Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection ReviewDIGITAL SIMULATIONS OF CLASSIC CONSOLES FOR YOUR DAW 1/01/2012 4:00 AM Eastern
The Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection plug-ins model the sonically pleasing harmonic distortion, noise and saturation effects of overdriving the transistorized channel and mix bus amplifier circuits used in four of the most highly prized vintage English and American analog recording consoles ever made. The four consoles’ channel and mix bus topologies modeled are identified referentially in the plug-in GUIs as Brit N Discrete, Brit 4k, US A Discrete and by the Greek “trident” symbol.
Available as VST/AU/RTAS/native plug-ins for PCs and Macs, the Virtual Console Collection comprises two products: Virtual Channel processes individual mono or stereo tracks in your DAW mixer as if the audio passed through the channel strips of one of those four consoles; and the Virtual Mixbuss plug-in mimics the coloration of those consoles’ stereo summing buses.
Virtual Channel has a compact and simple GUI with three controls beneath its VU meter. The Console rotary switch selects any of the four consoles’ channel strips; the Input control sets the throughput gain of the selected channel—just like cranking up a real channel’s line input gain to boost level and nonlinearity operation (i.e., saturation, compression, noise and distortion); and finally the Drive control decreases/increases those characteristics without increasing output level.
Without using any DAW bus resources, it is possible to group any number of channel instances together using any of eight internal groups. You can use the same console model on all your DAW channels or build a hybrid mixer—mix ’n’ match them using combinations of the four consoles’ channel strips.
By designating any Virtual Channel as group master, it asserts global control over all other Virtual Channels assigned to its group. All knob settings, including automated changes (but not the Bypass button), are replicated on all group members, with grouped Virtual Channels’ controls becoming grayed out and disabled. With the exception of the Console selector, Control + Click any individual control on any Channel and return it to local control.
Turning on a Channel’s group toggle switch expands the GUI horizontally into Group view to reveal the group’s Console, Input and Drive controls; 1 through 8 group Channel assign (green) and display (red) buttons—you can edit any group and rename it from any Virtual Channel; group bypass button for turning off processing on the group; a track list of all channels in a group; and the plug-in’s Settings or Preferences window.
MIX IT UP
For stereo mix bus processing, the Mixbuss plug-in has just two controls. The Console selector chooses which of the four modeled-console stereo mix buses is to be used, and the Drive control increases/decreases the coloration of the amplifiers and summing networks used in those consoles. There is a stereo VU meter, Group on/off and the same Group View facilities as the Virtual Channel plug-in.
Mixbuss comes alive when used as a group master for the entire DAW mixer. If a Channel instance is on every track, it is possible to audition your entire mix through any of the four consoles and set the amount of coloration globally using only the Mixbuss’ Drive control.
Both Virtual Channel and Mixbuss have sets of slide-out drawer menus for setting operational preferences. They let you calibrate the operating levels of the individual groups and all four consoles (i.e., run one console hotter than others), switch on/off console hiss during periods of no audio, set VU meter ballistics, LED clip threshold and sensitivity, plug-in display behavior and more. For more realistic modeling (which uses more CPU), there are choices of none (default), 2x, 4x or 8x over-sampling for real-time and offline rendering.
VCC IN THE MIX
I installed VCC Version 1.3.5 into my Mac Westmere 8-core with OS 10.6.7 and Pro Tools 9.0.3 HD|3 Accel installed; it requires an iLok2 dongle for authorization.
My first test was for an already finished mix that I was looking to hear as if it were mixed through an old Neve 8068 console. I opened a Virtual Channel on track 1’s insert slot 1, set it to Brit N Discrete, selected Group 1, set the Drive and Input controls to 2 o’clock, and saved it as a preset.
Next I used the Option + Control shortcut while inserting another Virtual Channel into track 2, causing it to populate the remaining tracks’ slot 1 across the entire mixer. I liked that VCC automatically changes from a mono to a stereo instance whenever required.
I systematically recalled the saved preset for each instance and renamed it, copying the track’s name in which it was inserted. Otherwise, the tracks will show up in the Group View Track List as Track 1, Track 2, etc. In Pro Tools 9, there is no automatic way or shortcut for doing this.
I then inserted Mixbuss on the stereo aux fader. I sometimes place a stereo limiter here because it feeds the mix to a stereo audio track. I set it to the same console as all the channels and designated it to be Group 1 Master.
For this 60-track mix, including effect returns, I got 60 mono and stereo instances of Virtual Channel running along with 43 other RTAS and TDM plugs (big reverbs, Melodyne, Slate’s FG-X, etc.). I also used Mixbuss instances on three backing vocals’ stereo submasters. With no over-sampling engaged, I got very stable operation and playback with CPU (RTAS) spikes to about 48 percent.
Because I dedicated the first slot across the entire mixer to Virtual Channel instances, I could bypass all of them, including the Mixbuss, by selecting Option + Command + Click on any plug-in instance. This is the most dramatic way to hear the overall effect of VCC. And dramatic it is—even with fairly conservative settings!
My mix now has more apparent loudness and sounds fatter, thicker and more glued together without doing much of anything. I did go through and re-adjust levels on a few tracks using the Control + Click shortcut, and lower either the Input or Drive levels because some of the plug-ins after VCC occasionally overloaded—an effort well worth the extra punch that you’ll get.
All of the controls on both Virtual Channel and Mixbuss are automatable, and I sometimes automated the Drive control and copied the data to all group master instances. This worked well when I wanted song choruses to “bloom” in harmonic thickness—they already increased in level and in stereo width, but still were not truly special until I did this little trick.
START WITH VCC
The best way to use VCC is to start a mix with Virtual Channels already in every first slot of the DAW mixer. Building the mix went better, and I found it easier to stabilize the tracks into a more cohesive whole. In general, harmonic distortion and character becomes pronounced on full-level sources when a Virtual Channel’s Input and/or Drive controls are advanced above 12 o’clock.
I also had good luck building a mix in stereo stems with each stem submaster processed by a different console model. I used the Brit N Discrete for a drum ’n’ bass stem, Brit 4k for the vocal stems, US A Discrete for keyboards and the “trident” mode for guitars.
On my drum ’n’ bass stem, I had the bass amp track as group master with input set to 1.3 dB and Drive at 2.3 dB. (A small pop-up window indicates these values.) On this stem, the Brit N Discrete was the most “colorfully distorted,” with USA A Discrete a close second. Brit 4K sounded the cleanest, with the “trident” model somewhere in between. Results vary and greatly depend on the program source and recorded level.
I liked running this drum ’n’ bass stem hard with the bass guitar amp track as group master. But there were places where the recorded bass amp track “blows up,” and the VCC process made it worse, so I automated the bass amp track’s Virtual Channel Bypass button for only those moments. This solved that issue without losing level, and thankfully it didn’t affect the rest of the channels in its group. Later, I chose another track in this group as master, yet the bass track retained the Bypass button automation information—what a good thing!
Slate Digital’s Virtual Console Collection is an amazing idea for a DAW plug-in. When used on all tracks or groups of tracks in your mix, it adds an indescribable richness and earthiness to the overall sound similar to a badly abused and overdriven vintage recording console. I love it!
Barry Rudolph is an L.A.-based recording engineer.