Gear Reviews

SSL Native X-Echo: Vintage Tape Echo with a Modern Twist

SSL (Solid State Logic) has just released the brand new Native X-Echo plugin. Could this be the ultimate vintage tape echo? With all the classic features you'd expect (plus a whole heap more), we couldn't wait to put this corker through its paces.

I first used a couple of SSL emulation plugins as part of the Universal Audio Suite with the legendary SSL E Channel Strip and the SSL G-Bus Compressor plugins, which both capture the flavour of the original consoles pretty admirably. However, when I started using SSL’s own Native and Fusion ranges, things got even better.

If you’re not yet familiar with either of these ranges, SSL offers a 14-day free trial for a number of individual plugins, or a 30-day subscription trial on a per suite basis which requires an iLok account. All individual Fusion plugin perpetual licenses are available with an early adopters 25% discount for the first 30 days from their launch, while all are available as part of the SSL Complete Bundle Subscription, currently only $14.99 per month.

The SSL Native X-Echo is a vintage tape echo plugin with a twist. It clearly pays homage to those tape echo units of the ‘60s, specifically the EchoPlex, and features a set of controls like Wow & Flutter and SSL’s classic distortion style saturation to give you that analog hardware warmth. However, there are quite a few additional bells and whistles here that demand close inspection.

SSL Native X-Echo is by far the most comprehensive vintage tape echo plugin I have come across. Like all SSL plugins, the user interface just oozes class; it has the feel and lines of a high-end device and even though you’re still dragging and moving faders and pots with a mouse or trackpad, you feel like your new tape echo unit is in another league, dare I say dimension.

Tap in Sink

The main body of the interface gives a graphical waveform visualisation of the audio. Down the right side are four tape head buttons below the green visualisation of the original signal. To the right of this, a dial displaying delay time in milliseconds, and below that a project BPM display followed by Sync and Tap icons. This affords quick and easy set up of echo, repeats, custom time, tap time, or sync to BPM.

The more I play with this wonderful plugin, the more great new sounds, along with those very retro sounds of years gone by, I keep finding.

Along the lower section of the timeline are what look like tape head positions marked with musical symbols for beats in the bar, additional bars and a couple of rest symbols – all of which seem to define the number of musical note/tape head positions within the four-second timeline. This allows for rapid syncing to note values. By selecting one of these positions, you can in an instant become Brighton Rock-esque Brian May and with another, the nameless streets of The Edge.

Of course, by un-syncing and selecting something of a random nature, you can produce all manner of delay, chorus and flange style effects. During this review period I was forced to self-isolate when I tested positive for Covid; you can’t imagine my joy at having such a good excuse to lock myself away with a couple of guitars and a set of headphones as the SSL Native X-Echo plugin!

Along the lower control panel I found the classic SSL Saturation control to add as much or as little of that vintage dirt as you like. I say dirt, it’s anything but dirt. It’s more peaches and cream or crumpets on an open fire; it’s all warmth and taste. If like me you were in and out of SSL-equipped studios during the ‘80s, you’ll know what I mean. It’s distinctly SSL and although it’s full of that SSL character, something you can add to excess, it never sounds over the top or anything other than transparent.

On the lower row of controls is the Wow & Flutter mentioned earlier, which is a real hats off to tape degradation and capstone style noise that you’d likely find on an EchoPlex or Space Echo. The one difference here is I don’t remember my old Roland sounding anywhere near this good, even without worn tape or a dodgy pinch wheel! The Wow & Flutter also lends weight to some unusually lush style chorusing, which is again something I don’t remember being able to do this easily on a Space Echo or the EchoPlex.

Again, I really like the modulation and almost mechanical, rotary noise Wow & Flutter dishes up. Although I would question which actual tape echo device it is being authentic to – in terms of musicality and user friendliness – it’s really good to see a company pushing the boundaries and giving users a whole heap more than they bargained for.

Moving along the lower control panel, between the Wow & Flutter and Saturation controls are real-time Freeze and Kill buttons. Freeze holds the delay feedback at a constant rate, while Kill stops feeding the source signal and lets the current echo die. Following these two buttons is the feedback, which reads on a scale of 0% to 150% for more real-time effect manipulation, as well as reintroducing repeats.

Deep and Wide

Along from the Saturation control is a Diffusion pot, which dials in a retro bucket brigade-style delay/modulation sound to give the delays a varying amount of depth. In the off, hard left position the delay is distinctly prominent, and almost in your face. Dialling in the Diffusion sends it back behind the original signal, and sounds like it starts to dirty it up bucket brigade style, but then it changes to a spacey, airy reverb – thereby giving it a very modern sound.

The last control in this section is the De-esser; not something you’d expect on a tape echo, but a de-esser proves very useful on vocals and guitars. I found that a little goes a long way, and it really took the sting out of aggressive guitar plucks as well as helping to blend the echo into a feature of the sound rather than an obvious effect; really capturing the mellow tones that are synonymous with vintage tape echo. This blend of modern control over vintage tone runs all the way through this plugin, and makes it just as easy for all skill sets – whether you have experience of tape echo or not – to quickly find your way around.

The output section starts with a width control which simply spreads the echo out into the stereo field. Its pot has a 0 to +200 value, and at 0 it reduces the field to mono. At 100, it maintains the current stereo field, and at 200 throws it to the extremes. Next to it is a handy little Ping Pong button that sends your echo alternately left and right. The usual handy Bass and Treble pots are next to further shape your tone. Finally, the mix control from Dry to Wet has a lovely little lock button next to it, so you can flip through the preset library for example while keeping the mix 100% wet, should your unit be on an FX bus rather than direct on an instrument channel. This bottom control strip is preceded by an input pot and ends with an output pot, both with a range of -24 / +24, and both of which sit below a stereo level meter. SSL’s customary undo, redo, A and B icons sit across the bottom along with a pretty comprehensive selection of factory presets.

Let Me Repeat This

It’s not often I’m so bowled over by the range and scope of a product that I simply don’t know where to start or what to praise first. But the more I play with this wonderful plugin, the more great new sounds, along with those very retro sounds of years gone by, I keep finding. Whether you just want a clean slap-back or a full on EchoPlex-style multi echo still sporting the original tape, then it’s highly likely this is the echo plugin you’re going to reach for. As a guitarist, I found this plugin a real joy to use as I took it through a whole range of digital, bucket brigade, tape echo, reverb and chorus sounds. While I’m in no doubt it’s a real professional’s tool, it was so inspirational that I was actually playing with it when I should’ve been writing about it! It really is excellent, and a whole heap of fun.

Pricing + VAT: £139 / €159 / $199

X-Echo is available from the SSL eStore or as part of the ever growing SSL Complete Bundle from $14.99 per/month (Ts&Cs apply).