SLATE DIGITAL Virtual Mix Rack – The Gear Gods Review

Howdy, Gear Mortals! Slate VMR (Virtual Mix Rack) has been through several revisions over the years, so we figure it’s time to once again dive in and see what all of the new additions in VMR are about.

When we first took a look at it 4 years ago, there were only a few modules – the FG-116, FG-S, FG-N, FG-401, and Revival. Over the last few years, Slate has added a large number of modules to the VMR platform, as well as the way the module itself operates. I want to take a look at the modules that I found to be most beneficial to my workflow when mixing. Let’s start with the EQ modules. They’ve added the CS (Custom Series) EQ, FG-A EQ, and Air and Earth EQ. These each serve a different purpose.

The CS EQ is based on a Pultec-style EQ. It has incredibly smooth curves and adds nice harmonic content to the signal. This means that it’s easy to dig in and get aggressive with this plugin. I find that you can really get away with a lot when using this EQ. It’s excellent for 2 bus processing when your mix just needs more open highs. I love its smooth top end for vocals and cymbals when I want to bring out detail without getting harsh. The CS Lift EQ is very similar to the CS EQ, except it only features two knobs and has a “punch” and “big” button for adjusting the low end, meanwhile “silky” and “present” are both options for the top-end on the CS Lift EQ. This module allows for broad-strokes EQ’ing which is great when working quickly or when a source just needs a little touch-up. I find this works great on guitars and bass that need that little extra something at the end of the chain.

The FG-A is based on an API EQ, as the GUI implies. Having regularly tracked on a 1608, I can say the Slate delivers. I did a comparison running a stereo mix through the Slate API and the 1608’s EQ (550a). I did a 2 dB cut at 400, and a 4 dB boost at 20k. I’ll admit that I did prefer the console. The best way to put it is that the plugin wasn’t as potent or aggressive. What took 4 dB on the 1608 took 6 dB with the plugin to sound similar. When the plugin was at a 4 dB boost, it didn’t have the “air” or clarity that was brought with the actual 1608. That said, we’re comparing a $40k console with 2, $1100 EQ modules to a plugin that came free to users of the Everything Bundle Subscription, and the plugin comes VERY close. The plugin sounded great when boosting lows on drums as well as mids and high mids. Clear, concise, and punchy all describe this plugin, and that’s what I want when I reach for API flavor. This is my favorite API EQ plugin.

The Air and Earth EQ’s are rather unique in that they aren’t a traditional EQ. I look at them as a good tool for fixing source material that may be lacking air or low-end thickness. You can get really detailed here using the variable slope and high-pass/low-pass filters on each module. I love using Air to bring out the clarity needed for a bright pop vocal. The Earth EQ is great on bass guitar and kick drum if the source is a little thin. I think of these modules as a more detailed and musical version of the CS Lift modules. They can fix a lot of the same problems, just in different ways. They aren’t interchangeable entirely, however, because they do impart their own unique sound.

Moving on – let’s talk compressors. Slate has been rather generous as of late with its additional compressors in the Everything Bundle VMR. There has been the addition of 2 more 1176-style compressors, the “Monster”, and FG-Stress (Distressor).

When it comes to the 1176’s provided, I find myself often reaching for the blue “modern” 1176 due to how forgiving it is when pushed hard. It’s open, it doesn’t really get harsh, and it sounds great on drums and vocals. If I’m going for a more mid-forward 1176 tone, I throw the vintage blue stripe on a track and let it go to work. It certainly brings more vibe to a track than the black or blue 1176. Again, the reason for all the options here is that different 1176’s are going to work better or worse depending on the source. For example, a singer I work with rarely sounds good with the vintage blue-stripe model, yet always sounds great with the modern blue 1176. I really like that Slate has provided this many options here. While discussing 1176’s, let’slook at the “Monster.” It is essentially an “all-buttons-in” 1176 module. It really is a monster. Try its parallel processing on drum room mics or a vocal and you’ll be stunned.

When Slate announced the FG-Stress, fans of the company went crazy. After what seemed like an eternity to some, they finally dropped the FG-Stress module. This has got to be one of the best plugin emulations of an analog compressor made. It sounds like the real deal, and if you’ve used a Distressor, you know just how great they sound and versatile they are. This is easily one of my favorite additions to the Slate VMR.

As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also added some great saturation plugins to the mix. They have their preamp emulations as well as their console saturation emulations. These are great for getting that extra bit of depth, width, and harmonic content in your mixes. They really do help remove that feeling of being in the box and completely digital. A few of my favorites are the Virtual Channel and Mixbuss, as well as the Virtual Tube Collection. These are incredible for saturating a mix by adding harmonic content and shaping transients. Throw the Virtual Mixbuss on and push it hard and you’ll immediately see the advantages to these saturation plugins placed strategically throughout your mix. A quick note would to be not to over-do it. It’s easy to get carried away with these saturation tools and destroy a mix. A rule of thumb would be to dial to taste and then pull back a little bit more and that’s likely the sweet-spot with these, in my experience. That said, these have become a small, yet critical part for getting my mixes that extra 5%.

Slate has also changed the way the VMR functions. It now opens up with an automatic “dream channel strip” in place. You can then customize and save your dream channel strips for presets. This way, your favorite channel strip always pulls up whenever you open the VMR plugin. Additionally, if you’re a fan of the blank rack when you open VMR, don’t worry, as you can save this as a preset so that it always displays a blank rack first.

Slate Digital has been a major innovator with the VMR template, so it’s exciting to see the constant updates and upgrades that its platform lends itself to. The addition of so many plugins over the last few years signals that Slate Digital is not slowing down any time soon. The plugins are all top-notch and bring something of their own to the table. While I do love all of the options, this does present one issue I see with VMR – it’s getting crowded. There are so many great plugins that can be hosted within VMR, including the Virtual Mic System which we didn’t even cover. While using the VMR I find myself scrolling more often than I’d like to find the plugins I’m looking for. And because the modules all look similar if you’re scrolling quickly, it can be a bit inconvenient and inefficient due to just how many modules are being hosted within VMR. That said, this is me just being really picky and trying to find something wrong with a groundbreaking, fantastic product. Well done, Slate Digital.