At one point, Steven Slate dared replace your drums, then your vintage gear, later your console, and now he wants to clear out your vintage mic locker. How does his virtual microphone sound? We put it to the test.
Review: Dax Liniere
Steven Slate has a big, L.A.-sized ego. Unlike other musicians who gravitate to a more behind-the-scenes role in engineering, Slate lives vicariously through the ‘wow factor’ of his products — championing them with a combination of salesman-like exuberance and frontman confidence that’s rare in the tech industry. He’s long worked to be in the lime-light, and since declaring Slate Trigger and Steven Slate Drums to be the best drum replacement solution on the market, hasn’t backed down one bit when it comes to flogging the superiority of his products with straight-faced braggadocio.
He’s not without cause. After Steven Slate Drums, he teamed up with Fabrice Gabriel, of Eiosis, to form Slate Digital, and together they announced a string of hardware emulating plug-ins, eventually packaging them up into a monthly subscription bundle that’s continually expanding to include effects alongside its collection of EQs, dynamic processors, console sections and tape machines. Then there’s the Slate Pro Audio side, which developed a couple of hardware signal processors, before releasing Raven hardware touch screen surfaces and the underlying software tool, Batch Commander, which many have found to be extremely useful.
However, of all the products Steven has released under all manner of banners, Slate Digital’s Virtual Microphone System (VMS) is undoubtedly his greatest calling card to the spotlight so far.
A collection of vintage microphones and preamplifiers is the dream of most engineers, but there are two barriers to ownership; the cost to buy and cost to maintain. As far back as NAMM 2014, Slate made an announcement that put everyone on the edge of their seat. We were asked to imagine having a locker filled with dozens of the world’s “most classic” vintage and modern microphones and preamps, with the ability to instantly audition them to find the perfect match and “finalise the recording chain of our dreams.” He doesn’t undersell, that’s for sure.
As I have it right in front of me, the Slate Digital VMS consists of a large diaphragm condenser microphone, single-channel microphone preamplifier and a software plug-in in the usual flavours of VST, AU, AAX and RTAS. Tall orders are nothing new for Slate, but as you’ll hear, the team has done very well in its attempt to bridge the divide.
The VMS concept relies on capturing the signal as purely as possible through dedicated microphone and preamp hardware, then convolving that signal to replicate the sound of microphones and preamps outside the reach of most engineers’ budgets. Antares, the makers of Auto Tune, brought a similar software-only concept to market back in the early 2000s. It was largely unsuccessful as it was an incomplete system that left out too many variables while promising to deliver on unreasonably high expectations. Bridging the gap between anyone’s Shure SM57 and a vintage U47 was hardly likely. Frequency response is only one small part of the puzzle, having a tightly controlled capture system was another.
Slate Digital assures us that great lengths have been taken to ensure the microphone and preamp units of its VMS are clean, clear and neutral. The thing is, when you’re in control of the chain from start to finish, ruler-flat frequency response isn’t actually necessary — if you have a known curve, it can be compensated — though it does help to start in the middle of the road. The hardware portion of the system imparts as little colouration on the source as is practically possible. Listening to unprocessed samples of the VMS, it’s reminiscent of the Shure KSM44; you can hear its clinical depiction of the sound, which is exactly what is expected.
There are immediately some limitations presented by the design. For one, Slate can’t alter the physical characteristics of either the mic or preamp of the VMS system. So, for instance, while a classic Neumann U-47 has a sensitivity of 25mV/PA, Slate’s ML-1 microphone has a slightly lower 20mV/PA sensitivity. Likewise, without physically altering and controlling both diaphragms of the microphone, it would be impossible to model the way another mic changes its polarity pattern at different frequencies. Also, while the VMS One preamp might have a very usable gain range of 57dB, and model the drive characteristics of a vintage preamp via software, it won’t have the same true gain range.
The other end of the scale would require physically modelling the input, similar to the way Korby Audio Technologies attempts to in the analogue realm. At the end of the day, Slate isn’t trying to sell you another handful of vintage clones, the aim here is to get as close as physically possible and let the software do the rest. How it sounds is more important than the slight deviations in physical specs.
LISTEN & COMPARE
You can download the 52 audio comparison files for Single Bed by heading to https://soundcloud.com/audiotechnology/sets/slate-vms-acoustic-guitar and https://soundcloud.com/audiotechnology/sets/slate-vms-vocal-comparisons. They include the completely unprocessed VMS, 48 iterations of VMS microphone and preamp combinations with varying levels of intensity and drive, plus the Soundelux for reference.
WHAT’S IN THE PACK
The Slate ML-1 microphone is a matte black, phantom-powered, large diaphragm condenser. It’s paired with the VMS One, a quiet, neutral microphone preamplifier with an atypical desktop form factor, emblazoned with Slate’s logo. It won’t fit in with every studio layout, as the unit demands to be stationed on a desk or on top of a rack. Naturally, it calls attention to itself — no surprise there. The top face houses familiar preamp controls for gain, pad, polarity, unit power and phantom power, along with a bi-colour LED to indicate level (green = good, red = bad) and an input selector switch for mic or instrument.
The back panel has a Neutrik XLR/1/4-inch combo input, XLR and TRS outputs, DC input and DC pass-through. The 1/4-inch input allows the VMS One to also be used as an instrument DI. The matching external universal power supply features an API Lunchbox-compatible pinout. Since the preamp itself is quite small, we’d rather have seen a rack-mounted version; perhaps a two-channel unit with internal power supply will exist in future.
The VMS package ships with the ML-1 mic, matching suspension shockmount, a hard case for the mic and shockmount, the VMS One preamp, a power supply, and a card which contains the iLok licence activation code for the VMS software. An iLok2 is required for any of Slate Digital’s plug-ins.
Once registered, you can download the VMS software which contains the digital goodies that transform the clean signal through an analogue-modelled signal chain. Adding the microphone module in the first slot of the Virtual Mix Rack plug-in lets users choose from one of the three included microphone models — FG-47, FG-800 and FG-251. On the mic module, the Intensity control stands out as a deviation from standard issue analogue mic and preamp technology. It’s basically a means of magnifying the character of the microphone model. Next up is the microphone preamp selection — VMS comes with a famous British preamp clone in the FG-73, and a German tube preamp clone, the FG-76. Since this setup occurs inside Slate’s Virtual Mix Rack, you can also add any other Slate modules you own to create a custom chain.
That’s a lot for only AU$1699 and, as you’d expect, the build quality matches the price point. Not bad, but not German-made precision; how else could you get a microphone, a preamp and a suite of microphone and preamp models for that price?
IN THE STUDIO
Gareth Esson is an acoustic soul singer-songwriter from London with honesty and sincerity right down to his core. To test this revolutionary new product I needed the right talent and song, and Single Bed showcases both Gareth’s range and song-writing prowess. The Gibson J-50 acoustic guitar and vocals were recorded in separate takes using the Slate ML-1 simultaneously alongside a Soundelux E251C. They were connected to the Slate VMS One and API 3124 preamps respectively. Ideally I would also have had a Neve 1073 and Siemens/Telefunken V76 to compare, but the Soundelux is intended simply as a quality reference as I couldn’t put up more than a couple of mics to capture Gareth’s performance anyway. For guitar, the mics were about 10 inches away from the fourteenth fret where the neck meets the body and for vocals the mics were at a distance of about one foot.
Head over to the AudioTechnology website and download the comprehensive set of 52 audio files for Single Bed. They include the completely unprocessed VMS, 48 iterations of VMS microphone and preamp combinations with varying levels of intensity and drive, plus the Soundelux for reference.
BEHIND THE GRILLE
The FG-47 model emulates a vintage Neumann U47, one of the most sought-after microphones in history, and at 100% Intensity it has that familiar thick flavour. When set to 150% it yields a more vintage tone, perfect for an Iron & Wine-style acoustic guitar sound. This tone was less pronounced on vocals, but the higher setting did feel a bit more closed which will suit certain vocalists, though it wasn’t the best choice for Gareth’s smooth voice. On the Gibson acoustic, it accentuated the natural boominess of the large-bodied instrument, which would require some processing in order to sound more balanced.
The Sony C-800G is a modern classic that debuted on a Mariah Carey record in the 1990s. Its model is named the FG-800. It’s the brightest of the bunch, which can really help it cut through a mix without any additional EQ. Having owned the original for 10 years, I can confidently say that with Intensity set to around 120%, Slate’s model is fairly close. There’s a certain character in the low-mids that is unmistakable and sounds great on many sources.
Lastly, the FG-251 model seeks to capture a microphone that was manufactured by AKG in the late 1950s and sold with the Telefunken badge as an ELA M 251. I feel that the FG-251 doesn’t have quite as much of the tube sound as I would expect from this mic, but it’s still a great sound that will suit many sources. On acoustic guitar, this mic conveys the instrument with a great tonal balance and, at 150% Intensity, offers a flattering, larger-than-life portrayal.
GAIN A LOT
On to the microphone preamp models. Slate Digital made its console circuit modelling debut in 2011 with the release of Virtual Console Collection (VCC) — covering six different console flavours including SSL, API, Neve, Trident and some old RCA tube mixers. The two included preamp models, FG-73 and FG-76, take that style of analogue colouration much further. They can add a great deal of heft and pleasing thickness to a signal while giving the top-end a signature sound. They loved being pushed, which the Drive knob made painless by increasing the input gain while simultaneously reducing output gain to maintain an honest comparative level.
One of the great things about the modelling concept is that new microphone and preamp models can be released down the track and we’ve already seen the Classic Tubes 2 (US$499) collection surface. Included free for early purchasers, it contains five emulations — FG-12, FG-67, FG-269, FG-800M, and FG-M7. Each models classic condensers AKG C12, Neumann U67 and M269, and a Sony C-800 (earlier, non-heatsink version of the C-800G). It also includes an emulation of the venerable Shure SM7, used on countless vocals from Michael Jackson’s Thriller to System Of A Down’s Toxicity. But there’s a twist; the FG-M7 samples the dynamic microphone’s capsule through the tube stage of a vintage U47. Slate has shown us that this technology can go much further than we might have initially imagined. Frankenstein’ing mic parts together to make unheard-of mods is now a digital reality.
Another powerful feature of the VMS is that you can audition different microphones in a matter of seconds without even leaving your chair. I mentioned that I felt the FG-47 mic model over-stated the boominess of Gareth’s acoustic guitar, whereas the FG-251 mic model was very flattering on the source. This is a perfect example of how VMS could save the day, especially on rushed sessions where you don’t have as much time as you might like to be able to tweak microphones.
WHEN TO CHOOSE VMS
To play devil’s advocate, one thing became very apparent after the recording had been done and it was time to compare the files. Even with ‘only’ three mics and two preamps, VMS gives you a lot of choice. While the choice can be liberating, adding the ability to change the mic and preamp at any time during the mixing process brings another level of indecision to anyone already trying to ‘fix it in the mix’. It’s going to slow some people down as they weigh up the nuances of each microphone model, intensity setting, and preamp choice against the other variables in the mix.
What we’ve heard is certainly impressive, but does Slate’s Virtual Microphone System sound 100% identical to an original U47, ELA M 251 or C-800g? I think there’s a better question: does it need to sound 100% identical to sound good or, at the very least, be useable? Regardless of how many superlatives you can whisper into the capsule of a vintage microphone, no two will sound the same. The older a microphone gets, the more its tolerances change as capacitors dry out and the capsule is affected by environmental exposure. Now consider that to buy good condition originals of each of the three microphones and two preamps in Slate’s VMS, you’d be looking at around $70,000. That’s if you can find someone willing to part ways with them. Is Slate’s Virtual Microphone System worth $1699? Take a listen and decide for yourself.
Gareth Esson’s debut album Almost Something is out now and features a version of Single Bed.