Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack – Review
You are probably thinking – do we need yet more emulations of hardware processing at this point? If you aren’t, you probably should be, because it is a perfectly valid question. Steven Slate and Fabrice Gabriel have added new Neve EQ, SSL EQ, 1176 compressor, and VCA compressor emulations to the party with the release of Virtual Mix Rack. The answer of course isn’t a simple yes or no. It depends on what you may already have in your plug-in collection, and what your needs are aesthetically.
Virtual Mix Rack Review
The Slate modules are designed as “character” plug-ins, as opposed to the general all purpose nature of Logic’s compressor and Channel EQ. At $149, including an iLok 2; it works out to about $25 per module. Add the free two band exciter Revival that is thrown in, and you’ve got incredible bang for your buck. The various circuit types in Logic’s built in compressor and the Channel EQs Gain-Q couple strength variations provide a wide range of sonic shaping. But these Slate emulations offer personality and colour that are a notch apart from Logic’s built in plug-ins.
The Virtual Mix Rack interface is an emulation itself, of API 500 series “lunchbox” hardware. These units are designed to house up to six different hardware processors. Slate’s Virtual Mix Rack holds up to eight “modules”. They can easily be reordered, copied, saved, exported, imported, etc. The export/import feature is of particular value to users who work on different platforms and use different plug-in formats.
The main theme of the Virtual Mix Rack is that with all the controls in front of you in one window, you can easily mix and match and combine them. For example, you might like the low end of one EQ module but prefer the high shelf on another. It’s easy to control and access them all from the one window.
Virtual Mix Rack Review – FG-N
The FG-N is an emulation of a Neve console EQ. The addition of a second middle band is a nice enhancement over the hardware counterpart. There is an input gain knob that cleverly doubles as a drive knob. When the drive button is engaged, the input gain is compensated as you dial up the amount. So in effect you are adding subtle drive saturation while maintaining a constant level. When you disengage the drive button, the input drops back down so as to avoid a sudden jump in gain.
The two middle bands are designed with a built in variable width control that is tied to the gain. So there is no separate Q control like we are used to, the width is compensated for automatically based on the amount of gain used. The high shelf band operates at a fixed frequency, and the high pass filter is adjustable up to 300 hz.
In practice this EQ sounds sweet and smooth. Subtle adjustments are immediately heard and felt. This is the opposite of a surgical EQ. It can be used to sweeten any sound either by boosting or attenuating, depending on what is needed.
Here is an example of a drum bus with and without the FG-N. You can see from the settings below that these modest adjustments yield spectacular results.
Here’s the audio example.
Here is an example of the FG-N used on a brass section. The high pass filter and the subtle boost in the upper mids really help focus the part, and make it tight and crisp sounding.
Virtual Mix Rack Review – FG-S
This module is an emulation of an SSL style console EQ. The high pass filter is adjustable up to 500 hz, so offers a steeper roll off then the FG-N for those times when it is necessary. The low and high bands can be toggled between a bell or shelf style curve, which is a nice touch.
The two mid bands do have Q controls to adjust the width. In practice I found the overall range of width adjustment not as wide as what we are used to working with in traditional parametric bands like we find in Logic’s Channel EQ. This is not a bad thing, in fact it is one of the elements that contributes to the sound of this EQ. It does mean though that steeper gain adjustments are generally needed in order to really hear what the bands are doing. I would not think of this as a surgical EQ, even when set to narrow slopes. It has a sound that is very musical and seems to work particularly well in differentiating the mid range frequencies. It doesn’t sound too sharp or jarring when boosting them, nor does it sound too hollow or thin when cutting them.
Here is an example of the FG-S on two rhythm guitar tracks. You can see the settings for each track, and hear them with and without the EQ adjustments.
Virtual Mix Rack Review – FG-116
This module is an emulation of an 1176 compressor. This is one of the most ubiquitous compressor emulations around and is somewhat comparable to the Logic compressor’s FET circuit type. One really nice feature here is the ability to hold the Shift key while adjusting the input, which links and simultaneously adjusts the output control in order to maintain an internal unity gain. You can really hear what the compression is doing without being distracted by gain offsets.
This module and it’s hardware counterpart are known for having really fast attack and release time constants. Even when at their slowest values, they are still pretty quick. This is one of the aspects that contributes to it’s characteristic sound. It is great for getting the pumping and breathing type of compression on drums that is so popular in modern rock production these days. And with the release set at it’s slowest it works beautifully on vocals and guitars.
Another nice feature in this emulation is the ability to shift click the Attack knob and bypass the compression stage. This allows you to overdrive the input and run the signal through the module’s transformers. This results in a nasty yet sometimes desirable lo fi style distortion. There is also a built in mix knob to allow for parallel compression right inside the plug-in. This can also be used to mix in just a hint of the overdriven sound as well; which is actually quite sonically interesting in small doses.
In this example of it on a snare drum track, the internal unity gain feature has not been used, so there is a difference in volume between the processed and unprocessed signal. The FG-116 is used fairly conservatively here. The attack is set to the slowest value, in order to let the transients pass through, and the release is at it’s fasted value, for a relatively transparent compression. Notice that the attack and release knobs work in reverse of what we are used to. The slowest value is fully counter clockwise, and the fastest is fully clockwise. With the modest 4:1 ratio setting, you can hear a nice smooth boost in the intensity of the sound when it is in.
Virtual Mix Rack Review – FG-401
The FG-401 is an emulation of a composite of several VCA style compressors. Here we have the traditional threshold and makeup gain knobs to adjust the amount of signal fed into and coming out of the compressor. The attack and release controls offer a wider range of values, resulting in a wider range of sonic possibilities. Overall, this seems to have a fuller range of dynamic expression to my ears than the FG-116.
The built in mix knob is a nice touch here too, making parallel compression easy to experiment with. There are optional transformer and circuit types available as well in this module. Circuit type 1 is more aggressive and punchier sounding; circuit 2 smoother and more transparent. In practice, the difference between them is very subtle, and most noticeable, to my ears, on bass and low end content.
In this example of it on a drum bus, it is used very subtly, in conjunction with some compressors already on the individual drum tracks. Although only triggering a few db of gain reduction, it clearly helps glue the sound of the component tracks together. It gives the whole track a nice lift without drawing attention to the compression.
Here is another example of the FG-401 in action, used to glue together two rhythm guitar tracks. It helps them blend and work better as a unified part.
Virtual Mix Rack Review – Revival
As an added bonus Slate has included, what I like to think of as, a two band exciter. Revival has only two knobs; Shimmer to boost the air and high end, and Thickness to fatten up the low end. It works beautifully to enhance any type of track. As an experiment, I tried simultaneously boosting and/or cutting the low end while doing the opposite on the FG-N or FG-S. It resulted in an interesting smearing of the frequencies that seemed to work nicely.
Here is an example of it on the drum bus. Notice how the Shimmer control makes the hi hats and cymbals come alive. The Thickness knob, even used subtly, adds some extra oomph to the kik drum.
Finally, here is a short section of a recent mix with VMR used on multiple tracks and busses. The unprocessed version has all VMR plug-ins bypassed. The processed version is with them enabled.
VMR Review – Conclusion
Virtual Mix Rack succeeds nicely in removing or minimizing obstacles to creative experimentation. The ability to easily drag the slots around to re-order them with absolutely no disruption in the sound is fantastic, and makes experimentation fun. And having everything open in front of you at once really does make it easy to experiment in ways that would otherwise require several more mouse clicks and overlapping open plug-in windows. Even the automation integrates nicely with Logic. Automation is tied to the slots rather than to the plug-ins. So, if you drag the slots around to re-order them, the automation remains intact. This makes it easy to experiment with the order of the modules even after automation has already been created.
Slate has set this up as an open ended system, so that additional modules can be added in the future. Personally, I particularly like the FG-N and FG-401, and will reach for them often in my mixes; but they are all great sounding plug-ins. If you don’t own any of these emulations from other plug-in companies, this is a no brainer at $149. If you do, than it is still worth trying out the demo to see if you like, not only the sound of them, but the Virtual Mix Rack workflow. Bottom line: these are a nice addition to Logic’s built in compressor and Channel EQ, and can really help enhance your productions.
More info in the Slate Digital shop: