Hey Gear Mortals, let’s talk about Slate Digital’s Virtual Microphone System. In this review, I will be focusing on the ML-1 Large Diaphragm Condenser microphone.
Slate Digital was one of the first in the industry to release such a system, and over the years they have continued to refine and expand on this idea. You can see evidence of this in the ML-2 Small Diaphragm Microphone and the Virtual Recording Studio interface.
For those of you who are not familiar with this kind of product, the ML-1 is a microphone that is made to be as linear and transparent as possible in order to accurately imprint software emulations of other microphones over it. The ML-1, in combination with the microphone selection in the Virtual Mix Rack plugin by Slate Digital, allows you to essentially have an entire mic locker at your fingertips. So if you record a vocal, for example, and you used a Telefunken U47 mic emulation during tracking but ended up wanting the sound of a Sony C800g, you have the option of making the change by simply selecting the mic in the plugin after the fact. A very exciting prospect, I’m sure you agree! To have only 1 microphone that can be almost any other would make it much easier to find the right mic for voice or whatever application is at hand.
VMS used to come with a dedicated mic pre that you had to use in order to get the emulations for both the Microphone and the Mic Pre to be accurate. But my understanding is that it isn’t as necessary anymore, as most decent interfaces these days come with a transparent and clean enough mic pre that it isn’t as much of an issue anymore. That being said, if you do want to make sure you get the exact emulation as intended by Slate Digital, you probably will want to look into acquiring the Mic Pre or the Virtual Recording Studio interface. Personally, I used the ML-1 in conjunction with my UA Apollo Twin interface which does have a transparent pre, and found it worked pretty well. You have the option of 2 Mic Pre emulations – a Neve 1073 or Telefunken V76. Both are great and offer different flavors, but personally, I found myself going more for the Neve. And as someone who owns a real 1073, I can say Slate Digital did a fantastic job with this emulation.
The Mic Pre emulation is great and all but the main reason people are interested in this is for the microphone emulations, and there is quite a collection here. When you buy the ML-1, it comes with the Classic Tubes Collection. The mics included are emulations of the following:
- Telefunken U47
- Sony C800g
- Shure SM7
- Telefunken ELA M251
- AKG C12
- Neumann U67
There are 2 additional mic emulations of the C800g and the U67 that offer a little different sound from the originals, for those who like the overall sound of those mics but want a slightly different flavor to it.
I think it goes without saying that to own all of these mics for real would be an extremely expensive endeavor. I think for most people, it’s just unrealistic they would ever be able to afford even just the Sony C800g, let alone the entire collection. So I think the value proposition is definitely there IF Slate Digital can manage to truly do the mic emulations justice. And I suppose that begs the question – do they?
This is what my experience has been with the ML-1. I actually got the ML-1 early on, shortly after its release. At the time it also came with the dedicated Mic Pre. I was very excited at the prospect of being able to have the choice between so many legendary microphones at the tip of my fingers! But I actually ended up feeling underwhelmed and disappointed by it. The main issue I found was that it was an extremely sibilant microphone. No matter which mic emulation I used, the issue persisted. I found it sibilant to the point it was unusable. No amount of de-essing I applied was enough. And I have used all of the mics that are modeled here in the past, and I know for a fact they aren’t that sibilant. So I returned it and went back to using my trusty Micro-Tech Gefell MT71S and Apollo Twin.
Fast-forward to this year, and a couple of months back it comes to my attention that the issue I had was not common and in fact, was a part of a small bad batch from the ML-1 manufacture. Apparently Slate Digital replaced it free of charge to the people affected but I must have been a little impatient and returned it before I got the memo. So I thought, let’s give this another shot. I have been using it for a couple of months now and I am impressed by the microphone and the emulations. There is no sibilance issue, and the mic emulations sound pretty spot on. I found the Sony C800g to work particularly well for my own singing, a microphone I’m not likely to afford any time soon. The C800g has a brightness and airiness to it that is unlike any microphone I have used before. For me, just this 1 mic emulation is worth the price of admission alone. But C800g might not be the right mic for your voice – and that’s the beauty of VMS, you can easily find the right one for you. One of my favorite things I love being able to do is to change the mic emulation anytime I want. Sometimes you think you want a u47 during tracking but end up wanting an SM7 during mixing. Other than the software side of things, the ML-1 feels like a really solid, well-built mic. I love the matte black and the mic suspension is top-notch. It feels like a mic that was built to last.
My final thoughts on VMS are this. If you are serious about vocal recording but can’t afford an entire mic locker, I would look into this. At $800, it’s quite a bit cheaper than even the cheapest LDC mic that it emulates, and it comes with 8 emulations of some of the most highly sought after microphones and 2 mic pre emulations. If you are going to spend around $1000 on a microphone and want something that can fit into most applications, then I can seriously recommend this. Personally, I have retired my MT71S and have only been using VMS ever since. I will say this though – I would not be mad if Slate Digital one day included an emulation of the MT71S! Another thing that would be cool for my specific use case is if I could load VMS in my Apollo Twin as I can with UAD plugins. I know that isn’t really the point of VMS, but it would be nice if I could just have my entire vocal tracking chain in my real-time UAD chain. Of course, that’s just me nit-picking, I still use VMS and monitor through my DAW because the pros heavily outweigh the con of the slight inconvenience. But come on guys, make it happen anyway!
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