I don’t write about products that I don’t like enough to enthusiastically endorse. Much of what is in a review is by nature subjective, and I don’t want to possibly do harm to a good product because of my subjective assessment. So when the good folks at Slate Digital sent me this system to review, it was challenging for me, for the reasons I will outline. Let me say right off the bat that they went out of their way to make sure that I understood well how the system was designed to work and what its development goals were, so kudos to them for that.
What you get
- A large diaphragm cardioid condenser mic with a shockmount.
- A desktop mic pre with phantom power, an input pad, polarity switching, mic/line choices, and a nice big gain control knob.
- Three mic models, eight with the Expansion pack; two mic-pre models; Revival and Monster FX modules.
I found both the mic and mic pre to be of nice build quality and with a very transparent quality. Even with the software bypassed, it sounded pretty darned good when I sang into it. So if you don’t already own a good mic and mic pre or don’t feel that you own enough of them, that alone makes this package attractive at its price point.
The primary selling point is of course that they have faithfully modeled some very famous and expensive mics from Neumann, Telefunken, AKG, and Sony. They of course cannot call them by their real names but the numbers and pics certainly make it discoverable in a Google search.
If you visit the website and listen to the shootouts, the emulations do indeed sound almost identical to the real thing, and several reviewers and celebrated engineers have praised their faithfulness. We live in a cynical age and it is easy to write that off but I think that most people value their reputation and do not play fast and loose with it. Also, it is worth noting that with vintage tube gear, one mic may sound somewhat different from another. The “intensity” slider is meant to compensate for that however.
The plugin comes in VST 2, VST 3, AU and AAX formats. They recommend that you use it at a sample rate of 96kHz with the lowest latency your audio buffer will allow, but it sounded fine to me at lower sample rates as well.
In Pic 1, you can see the Virtual Mix Rack that is the GUI of the plug-in.
You can load the various modules by clicking on any one of the categories in the library you see highlighted in red in the picture and drag them into one of the three slots on the right. There are descriptions of each available by pressing the “I” button. Alternatively, simply double clicking on one of the modules loads it in the first unused slot. You can move them or copy them very easily by dragging or option-dragging them from slot to slot. You can remove them by clicking on the X or dragging the slot; there are eight possible slots although only 4 are visible at one time. A scroll bar allows you to see slots 5-8 if you are using all eight. Each has a power button to power it on/off and a solo button. (There is a nifty way to A > B model pairings, BTW that the manual explains.)
The mic models have the previously mentioned Intensity slider. 100 % is the default but dragging it up to 150% or anywhere in between creates some interesting sonic possibilities. You can scroll through the mics either by choosing the Mics tab in the library or by clicking the Mics button in the loaded mic. See Pics 2 and 3.
The mic pres have a bulb to display the amount of saturation that grows brighter as the input level increases. There is also a Virtual Drive to simulate increasing amplifier gain to get more or less crunch and a trim knob, as well as a phase reversal. See Pic 4.
And of course, there are a goodly number of preset combinations. Some however, contain plugins that are not included with this package, which the software alerts you to, as you see in Pic 5.
Why You May Want This
Personally, my only experience with some of these classic mics was many years ago when I was a staff writer and recorded demos using some of them. My sonic memories of them are general and unreliable, other than the well known properties of each.
So I don’t really care that much about how faithfully they reproduce the real thing. But you may and certainly it is fun and even educational to experiment with them on various sources. The downloadable audio files that Slate Digital makes available on their website are a great way to begin.
If like me, however, you don’t care about the faithfulness issue, you still may want this package. Let us say that you are going to record an EP. You may be using sampled drums, but decide to sing the song and play an acoustic guitar, add a bass player and a sax player and two female vocalists singing backgrounds. If you have purchased a good mic pre and a couple of mics, you may find them to give you a good sound quickly on some of this, but the likelihood that they will on all of them is small.
Here you can click away and change the sound very dramatically without having that much knowledge of how these things actually work, and in doing so, get a great sound for the singer or instrument and educate yourself. I certainly learned a lot by simply discussing the package with the Slate tech and playing with it for a fairly short time, and this is not my first rodeo. ALWAYS, there is more to learn.
Why You May Not Want This
If it is not very important to you that the models are faithful, and you own a couple of decent mics and good transparent mic pre or two, a good hardware EQ and compressor or a lot of good hardware emulations of mic pres, compressors, EQs, and either have a great deal of knowledge about them or simply great trust in your ears, you already have tools that will allow you to sculpt your recordings into a sound that you find aesthetically pleasing and that sits well in your mixes. Or you may work with engineers who can.
This is a very good hardware/software package for the money, $999 list price. It will only get better over time as more models will be added as a free upgrade. Steven Slate and his team are genuinely passionate about what they do and surprisingly non-defensive about any criticism that is thrown at them on forums. They are confident that they are delivering the goods and yet very open to suggestions. This augurs well for the future. If you subscribe to one of their Everything Bundles, you will have many more mix excellent plugins to integrate with the Virtual Microphone System. It is definitely worthy of your serious consideration.
Price: $999 USD
Pros: Good quality transparent mic and mic pre hardware, with good software emulations of classic mics, mic-pres and other FX.
Cons: None that I can see, other than the fact that if you don’t lust after the mic and mic pre emulations, you may not feel that you need it.