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Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack Review at Matte Black Audio

The Virtual Mix Rack is the culmination of 2 years of development for Slate Digital after a number of public and private statements from Steven Slate to his consumers, announcing a halt to all other product development and hiring new staff members. This is a great achievement for Slate Digital and a bold one as not only do they have to live up to the success of their previous analogue modelled plugins such as the Virtual Console Collection, Virtual Tape Machines and our personal favourite Virtual Buss Compressors, but more interestingly  the 4 main modules (FG-116, FG-401, FG-N, FG-S) are all available in some form or another from various other established plugin manufacturers. Which begs the question, what does Slate Digital have to offer in terms of bringing out new emulations of an 1176, SSL, Neve and VCA based modules? Does this make existing plugin models of this hardware obsolete?

FG-116

This is probably one of the most copied compressors out there and to be honest, it really surprised us that Slate Digital decided to bring yet another 1176 style compressor onto the market this late in the game.
They have kept in line with the traditional “backwards” attack and release settings, where a setting of 1 (fully anti-clockwise) is the slowest time constant and a setting of 7 (fully clockwise) is the fastest constant. They also use the same basic operational use where you must push the input so compress and attenuate as appropriate with the output. Another feature which is quite common on current recreations of this type of compressor is the ability to Shift + Click on the attack knob which Slate Digital claim bypasses the compression allowing you to use the input / output knobs to completely drive your signal (you can turn the compression off on the Waves CLA-76 as well as the Universal Audio 1176 and carry out similar drive functions). Where this module diverts from traditional 1176 operation lies within the Ratio, Mix and Noise Reduction settings. Normally manufacturers opt to pay homage to the good old days when people used to press all the ratio buttons in – Waves and IK Multimedia have this covered with a dedicated “ALL” button, whereas Bomb Factory enable you to Shift + Click for all buttons in functionality. In fact with the FG-116 this may be the only 1176 plugin we have used that doesn’t let you have “all buttons in”, you seem to be able to only select the predefined ratios which some 1176 lovers may be sad to hear.

The Mix knob allows you to blend in the compression for an easy one-stop-shop for parallel processing which is nice although not a breakthrough as Softube utilize this feature in their version of the FET compressor (it should be noted that the Mix function still works even with the compression bypassed allowing you to perform some parallel saturation!). The noise reduction button doesn’t seem to have any obvious effects while the compressor is active and there are no notes on its intentions in the VMR manual, however we believe it to be a homage to the different 1176 and 1176LN units – this information is unconfirmed and purely speculation as there doesn’t appear to be any other documented function for the noise reduction option on the FG-116. Some of the alternative 1176 style plugins already available are Softube FET compressor, Waves CLA-76, Universal Audio 1176, IK Multimedia Black-76, Bomb Factory 1176. We own some of these alternatives and although we quite like the sound of the FG-116 we wouldn’t throw our Waves CLA-76 in the bin quite yet.

FG-401

This module is described as a VCA compressor with a twist as it sports variable attack and release settings which Slate suggest its hardware counterpart does not offer. We treated this as a replacement for our Waves SSL Channel Compressor when trying it out on the drum examples you can hear below. More interestingly you are also given the option between 2 different circuit paths, where circuit 1 is punchy and dynamic and circuit 2 is supposed to be more transparent and “gives more space to the bass” according to Slate Digital.

Sometimes we think the company come up with these wonderful phrases to act as subliminal messaging so that when you do bring up an instance of a Slate Digital plugin you find yourself thinking “yes…yes I do hear more space being given to the bass now that circuit 2 is active” when the reality is your not sure if its really doing anything at all. While the FG-401 description suggests it may be reminiscent of the SSL channel compressor we didn’t find it gave out the same results as the compressor section on say the Waves SSL E/G channels, this doesn’t mean that this is a poor compressor by any means. There definitely seems to be a smack/punch character on the Waves SSL Channel that isn’t evident on the FG-401.

FG-N & FG-S

There is a distinct lack of Input and Output controls on the new 500 style modules in the Virtual Mix Rack (other than the mentioned FG-116 controls used for compression setting) and this becomes more apparent when using the EQ modules such as the FG-N and FG-S. The FG-N has a drive feature where you can crank a good 24dB worth of gain into your audio and with the ‘drive’ button enabled you don’t have to worry about extreme level adjustments. However, in the event you are performing any extreme boosts or cuts with the EQ modules an output knob to compensate for excessive equalisation would have been a welcome addition.


Another simple but effective feature we are also missing on the Virtual Mix Rack modules is a polarity switch, this is not the be all end all must have feature of a plugin but Slate Digital are plugging this as “the channel strip of your dreams” and as such one important function you will often see on a channel strip is a polarity switch and its usefulness is often underestimated. Some could argue that there was no polarity switch on the hardware devices these plugins are modelled on, but then again that hasn’t stopped Slate Digital adding other features of their own which go against the authenticity of the original hardware models – therefore it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch further to add little extras such as polarity switches and overload lights. Don’t get us wrong, we loved using the Slate VMR and all of the available modules at this time sound great, you are also likely able to switch polarity within your DAW at the click of a button or two which isn’t a big deal. Although it was a feature we noticed we could do with our Waves SSL EQ module but we could not achieve with the Slate FG-S and if you’re used to working in certain ways this may hinder your workflow ever so slightly. While comparison the FG-S with the Waves SSL EQ module another feature we noticed is available from the Waves version that is not available on FG-S is the divide and multiplier buttons for the mid range knobs, these allow you to extend the frequencies selectable within the low-mid and high-mid EQ pots.

Summary

In short, Slate Digital have done a nice job subtly altering these models to make each their own. Do we think they have made existing emulations of the same hardware obsolete? No.

Existing alternatives seem to offer more comprehensive metering options for monitoring your input / output signals, whereas the Virtual Mix Rack currently has no way of letting you know your signal is clipping on the way into the plugin or clipping on the way out of the plugin as a result of any heavy processing done within the rack itself. At the very least it would be helpful to have a red LED on each module to signal any overloads, or a master VMR meter on the left and right hand side of the plugin would be a welcome addition to allow consumers to easily identify and address gain staging issues. It could be that Slate have this all covered with some analogue modelled input and output path that eliminates digital overloads and the possibility of clipping, however, if they do there is no mention of it anywhere from what we can see.

As for interaction the modules in VMR look nice and have a smooth response when turning the knobs, you can also double click on the rotary knobs to return them to their default positions and click on the numerical values to enter more precise figures if that’s more to your liking. We felt like we did quite a bit of comparing of the VMR modules with the existing alternatives and this is perhaps not entirely fair because each analogue modelled plugin is likely to sound different because of the differences in the hardware counterparts (so the SSL EQ unit Slate Digital model may sound slightly different to the SSL EQ unit Waves modelled, various factors come into play here including the year it was manufactured and whether the units original components have been replaced during servicing etc), for this reason you could probably own 5 different versions of the same SSL EQ plugin and like each one for different reasons. The crucial question here should really be “does it sound good?” rather than “does it sound better than…” as the later question is so subjective and will never give you an unbiased answer. So, does Slate Digitals Virtual Mix Rack sound good? The answer is yes. Of course its different and it will be up to you to decide if it’s compatible with your own tastes and standards of what you consider to be a good sounding piece of equipment. If you already own tonnes of plugins and have a coveted cabinet of desert island go-to plugins we don’t think the Virtual Mix Rack is going to revolutionise your sound or your workflow, but if you’re looking for your first break into the analogue modelling world and don’t have 1176, Neve or SSL plugins that work for you then get this.

Original source at MatteBlackAudio.com

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