Essentials – Virtual Tube Collection by Slate Digital
What does “Analog” really mean? If there is anything that fits that description, Virtual Tube Collection might just be it, improving definition, nicely taming everything.
by Alex Arsov, Sept. 2017
The Virtual Tube Collection is a set of a three different virtual tube circuit emulations that can serve as saturator, preamp or as a summing console (that last application being less sensitive and more forgiving than the preamp mode). These emulations are named the Hollywood, London and New York models.
We have seen plenty of similar products lately. I’ve tried most of them just by downloading demo versions or even getting full versions directly from developers. It’s difficult to reduce a discussion of these competing products to better/worse pronouncements because they all have different character from product to product.
I will try to avoid the terms “warmth” and “depth” that you find in all the tube PR material, instead concentrating on things that differ from the other similar tools that are on the market right now.
I spent two weeks trying all three models of VTC on various instruments, buses and on whole mixes. I have to admit that I was totally impressed with the end results, but VTC is hardly a magical tool that you can just insert on every channel and sunshine will shine on you until the end of your days. Using it in this way, it is very easy to overdo your final mix, getting a boomy low end, and a slightly messed-up whole picture, especially if you also add it on a main output after adding it to all channels without changing any parameters. Using different models on most channels along with buses and master output can work wonders if you crank the saturation up to two instead of ten, setting dry/wet ratio somewhere around 40% ( I use 38%). The same goes for the main output channel. It is nice to have some headroom for going mad with bass instruments or for other special purposes. Having my bass instruments already pushing reasonable limits, I would easily run into trouble going with the default settings.
About the Character
The difference between these three VTC models and other similar plug-ins in the market is the pleasantly sounding end result, since some other models can sound quite more aggressive and not so silky-smooth. Sometimes aggressive is good, but I found this silkiness quite more usable because VTC proves to be far more forgiving while taming your small mixing imperfections. Surprisingly it also works fine with more aggressive mixes. I found that with VTC, instruments really somehow sit better in the mix, even slightly improving the stereo image. Then not only do instruments sit better in the mix, they also seem to be more defined regarding left/right as well as front/back positioning. All other models add that something to the sound, but somehow also slightly degrade the stereo image. Compared to the competitors, VTC really does something about this “space” definition, especially if you try to A/B it with some other similar products. It also adds a soft fullness to the sound, but as it goes with many things in life, overdo it a bit and you will get way too much of that fullness. So, be careful with that axe, Eugene. The same thing goes with the low end. If you already have the low end well-established, then using the Hollywood or London models can go a bit too far. They both add a very nice and stable low end, but in some cases I was forced to cut some subs with EQ, no matter that I had already set a low cut filter directly inside VTC since it cuts low end in a more subtle way using 12 dB per octave.
The third model, New York, sets bass more tightly and I found this one to be just perfect for rock arrangements on a main output, just as London was perfect for more electro-type music. Hollywood is simply irreplaceable for all orchestral settings. But this is just my personal take and it depends how you mix your songs within these genres. Also London and Hollywood do wonders for synths, making them rounder and a bit pleasant to the ears, even (or maybe especially) when you use saw-wave based presets.
I added a touch of various models on the buses for this song, exchanging another tube plug-in for VTC on the master. So, put your headphones on, or listen this on some good speakers, and come to your own conclusions. I’m not a pro mixing/mastering engineer, but I suspect you will notice the differences.
In a Virtual Box
We have already discussed the three basic models that comprise this bundle. First there’s Hollywood which offers a wide open sound with a rich low and high end. Next is London which has pleasant high ends and a fat low end (ideal for drums, guitars and all manner of other instruments – all you need to do is to set a high-pass filter on this model for all high instruments). Finally there’s New York, having the tightest sound, but still adding much magic, at least for me – a great tool for rock mixes that already have enough low and high elements.
Under the VU meter window you will find two switches. The first one is for switching between Preamp and Console mode, the latter being more suitable for summing purposes, buses and master output.
The second switch is for applying even more of everything that VTC modules offer by choosing Push instead of Normal.
In the middle of the interface we see a Saturation knob. A key thing about this control is that VTC adds some nice mojo even when it’s set to zero. Add too much and you will have quite a bit of distortion. It is not unpleasant, but still, distortion is distortion and not always the best thing. Keeping it low is the name of the game here (but on other hand, there was a case in which I needed distorted drums and found that distorting them with VTC, setting everything almost to ten, gave better, more pleasant results than any other distortion I tried).
Finally, there are the last three knobs. The first controls high-pass filtering that can be used for cutting some of the low end up to 250 Hz, preventing the rumble and moodiness. Next is an Output control for setting the volume. I found that you need to decrease the level about 1 dB to match the level of unprocessed material (I presume this due to all those overtones that add a touch of loudness to the processed material). Last is the Mix control for setting the balance between processed and unprocessed signal.
More or less, that’s the whole story. Everything else is magic.
I’ve heard a lot about Slate Digital in the past, but VTC is my first Slate Digital plug-in experience and I’m pleasantly impressed (it seems like that it happens frequently of late when reviewing products, so I’m not sure if products are getting better and better, or if I’m getting more judicious about picking the right things to review. 🙂 )
I don’t know if digital will ever become completely equivalent to analog and what this might mean because I never owned any expensive analog gear. But one way or another, VTC adds a nice roundness to the material that makes the end results less static and definitively more pleasant to the ear than the unprocessed sound was. I must also mention how nice everything sits inside the mix, adding better definition of space for every separate instrument, taming some almost annoying ends or sudden peaks. VTC also makes my hi-hats or saw-wave-driven synths sound less harsh and more pleasing. Basses are better presented and more stable. The whole mix gets better stereo definition and some unexpected volume fluctuations in the mastering process become less prevalent.
This is not to imply that VTC will make huge differences in your mixes that even your grandma will spot immediately. But the effect is not so subtle that only you and your headphones will notice the difference. One of my previous albums for some weird reason sounded a bit unpleasant when played loud and I was not able to figure where the problem is. So, I turned the volume knob on my amp quite high setting VTC New York model in the mastering chain, spending ten or fifteen minutes to find the right balance between Saturation, Mix and High Pass, and I managed to get rid of those annoyances on a new re-master.
This is not a set-it-and-forget-it tool. Nor can it improve mixes so bad that no tool can help them. But with some tweaking, VTC can make a difference. Something tells me that this one will not be the last Slate Digital plug-in that I will buy.
ESSENTIAL for: VTC simply makes your songs better, irrespective of what this “Analog” term is supposed to actually mean.
More info at http://slatedigital.com/virtual-tube-collection/
Price: $179 USD or Monthly, Annual or Year plan for getting all Slate Digital plugins.