Read the full article
This article was originally published in issue #39
To read the article in its entirety, view the digital magazine
I think I probably rant about plugins more than just about everything else in the audio recording universe added together. Old habits and beliefs die hard, and many folks still believe that the plugins that you get with a DAW are somehow second or third rate. I’m calling “foul” on that one; the basic functions of gain, EQ and dynamics processing, as well as much more, can be done as well with modern stock plugins as with anything that we can buy at any price - once we learn how to use them properly. Similarly, lots of not-quite-so-basic effects can be created with multiple plugins; compression plus distortion gets a decent part of the way towards tape saturation, filtering plus distortion can give us harmonic excitement, and so on. Obviously, as we get into more complex chains of basic effects, there is more work and more learning needed, and that leads us to the realm of effects that do something a bit more than the basics, effects that have a voice of their own.
Now, old habits do indeed die very hard, and one of the most popular categories of effect plugins is the emulation of old analogue gear. Part of me thinks that relying on software that has a photo-realistic picture of a rusty old rack unit as its interface is rubbish; give me real-time displays of frequency response and gain reduction and drag-and-drop adjustments; but the other part of me accepts that it’s often easier to just say “I want a 1176” and grab one. There’s an old (OK, very old) joke in the computing world about code being the 2% of a product that sits behind the user interface, and certainly, in the world of plugins, there are a lot of products that promise much, much, more than they can ever deliver. Then there’s Slate Digital.
OK - I’m a bit of a fan, and I actually can’t recall the last mix I worked-on that didn’t have Slate plugins on it. Each time something new comes out, I tell myself for a few days that I don’t need it, then I download the trial version “just in case”, then two days into the two-week trial I accept that I don’t want to be without it and buy it.
Slate Digital’s Virtual Mix Rack (VMR) is a virtual 500-series rack with interchangeable modules. When the rack originally came out it had the FG-116 (1176 FET compressor), FG-401 (hybrid-VCA compressor), FG-N (Neve Eq) and FG-S (SSL eq), along with the Revival exciter module (that you could keep and use for free even if you didn’t buy the rack). A while later a trim module was added at no cost, and then the real expansion started with the CS (Custom Series) Eq (a hybrid eq made-up of bands from a number of different real-world units), CS Lift hi-low end character filter, and the FG-Bomber which is described as being a Dynamic Impact Enhancer. Apparently there are new pre-amp and compressor modules scheduled for release this year, and also, along the way, the Virtual Console Collection channel and mix-bus modules were re-written to slot into the rack. In case you’re wondering why the modules start with “FG-“ – it’s the initials of software designer Fabrice Gabriel, who appears to be equal parts software designer and genie.
Anyway, the rack holds up to eight modules, with both local (module) and overall presets to get you started. Rack functions are pretty basic; you drag/drop to load and remove modules (it’ll auto-expand when you go beyond the initial three slots). Each module can be bypassed or soloed individually, and you can copy settings between two rack memory slots (A and B), but there are no undo options, no parallel processing beyond what the individual modules offer, and only the one “copy” slot, but you can save settings as a presets. What you do get is subtle, organic character that’s typically incredibly difficult (or impossible) to create with other effects. Whilst I’ve never explicitly measured CPU loading, I have had lots of VMR instances running and it seems to be pretty efficient, which is a good trick for the amount of processing that I suspect is being done.
Recreations of vintage effects are always going to cause arguments, and I have a number of recreations of Neve and SSL EQs that their manufactures claim to be perfect reproductions of the individual units that they modelled. I’ve used both Neve and SSL in the past, and both the FG-N and FG-S have the same sort of characteristic sounds that I recall, but so do others, and it’s amazing how different they all are. Eventually they just get used on their own merit - “does it sound good?” overtakes “is it the most real?”
The hybrid and original modules are a bit of a different matter. I was utterly convinced that I didn’t need the CS Lift and Eq modules – I already have stock eq, the N and S type, plus too many other character and linear-phase plugins, but somehow the CS-EQ manages to change audio without it sounding eqd and the CS-Lift somehow makes things bigger and clearer. Likewise, the FG-Bomber seems to be able to add edge, bite, fatness – something – in just the right place, for just a few seconds work.
There’s a lot of love for Slate Digital plugins on-line - every new utterance from Steven Slate seems to be met with whole choruses of “woo-hoos” that border on cult-like at times. Oddly enough, though, I know a few people who are even more rabidly dedicated to not buying new stuff than I am, who also use VMR - a lot. Ultimately, writing about sound really IS like dancing to architecture - pretty pointless. I hear things in VMR that are “just right” to my ears, things that I can’t quite get using anything else, and they’re quick and easy to find. Ultimately, if you are looking, and more importantly, listening, for a few character voices for your mixing, I’d suggest that you download the VMR trial and give it a go. Unfortunately, you’re going to need a 2-gen iLok, and be warned, that as a Grammy winning mixer I was chatting with on Twitter commented, “to try VMR is pretty much to buy VMR”.
Oh, by the way, Slate has recently introduced a scheme where you can “rent” all their plugins and get all new updates and products for the coming year (software rental? That's almost enough to lose them a whole star - Ed)