Review – Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection 2.0
VCC 2.0 makes it quick and easy to modify and unify the sound of a track or album with emulations of API, SSL, Neve and Trident consoles.
by Per Lichtman, Sept. 2017
Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection 2.0 (currently available for $149 USD or $169 USD when bundled with an iLok 2) emulates the sound of several consoles: the SSL 4000 E and G models, and less specifically specified Neve, Trident and API consoles as well as a vintage 1950s RCA tube console. The plug-in consists of two modules (VCC Channel and VCC Mixbuss) hosted in Slate Digital’s Virtual Mix Rack interface (which is also used by many of the company’s other plug-ins). It benefits from excellent use of groups, making it easy to switch the console emulation for many tracks (and the Mixbuss) at once with a single adjustment, provided they are all set to the same group. Like the previously reviewed Virtual Tape Machines, the plug-in works across a wide variety of platforms, provided you have an iLok 2 (or the newer iLok 3) USB dongle. Slate Digital will even provide you with the dongle for free if you rent VCC 2.0 as part of the company’s Everything Bundle subscription (which includes timed licenses for all the plug-ins they make, including new ones they release, for $14.99-$24.99 USD per month). So what’s the plug-in like in use?
Very, Very, Easy to Use
Before we dive into the sound, I want to get into the process of using VCC 2.0 in a mix. When you’re first getting started and looking to familiarize yourself with the sound of each console, here’s how I’d suggest settings things up. You’ll have the hang of it in a matter of minutes.
- Put your first instance of Slate’s Virtual Mix Rack plug-in on any instrument or vocal track in your mix. Select the VCC Channel module and set it to group 1. I suggest leaving input and output at unity (centered at 0) and keeping the drive all the way down at 0.
- Copy this instance to every other instrument or vocal in your mix. If you have a lot of tracks (for instance lots of different background vocals at once) and want to save CPU, you can use an instance per instrument or vocal type or section instead.
- Put a new instance of Slate’s Virtual Mix Rack plug-in on your mix bus. Select the VCC Mixbuss module and set it to group 1 as well.
- All the VCC 2.0 instances in your track are now linked, since they are set to Group 1. Open any one of them and you can change the console used throughout the whole session with the center dial, both for individual tracks and the mix bus at once.
- You can bypass the sound of the console for the whole group at once by pushing the group bypass button in the lower right.
Slate Digital made this process extremely fast and easy. Slate has had this functionality for years but it remains much quicker than so many other console emulations I use that I want to take a moment to really highlight what a boon it is. Once the plug-ins are set up in this way, even a novice user can easily compare different emulations in seconds. Contrast this with the learning curve and the minutes or even hours it can take to compare different emulations with certain other virtual solutions (and that includes some that I really like!) The contrast is even starker when looking at trying to compare real-life consoles for your track, which is both labor intensive and something best reserved for experienced audio engineers.
By default, the input and output knobs are linked (you can disable this with a click) so if you’re getting too much distortion when putting the signal through the console, just turn the input down a bit.
Once you’ve tried the sound of each of the consoles, you can experiment with adding a bit of drive. Note that the different models behave a little differently in regards to drive, with some having a more musical distortion curve as you reach extreme levels than others. Personally, I think that British N (Neve) model is the one that handles high drive in the most musical fashion.
You can experiment with different sounds by using the drive vs. input controls. Additionally, the consoles will add a small amount of modeled noise by default but you can disable this by engaging the noise reduction button. You can also hide or reveal the list of modules on the left at any time by pressing the arrow icon.
How Does It Work?
If you’ve already had some experience comparing different consoles in a controlled setting, you can skip to the next paragraph. For those that are a little newer to this, let me try to give a sense of what these console emulations will and will not do. When you record through a real world console (not just mix with one) it affects the amount of detail that gets captured in your original recording – an emulation instead aims to apply the color of the console to whatever sound you throw at it and it depends on the fidelity of the signal you provide. This is relevant because in my experience you’ll notice the difference between the different emulation models more on material that was well recorded to begin with than you will on material that was recorded through a cheap signal path. In other words, don’t expect Virtual Console Collection 2.0 to save a shoddy recording. On the other hand, it’s great for taking medium-to-high-fidelity recordings and helping to give them a slightly different character. Think of it as a sweetener that’s fairly subtle unless you push the drive setting.
Each of the consoles modeled has a different sound. If you’re working with at least prosumer equipment at higher sample rates on at least partially acoustic material (as opposed to iPhone earbuds at 44.1/48 KHz purely with samples or ITB synths), you’ll be able to hear the difference more quickly and easily. If you’re working with an especially low-end setup, you’ll probably “feel” the difference more than you hear it – though you may hear that the instruments or ranges that stand out in the mix vary a bit from model to model. Here are my thoughts on each in both environments.
Let’s start with a very up-front sound: the US A (modeled off an API console). If you really want to feel like the transients in the mix are both lively and close to you, this would be my first choice. Working on a progressive rock album at 96 KHz, this was the hands down favorite (both mine and the artist’s) for every element in the mix. From live drums and guitars to sampled strings and ITB synths, this helped to give definition, energy and immediacy to the mix that felt just right for the album – even though the live parts were originally tracked to tape with a Neve desk. On the other hand, for work at lower sample rates in a lower-end setup (with only samples, synth drums, etc.) for film score genres and EDM, I found it wasn’t a model I sprang for as often. It’s a model that really helps to play up a “live” quality, but in those cases I found I often wanted different sweetening. For instance …
… the Brit N (based on a Neve desk) is a great choice for any project where you are more concerned about getting sweet air into the mix than you are about getting a live sound to the transients. I found my results were pretty similar in both types of mixing environments – this model was great at bringing out the air in sampled strings, live vocals, or the high end of recorded or sampled acoustic drums. I’d suggest reaching for this one if you’re looking to add grandness or expansiveness to your mix as opposed to a more up-front or immediate quality.
At the 3 ’o’clock position you’ll find a Trident desk emulation, which is an interesting model indeed. A bit more difficult to describe than the preceding ones, it gives a pleasing color and places the emphasis in nice sweet spots that are quite different from the Brit N. Where the Brit N is all about the air and depth, the Trident desk is more up-front in its imaging but with less of an air emphasis and more of a nice blended and buttery smooth one. This is a nice one to try out when you’re looking for the “sweet spot” in some of your midrange elements and low end that supports it as opposed to an especially bright sound. It works well in both hi-fi and low-fi environments.
Looking for a “radio friendly” sound? Then the Brit 4K E and G models (based on the SSL 4000 E and G desks, respectively) are the ideal starting point. As with all my evaluations, there’s a subjective aspect in describing the sound but I think it’s fair to say that both help to condense the sound stage, round the edges a bit, and make things more up-front (but without the transient emphasis and detail of US A model). If you’re looking to go radio friendly specifically, or want a good starting point for pop, R&B or hip-hop, these are the two models I would look at first. The 4K E has a bit “thicker” sound while the G has a bit more detail to my ear, but it’s definitely a matter of personal preference. What the models have in common is that they make fairly “neutral” source recordings a bit more radio friendly and manageable. You’ll notice the difference more at 96 KHz with live recordings, but it actually works surprisingly well even at low sample rates with ITB drum machines.
Personally, I did not resonate as much with the RC Tube (based on a 1950s RCA tube desk) as the other models. Given the source for the emulation, I frankly expected a more strongly colored sound, which was disappointing. Each time I did a comparison I simply found myself choosing one of the other models. That said, these things are subjective and I’m sure it speaks to other users’ ears in a way that it just doesn’t to mine.
Several other vendors have basically followed Slate’s lead (such as Waves, etc.) with the algorithmic console emulation approach but one fundamentally different emulation approach comes from Acustica Audio’s line of V.V.K.T. Nebula based products, including those from Alex B. Let me break down just how those types of products compare to VCC 2.0.
Slate Digital VCC 2.0 has the edge in terms of speed, ease of use, latency and processor usage. Also, if you don’t want to worry about gain-staging too much (for instance if you’re used to throwing in really hot signals into your plug-in) then VCC 2.0 will be much easier to work with than Nebula. The VCC 2.0 emulations are great if you want to quickly and easily add energy.
On the other hand, if you properly gain stage some of the best the Nebula emulations, they have an color and even grain that I didn’t find in the VCC 2.0 emulations. These were better at “taking the digital edge off” or “adding a particularly detailed color” in a way that meant I often kept using them in my sessions, even when I could work more quickly using VCC 2.0.
However, my favorite workflow was using both Nebula and VCC 2.0 together. I would run a conservatively gain-staged signal through Nebula first to get a less digital color (or to sweeten analog recordings) and then I would use VCC 2.0 to beef up the signal and make it “pop” a bit more. This yielded a result I consistently preferred to using either alone. In other words, I find the products highly complementary.
Is It Right For You?
Virtual Console Collection 2.0 is great for adding sweetening to an already good mix and can also make the process of mixing raw recordings a little more manageable. If you’ve tried other console emulations, then you’ll appreciate that VCC 2.0 is extremely quick and easy to use, a well thought-out productivity aid. It also succeeds well at adding extra energy to existing recordings, helping to give a bit of “oomph” or subtly expand or condense the soundstage. If you’re looking for something to radically change your sound look elsewhere – this is the sort of thing that’s more subtle when done well. But for those looking to for that little extra on recordings they already like, this might just be the ticket.