Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review of Slate VCC Virtual Console Collection

Hey friends - so I decided to pick this plugin up this week to see what it could do. In the grand scheme of things Slate has a great reputation in the audio world, but I must admit I was skeptical when this $250 plugin claimed to help get the sound of $250,000 consoles. The idea is based around the unique saturation and summing features of various consoles like the Neve 8048, SSL E (with G upgrades), a Trident 80B, an API, and on the new version, a Tube Console, my guess is a Universal Audio.

I'll start with my conclusion and work backward. I LOVE the plugin! It sounds great, it makes my mixes better. Period. I think it's a great buy, and if you're on the fence, just get it and you won't regret it. As of now I'm in the same boat as many other customers, saying things like "I want to go back and put it on all of my old mixes..."

Alright. Quick back story. Initially my main reason for getting this plugin was because I love to make use of all kinds of saturation in my mixes. It doesn't matter if it's rock, folk, pop, hip hop, or jazz, I use tape, tube, and transformer type saturation plugs all over my mixes. I am constantly trying to get my DAW to sound closer and closer to a desk all the time. This type of plugin had me hooked when it talked about summing and crosstalk, the two elements I felt I was missing from the DAW. Now sure I've heard about some hype in the summing world, but I've honestly HEARD analog summing and to ME it sounds better. Is it night and day? IMHO No. Is it better in the end? Yes.  I feel like if you spend $250 to make every mix you do 5% better, it's worth it. With that in mind the idea of spending $250,000 to make my mixes better sounds sort of ridiculous on my budget...

Anyway. Let's talk about the plug.

You've got your console STRIP and your BUS. The BUS I believe is designed to be for the stereo bus, but I've been using it on individual busses as well. On almost every mix I do I have six busses: lead vocals, rhythm guitars, lead guitars, drums, bass, keys/synths. Almost everything in the mix will go to one of these busses. I don't usually even have any plugins on these busses, I just do it for ease of turning down entire instrument sections, but now I've been putting the mix bus plugin on all of these.

So how does it SOUND?  In my opinion it sounds great. It's noticeable on nice monitors, and VERY noticeable on headphones and in the car (probably because on bother of these systems the speakers face inward).  Not super noticeable on crappy speakers, but that's expected. To me it sounds like your ears get pushed back a bit when the plugin comes on - like the stereo image widens and it goes from sounding like the sides of the mix are less in front of you and more on the SIDES of your head. It's VERY cool sounding, and like I said, it's subtle enough where it won't ruin your mix, and though you will have to mess with things if you're doing it on a mix that's already been done, you'll absolutely miss it if you bypass it.

The trend in practice is that the guitars seem to "lift" out of the mix a bit, the kick and snare are clearer, the bass is tighter, and the vocals seem a bit more upfront. That all to me sounds like a fancy way of saying it gives the mix more width and depth, and a bit more attitude.

So WHY does it sound better?  There are two main reasons. First, each of the consoles has a slight EQ curve that varies as you drive into it. The more you drive it, the more top end or low end you get, etc. Things vary a bit in that regard. Second, as you add distortion, your peaks are smoothed out a bit, meaning the RMS level (the average level) of the music is brought up a bit BUT without the use of a a limiter. This brings out the details of the elements. Saturation and distortion also tighten up low end, so that allows a more unified center image and a stronger punch to the music. Elements on the sides are often elements that can stand to be driven a bit more, thus they get a bit brighter and tighter, so they sound wider as well. The mixer crosstalk is the same thing - changes up the left right balance a bit and (according to some) can even alter the phase a little, causing the mix to seemingly have more depth front to back. SATURATION is your friend!

Granted, ALL of this is my opinion, and I'll be the one that admits it is somewhat subtle! It's not going to SAVE a bad mix. Most people are searching for a magic mix plugin that makes their mixes "sound analog" when in reality, they just don't know a thing about analog desks, tape, tubes, how they work, what they sound like, why they make sounds better or worse, and how to use the DAW properly. These same people rarely understand the differences in DAW processing, clocking, summing, etc. Many of these people also just haven't developed their ears in such a way that they understand HOW to get a mix to sound good. This plugin will NOT save poor mixing skills! If your mixes are getting good and you feel like "man they are SO CLOSE to sounding how I want them," then this plugin might help inch you closer to the door.

The COOLEST feature of the plugin has got to be the grouping function.  You can group every single track together in 1 group (up to 8) and have them all controllable from a single instance (and ANY instance for that matter) of the plugin. This is primarily useful for switching the console type, testing bypassed/in, and adjusting the drive on all the channels at once. Very cool, definitely useful.

I say leave it grouped all the time. Then, Put the plugin on every channel as the first insert. In Nuendo this is easy because on each channel there is a TRIM control, so I can find the sweetspot for drive on each channel (e.g., I may drive the snare and kick more but the guitars less) and also can compensate for the fact that I may have recorded the two rhythm guitars at slightly different levels but I want them to drive the same amount. In PT or other daws without a trim control, I suggest putting the plugin SECOND in the chain, and first putting a trim plugin or an EQ or something where you can adjust the input. 

Contrary to popular opinion it's not that heavy on the CPU. On my entire mix right now (I have it on 40 tracks, 6 busses, Master bus) it adds about 20% CPU when engaged. Without the plugin my CPU is hitting about 40% and with it's 60%. mix is done. So 60% CPU for a finished mix that sounds great? That's no problem to me at all. Runs great. I'm using a Quad core i7 processor, so those of you with 8-core Macs will have NO problem. Dual core MAY be a problem, so I suggest putting the channel strips on things like kick, snare, toms, bass, lead vocal, and main guitars, and then the master.

It is fairly taxing when you do oversampling, which yes, sounds better. How much better? I don't know. I just hear it a little more obviously when the oversampling is on. I suggest turning the oversampling to high for offline render, and as high as you can go for online (real time). On more dense projects this may not be an option, but on smaller projects try to put the oversampling high.

 So like I said - if you're on the fence, get it. It's sure as heck a lot cheaper than going out and paying for an external summing box with all the breakout cables and whatnot, and to my ear it does the same thing that those boxes do.