I think it’s fair to say we have waited quite a “long time” for the Slate Digital VRS8 Virtual Recording Studio audio interface, the first from Steven and the team. So was it worth the wait? Rather than have just one unit, I have been lucky enough to get my hands on two VRS8 interfaces to use in my studio on a real life session. How did they hold up and most importantly, how do they sound in action?
Let’s start with the nitty gritty. The VRS8 is built like a tank. The 1U rack chassis is good and solid, all the pots and switchgear feel very nice and the unit has a quality look at feel to it. The pot tops (knobs) are a lovely knurled design which are very nice to use. The switches are simple but in talking with Steven Slate at NAMM I discovered one of his missions for the VRS8 was to build the best quality interface he could without the “bells and whistles” which can boost the price to us, the end user. I would not go as far to say function over form but it’s a simple looking interface with no screens or metering. But, it does mean less to go wrong down the line.
Inputs and Outputs
As the name suggests, the VRS8 is an 8 channel analogue interface. No SPDIF, no ADAT optical, no AES-EBU, no Dante, no MADI. It’s a very simple interface to set up and use. The front panel features the 8 gain pots for the 8 Slate Ultra Linear mic preamps like that found in the original VMS ONE mic pre which shipped with the early Virtual Microphone System.
The first 2 channels also have a very high quality DI/Instrument jack input each. This sounds great for Bass or Acoustic Guitar DI. There are also 2 toggle switches to switch the first 2 channels between the DI or Line. All to often this is an overlooked feature but a good DI input can save a bass tone. Judge for yourself but I think the bass sounds really good on the track we recorded.
As for the outputs we have 8 line outputs of which the first 2 are your main monitor outputs. At this point it is worth noting, you MUST use balanced cables for your monitor outs. If you are connecting the VRS8 directly to your speakers, which is the norm for this kind of set-up, this is nothing new, just get yourself some quality TRS jack to XLR cables.
The other 6 line outs can be configured using the VRS8 Control Panel software, more on this later.
You also get WordClock connections via BNC and MIDI I/O.
Connecting The VRS8 To Your Computer
The VRS8 can connect to your Mac via Thunderbolt, you can then daisy chain up to 6 units together to give you use to 48 channels of I/O. At the time of writing this the VRS8 does not support Windows. There will be an option to use a small (supplied) PCIe card inside your tower (big box) PC but this is not yet "supported”. It’s also worth noting that this option only supports one VRS8, so sadly Windows users are going to be limited to 8 channels of I/O.
It’s worth noting that if, as I was you are using two or more VRS8 units you should WorkClock these together. There is no magic clock hidden inside the Thunderbolt data stream.
The VRS8 Control Panel
Like many of the new breed of audio interface, you can choose to use the VRS8 without it’s control panel software. Your DAW can be configured to deal with all routing and monitoring duties. You only really need to use the control panel to configure what the headphone outputs are doing. However the VRS8 control panel does have some nice features that mean you might prefer to use it alongside your DAW.
It’s a fairly easy piece of software to navigate. On the left we have the inputs from the 8 channels of each of the VRS8 units you have attached. You can flip between the units using the tabs at the top of the GUI.
In the centre of the panel we have the main mix output and to the right we have the line outs including the 2 very high quality headphone sends. These sounded really good and nice and loud for tracking drums.
An interesting extra feature is the Studio/Production mode button above the Mix Out fader.
Production mode is both the default and probably the mode in which you will spend most of your mixing time. In this mode the Line Out 3-4 and Phones are fed with your MIX OUT, which includes the DAW 1-2 channel. You can then use Line Out 3-4 for an external headphone send, mix, or processing chain.
Studio Mode feeds the Line Out 3-4 and Phones with DAW 3-4. You can use this mode when you want a headphone mix that is different from your main mix, or when using an external monitor controller or headphone system.
In The Studio
As with most interface tests I’m fairly sure there are two questions you want answered.
How does it sound?
How was the latency?
In short, there was none, or certainly none I could detect while playing. The Slate team have done a lot of work on what they are calling Low Latency Native. You do not have to worry about this, just accept, it works. Normally when switching between monitoring in Pro Tools and monitoring on an interfaces software control panel you hear a real slap style delay, which is the difference between the direct signal and the returning signal from Pro Tools (the latency). With the VRS8 there was none. I got quite confused at one point blaming the software for doing some crazy stereo things but it was just that I was monitoring from Pro Tools and the Control panel at the same time, I had no idea I was doing this as the two signals were perfectly in phase. This is a sign of very well written driver software, not bad for the Slate teams first interface.
Steven set out to build the best sounding interface on the market. Not the best he could for a dollar figure but the best he could. Now the VRS8 is not a cheap interface but it is under the magic $2,000 USD figure and in the UK they are available from around £1850. For that money with only 8 channels this thing is going to have to sound stunning. I am pleased to report that if you have ordered a VRS8 or already have one in your studio racks you are not going to be disappointed. The mic preamps are smooth and rich with plenty of clarity up top. Double up with a pair of VRS8s together with a selection of Slate ML1 or ML2 Virtual Microphones and you will have an awesome studio setup ready to take on just about anything you could throw at it. If you can’t make a great sounding recording on this kind of rig, then you need to retire.
So enough talk, time to listen to the VRS8 in action. I invited my friends Danny Adams and Paul Sundt to the studio and we recorded one of their songs Lost In County. The track features my full drum kit (12 mics in total). Bass through the VRS8 DI input. Electric guitar recorded using 2 mics (a Royer R-10 ribbon and a Sontronics Corona) and a lead vocal recorded using the Slate VMS ML1 microphone using the U67 model. We also overdubbed some backing vocals but, other than the BV’s, what you are going to hear was recorded in one pass.
The first mix is just a simple level balance with NO effects of any kind. This is what the mic pres in the VRS8 captured.
The second track is the final mix with processing. Most of which comes from the Slate Virtual Mix Rack.
Finally, if you are feeling particularly visual, you can watch the video from the session. I have also dropped in some screen shots of the plug-ins I used in the mix so you can get an idea of how I used the Slate VMR in my mixes.
It was a long time coming, but I think the VRS8 was well worth the wait. This is going to appeal to anyone who wants to work fast and not faff around with the “extras” you get on many other popular interfaces. The VRS8 is simple to get up and running, easy to use and sounds just about as good as it gets and all for a very “reasonable” price point.
I was a little saddened not to be able to run the VRS8 on my PC and PC laptop users will be more than a little put out that they have been overlooked. Maybe a Windows Thunderbolt drive please Slate.
The VRS8 is not going to be a day one, week one purchase, but anyone who is interested in taking their recordings up a gear could do a great deal worse than take a look and listen to the Slate Digital VRS8. And when you have outgrown your 8 channels, just add another one.
Thanks to our friends at SX Pro for forwarding these units for testing.