for the V-Sel switches, allowing you to select a sub-set of functions for the eight V-Pots beneath, permitting 64 possible commands per row of V-Sel/Pots.
Obviously that could take some time to program, but key command set-ups and working practices evolve with time, and this way the Nucleus stands a good chance of keeping up.
The quality of the physical control interface is excellent, making the Nucleus easy and responsive to work with. The motorised faders use a pitchbend MIDI assignment that has over 16,000 increments, so mixer level changes are smooth and accurate. The pan pots have 11 LED position markers around them, with a single red LED to indicate the centre position.
Eight Channel controllers are no doubt useful, but having 16 channels at hand reduces navigation movements, allowing more time for hands-on mixing. The big backlit transport controls and the weighty jog wheel are real highlights, in particular the navigation and scrubbing accuracy made possible by the latter.
Because the V-Pots are continuous rotary controls, manual panning sweeps can be wayward, but the Flip switch swaps the faders and V-Pots, and panning can be approached like the cross-fader when scratching.
The audio side of the Nucleus-DAW relationship is carried via the USB connection. Alongside the two mic/line/instrument preamps (with balanced inserts), there's optical S/PDIF I/O, two headphone outputs, a balanced stereo line input, monitor outputs on balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA, and a mini-jack input for iPods and the like.
As previously mentioned, the preamps and monitor signal path use SSL's SuperAnalogue circuitry, so the sound quality available here is high. Plenty of clean gain (75dB) from the preamps is coupled with a full and unfettered response to mics and instruments.
The balanced inserts are a real boon for hitting outboard gear at proper levels. These also work on the final mix output, when the Mixdown button is engaged, so that the processed signal can be recorded as a DAW input.
The preamp controls offer the usual +48v, pad, Hi-Z instrument switching, phase invert, 80Hz HPF and insert switching on two rows of buttons beneath the Gain pots. Arranged below and to the left of these are the monitoring controls. A row of backlit buttons beneath the output/preamp metering switch control the external sources (iJack and line input) and preamp mono/stereo position while monitoring.
The main monitor level knob goes up to 11, and to its right is the preamp/DAW mix Blend knob, headphone level and aforementioned Mixdown button. In Mixdown mode the Blend knob is redundant, but when tracking, it proves a simple way to create a monitor mix.
The Nucleus is a well-designed unit that offers an all-in-one solution for a variety of DAW needs, from dubbing to project studio recording and mixing. Although the USB soundcard function is useful and of a high quality (ranging up to 192kHz) it is the controller side of things that really impresses.
At this price you'd want to be making use of the preamps and monitoring, and the equivalent individual units would cost about the same in total - without a DAW controller.
The multi-DAW network functionality is a unique aspect that will prick up a few ears, but the fact that it integrates with all platforms without any overt favouritism makes it a real standout.
This is a pleasing, easy-to-use unit that has true pro quality, making something you'd want to add to, not improve. Just add DAW and speakers.