Music Tech: Hands-on with the PreSonus CTC-1 Pro Console Shaper
PreSonus promise to put an analog mixing desk in your DAW… Can it even be done?
Author’s note: I do not review stuff immediately when I get it. I spend time with it, try it on real projects that I’m working on, and generally see how it works when used at the sharp end of production. That’s why my reviews are called “Hands-on” and why they will usually appear months after a product is released, not right away.
Also don’t expect a walk-through of how to use it — that’s what the manual is for. I’m here to tell you what results you will get when you do use it. Because ultimately it’s results that count! :-)
For years now we’ve heard all about the coldness and harshness of digital recording, and had many companies promise to give us that “analog warmth” back. Now, I’m old enough to remember how it was back in the day before digital recording, and it certainly wasn’t a bed of roses — analog desks and magnetic tape machines were a pain in the ass to keep in good shape, and were frequently prone to being temperamental, noisy, and generally a pain the butt. But it is true that a nice, well-maintained hi-end analog mixing console could give really hold a mix together and provide a beautiful sound that a DAW just can’t quite manage.
That hasn’t stopped the plugin manufacturers from trying though. For example, the Waves SSL E-Channel plugin features a small switch near the bottom right marked Analog which adds a small amount of noise and harmonic distortion to the EQ, similar to what the real desk channel would do. It’s a subtle effect, but used right it can add that little tiny something extra to the sound running through it in the mix.
However, there’s one problem: if you put it on all channels of your mix, and turn on that Analog switch, every single channel will have exactly the same “analog” sound added to it — and that’s not how analog gear works. So although one channel might sound “like an SLL” in isolation, in a mix it still won’t really sound like an SSL.
Fabulous German company Brainworx went one step further in their SSL and Neve console emulations. Instead of just modelling one channel of an analog mixing console and having that same model on every channel in the DAW, they modelled lots of channels and you can pick a different one for each instance of the plugin you use. That way each channel in your DAW is subtly different, more like the real thing.
That’s pretty smart, but… does it sound like the real thing? Sort of, but it still misses one essential component — how the channels affect each other. In a real analog console, as well as noise and harmonic distortion, we also get crosstalk as channels bleed through to other channels close to them. Because of the way the VST system works, you simply can’t do that in a modern DAW.
What PreSonus have done is taken a huge leap further and created an entirely new type of plugin for their Studio One software, which they call Mix Engine FX. This is a single plugin that once inserted into the DAW, affects every channel of the Studio One mixer, and not only that, each individual channel can affect the other ones, just like a real analog system.
First thing to note: yes, it only works in Studio One. Because Mix Engine FX work deep inside the DAW subsystem, you just can’t drop this stuff into another DAW and hope that it works — this isn’t your normal VST plugin, not by a very long way. But with that caveat, let’s have a look and see what this thing offers.
Studio One comes with one free Mix Engine FX plugin: Console Shaper. It has individual knobs for controlling the influence of each of the three basic things that happen inside an analog system: Drive (harmonic distortion), Noise (you know what that is), and Crosstalk (how much signal will bleed from one channel into the next). It sounds… interesting. Which is a nice way of saying: not that great. I tried it and I was like “Yeah, maybe this could work for somebody’s music, but it ain’t gonna work for mine”. Sorry PreSonus. This was a great idea, but I’m just not that into the resultant sound.
But then PreSonus announced a second Mix Engine FX plugin, using the same State Space analog modelling technology: the CTC-1 Pro Console Shaper. After the disappointment of the original Console Shaper, I was very wary of trying another plugin of the same type, but what the hell, let’s give it a go and see how it sounds. Maybe, just maybe, it might sound ok. I wasn’t going to bet on it though.
A 24 channel multi-track live electronic rock band recording (coincidentally originally recorded via a PreSonus StudioLive 24 channel desk). This band DI everything — they use a drum machine and synths directly into the console, and even the guitars and bass were going direct from amp modellers into the PA without any onstage amplification. It presented an interesting challenge — could the Stage Space technology give the sound some analog bite while still preserving the clarity of an almost completely digitally-produced sound?
I set up a mix without any analog emulation, and when the mix sounded halfway decent I dropped the CTC-1 in the Mix Engine FX slot and chose the first of the three desk models on offer: Classic. PreSonus don’t say what console this is supposed to be, but it quickly became apparent (both from the look and the sound) that this thing was supposed to be modelling a Neve desk of some type. And it sounded… well, it sounded pretty damn fantastic!
Immediately upon initializing it my mix, the whole mix just… gelled. Instead of being a bunch of instruments playing together, it suddenly sounded like a top-class rock production. I honestly thought my ears were deceiving me. I spent the next 20 minutes pulling blind tests to double check that I wasn’t imagining things. I wasn’t. This simply sounded… better. Subtly, indefinably better, but definitely better. It really sounded like I was mixing on a Neve console, not in the DAW.
And here’s an amazing thing: the crosstalk really does work like an analog desk. That is, channels that are close to each other on the Studio One mixer have more crosstalk between them, whereas channels far apart from each other on the mixer have less — just like it works in hardware. So if you’re using this, make sure to set up your channels in a classic console mixing way i.e. put all the drums down at the left side of the mixer, then the bass, guitars, keys, and finally vocals on the far right side of the mixer. This way the drum sounds will bleed into each other and not into the vocal channel. It’s quite astonishing how much difference this makes — and how much more “natural” a drumkit sounds like with a tiny bit of added noise and crosstalk between its channels.
Having said that, I did have to play around a bit with the three knobs and the character control to get exactly the sound I wanted, but that wasn’t difficult at all. And there wasn’t one “good” setting, it was more of a taste thing. Depending on the music you are mixing you might prefer one setting or another. Just play around until it feels right. But yeah, Classic console sound gets two thumbs up for sure.
So after that amazing success, I thought I’d try console emulation number two: Tube. By the design, this one clearly is trying to model some much older console — I’m guessing maybe some old EMI design? It sounds very, very different to the Classic emulation. Honestly, I didn’t think it was that great musically. The bottom end of the mix felt a bit light in modern terms and it was just a bit too hot on the tube distortion for my taste. But it does sound very accurate to real tube-based consoles that I’ve played around on. If you are mixing anything that needs to sound vintage, this thing is going to be great. For bands trying to do a classic 60s or 70s sound, you will love, love, love this. I look forward to playing around it it on future mixes, but it wasn’t for this project.
On to console emulation number three. PreSonus call this one Custom, as it’s supposed to be some sort of Frankensteined mashup of a couple of other consoles. That didn’t give me a lot of hope when I read it in the manual, but on listening to it I was very pleasantly surprised — it sounds really good! I get a kind of API vibe from it. It’s clean, clear, and very modern-sounding, but it’s unmistakably analog. I liked it a lot. It was like having a nice, expensive-sounding large console sitting in the room with me — except I couldn’t fit one of those into my studio, even if I could afford one :-)
I ended up going back to the Classic emulation for this job though — it just made the mix sound so, so right. Although I can see the Custom getting some use in the future, and maybe even the Tube on the right project, the Neve-style sound of the Classic emulation is a total winner for pretty much everything. Even without the other two emulations this thing would be a winner. Having all three is like having the cake and the cherry on top.
Overall, this thing is indeed the missing link we’ve all been looking for between digital and analog. If you love recording in the box, but still wish you had the space and the budget for a big beautiful analog console, your wish is now granted. It sounds great. There are a lot of console emulations out there, but none of them can do what this thing can do. And the price is not bad either: less than a hundred bucks to turn Studio One into a micro-Neve? Hell yes, I’m down with that. If you are already using Studio One, this is an absolute must-have add-on in my opinion.
And if you are not already using Studio One, you might want to think seriously about changing that situation if great sound is important to you. It really is that good.