This new card narrows the gap between Roland's VS-series machines and computer recording systems by allowing the use of third-party plug-ins within the multitracker environment. We test the card, its bundled plug-ins, and the first of the brand-name offerings from Universal Audio.
For a while hardware multitracker manufacturers have been trying to defend their corner against the lure of computer recording systems. One of Roland's latest strategies, announced back at the NAMM show 18 months ago, is the VS8F3 card, a DSP processing card designed to run third-party software plug-ins. Although this card has now been available for some months, complete with a bundle of Roland plug-ins, the third-party support has taken a little longer to materialise. However, the first third-party plug-ins are now beginning to arrive in the UK, so I decided to get hold of the VS8F3 and test it out with Universal Audio's new VS-compatible compressor plug-ins, VS1176LN and VSLA2A.
The VS8F3 card can be used with the VS2480, VS2400, VS2000, VS1880, VS1824, and VS1680, although you'll want the latest version of the multitracker's operating system in each case to ensure compatibility. Once you've clipped the VS8F3 card into the recorder, it's straightforward to install the five bundled Roland plug-ins from the included CD: Tempo Mapping Effect, Vocal Channel Strip, Preamp Modelling, Stereo Reverb, and Mastering Tool Kit. The plug-in authorisation process links plug-ins permanently with the VS8F3 card located in the first of the internal card slots — called the Key Card. The installation CD actually seems to be an unfinalised CD-R, and the identity of the Key Card is burned to this during the authorisation process. After installation, the resulting CD-ROM will only install plug-ins which can be used with that specific VS8F3 Key Card.
What this means in practice is that you can use your plug-ins only on the machine where your Key Card resides. To use the plug-ins in two different VS machines simultaneously you need two installation CD-Rs. You can have as many VS8F3 and VS8F2 cards as you have free slots in your particular machine, and if you have more than one VS8F3 in your recorder, authorising the plug-ins for the Key Card lets you use them on all the other cards as well.
At best, the VS8F3 card will run a different two-channel plug-in within each of its two effects slots, allowing you to divide the four processing channels between a selection of mono and stereo signals as you see fit. However, some plug-ins require so much processing power that they hog the whole card — of the plug-ins under review here, Tempo Mapping Effect, Stereo Reverb, and VS1176LN fall into this category. Furthermore, some of the plug-ins only operate in stereo-linked mode, and this is really annoying in the case of the Universal Audio plug-ins, because one of the channels is wasted when compressing mono signals.
Notwithstanding the odd limitation like this, the new card is certainly more powerful than the VS8F2, not least because it can operate at the same 56-bit internal resolution as the VS mixer, which will perhaps convince more people to use the VS8F3's Mastering Tool Kit than that of the 24-bit VS8F2. It will also function at up to 96kHz, but at higher sample rates each VS8F3 card only offers one effect slot. Furthermore, some plug-ins are too processor intensive to be run at all. For example, the VS1176LN will only run at up to 88.2kHz.
One side-effect of the new DSP hardware is that the real-time spectrum analyser and RSS panning functions available using the VS8F2 on some of the VS-series machines cannot be run on the VS8F3. It's also currently not possible to change plug-ins or patches under the control of the VS2480's Automix dynamic automation.
The graphical interfaces for the various plug-ins as shown on the optional VGA monitor can be seen from the screenshots. On the LCD, given the more limited display space, the effects parameters for the Roland plug-ins are split up into pages in a similar way as on the VS8F2, but without the useful blocks overview which allows you to easily bypass the different effects in a chain. However, where the VS8F2 editing pages have very little in the way of graphical niceties, the VS8F3 interface is heavily inspired by the 'virtual front panel' style of computer plug-ins. The advantages of the visual overhaul are that you get much more metering in the plug-in windows, the lack of which on the VS8F2 was a long-time complaint of mine. However, the disadvantage of the snazzier look is that opening up and switching between the plug-in pages is a bit sluggish.
Something to be aware of with the new non-standard graphics is that although the bundled Roland plug-ins show the current parameter highlighted, the Universal Audio ones don't. You can just about navigate between VS1176LN or VSLA2A parameters 'blind' using the cursor keys, but in practice the mouse ceases to be an optional extra when using these plug-ins. You can still do without a VGA monitor, however, and all the plug-ins I've seen so far seem to operate fine on the LCD display. Another minor niggle with the Universal Audio plug-ins is that you can't open up the effect parameters page while the song is playing, even though you can edit the effect during playback if that page is already on screen.
Now let's have a closer look at the bundled plug-ins. A less well publicised improvement provided by the VS8F3 hardware is that it can detect the host multitracker's tempo setting, and Tempo Mapping Effect has been created to take advantage of this. Each channel has two delay lines, each having a delay time of up to a second, expressed either in milliseconds or as a note duration ranging from 1/1 (a whole note or semibreve) to 1/64t (a triplet 64th-note or triplet hemidemisemiquaver). The channels can be linked for stereo work.
The second delay line in each channel is the interesting one, having its own feedback and cross-feedback paths with high- and low-frequency damping. On top of this, its delay time can be modulated with a choice of four waveforms (sine, square and both directions of sawtooth), at a rate which can be set in Hertz or in terms of note duration — again, any setting between 1/1 and 1/64t is allowed. You can even set the relative modulation phase of the two channels, which allows for some nice stereo treatments. Following the delay and modulation processing, a four-band equaliser can be applied to the signal before it is returned to the VS mixer — this EQ has a choice of nine different filter responses for each band, but pretty much mirrors the channel EQ in terms of sound.
The delays are clean and the modulation is very smooth and predictable. Because the delay times can be adjusted all the way down to zero, you can create phase, flange, and chorus effects, in addition to all kinds of complicated delays. Tweaking the delay time while the track is playing causes the effect to slew to the new tempo, rather than creating any nasty glitching sounds, and this offers some great creative possibilities. I also like the fact that the tempo-related modulation speeds aren't restricted to the maximum that you can set in Hertz (10Hz) — you can create something akin to frequency modulation by dialling the tempo setting really high manually, and then selecting 1/64t as the modulation rate.
The only operational quirk I encountered was that the plug-in initially refused to recognise the tempo of my project. It turns out that you need to set the VS2480 to output MIDI Clock messages to get it to work. If you need it to send out MIDI Time Code instead, as I do to synchronise with my sequencer, the automatic delay-time detection doesn't work.
The Vocal Channel Strip takes its inspiration from the VS8F2's Vocal Multi, but where the VS8F2 offered a single-channel effect chain with a stereo chorus at the end, the VS8F3 opts for a more sensible dual-channel mono setup. However, the plug-in cannot be linked for stereo operation, despite the presets apparently designed for processing stereo sources! Even more illogically, the Bypass button at the bottom of the plug-in parameter screen bypasses both channels together. It seems that Mr Common-Sense was on holiday at that stage in Roland's software development process...
The effects chain features compressor, expander, enhancer/de-esser, equaliser, pitch-shifter, chorus, and delay, in that order. I would question the positioning of the expander after the compressor in this chain, because compression modulates the noise floor, presenting the expander with a moving target. Another problem is that you can't use the enhancer and de-esser simultaneously, which is a shame given that psychoacoustic enhancement often necessitates the use of a de-esser.
The compressor here is a new design for the VS8F3, modelled on analogue electronics, and you get a choice of five different compression characteristics: one solid-state design; two valve designs adding even-order harmonics; and two valve designs adding odd-order harmonics. You can also decide between soft-knee and hard-knee compression curves. Otherwise, the controls are as you'd expect of the compressor in the VS mixer, and input, output, and gain-reduction metering are all present and correct. Comparing the sound of the compressor block with the channel compressor, the solid-state option sounded pretty similar, while the four tube options all subtly enhanced the signal, even when the effect was driven quite hard. I liked what this compressor could do for vocals, making them both more solid and crisper, and I can imagine using it a lot. The expander block is identical to the mixer-channel version.
The enhancement and de-essing processes share detection-frequency and sensitivity settings, but have independent level controls. The enhancer was a very pleasant surprise, and I suspect that it works very differently to the one already available on the VS8F2, because it's much better at brightening up a signal without sandpapering your eardrums into the bargain. The new de-esser is also fairly good, operating only on a specified upper region of the frequency spectrum and displaying less of a tendency towards lisping than the ones on the VS8F2. My only wish was for a virtual indicator LED to show when processing was active, as this would have made setting things up much easier.
Following the four-band EQ (the same as in Tempo Mapping Effect), the remaining blocks offer exactly those facilities found in Vocal Multi: pitch-shifting of up to an octave either way, with cent resolution; chorusing with rate, depth, and pre-delay settings; and delay with time and feedback parameters. All three of these blocks also have level controls for the wet and dry signals, so that you can choose how much of the effect you want to hear.
The pitch-shifters of Vocal Multi and Vocal Channel Strip are pretty similar — I found that I actually preferred the older one for polyphonic material, but there wasn't much in it. On the other hand, the chorus effects are like chalk and cheese! Where the wet sound of the older block was always a fake 'chorus-flavour drink' effect, sounding heavily blurred and out of tune with modulation, the VS8F3 chorus gives you the proper freshly squeezed organic version — a single clean double-track which modulates smoothly. Although the VS8F2's chorus effect was passable on occasion, this one deserves a lot more use. There's not much to say about the delay line, which does what it says on the tin, but there is one more thing to mention before moving on — where the VS8F2 offers negative values for feedback, effect, and dry levels in the pitch-shifter, chorus, and delay effects, the VS8F3 doesn't.
The Preamp Modelling plug-in ditches the last three blocks from Vocal Channel Strip and replaces them with a processor which attempts to emulate the sounds of classic analogue preamps, including (if the less-than-cryptic parameter names are to be believed) units from Avalon, Focusrite, Manley, Millennia, and Neve. The first way it attempts to do this is via a kind of two-band EQ, comprising a Warm band and a Bright band adjustable over 20Hz-2kHz and 200Hz-20kHz respectively, both bands having ±15dB gain range. The other means for changing the sound are three Harmonics controls, which can be used to add various degrees and colours of harmonic distortion.
Reducing the level of harmonics to zero, I first had a play with the EQ controls, and found them to offer slightly more of a tonal change for a given setting than the high and low bands of the channel equaliser, although the difference was more subtle than I was expecting. At this stage there was little difference to be discerned when switching between the different preamp models, but as soon as the harmonics were added back in they all took on distinctly different characteristics. We're not talking massive changes here, but it makes this a more musically interesting alternative to EQ. Until now, the only real option for this kind of tone tinkering was a low-gain Guitar Amp Simulator patch on the VS8F2, but now you've got a much greater range of usable flavours to choose from.
The combination of compressor, enhancer/de-esser, and preamp modelling is a powerful one, and beats the socks off the VS2480's channel facilities for giving you that 'more of everything' sound that digital recordings can often lack. I can see Preamp Modelling becoming a firm favourite of mine, especially as you can link it for stereo operation, unlike Vocal Channel Strip.
The two Universal Audio plug-ins under review here are the VS1176LN and VSLA2A, which are modelled on the company's own premium hardware recreations of the classic Urei 1176 and Teletronix LA2A compressors. These shouldn't really need much in the way of introduction for regular readers — barely an issue seems to go by without one being mentioned in an SOS interview. However, for those new to these two units, they make a good pairing: on the one hand, the 1176 is well known for its in-your-face sound, a result of its FET gain-reduction element and savagely fast time constants; on the other, the LA2A is perhaps the archetypal 'transparent' compressor, using a unique electro-optical gain-reduction stage and programme-dependent release times to achieve even heavy gain reduction with negligible side-effects.
Both compressors use a fixed-threshold system, so you control the amount of gain reduction by adjusting the input level. The VS1176LN 's Input control and the VSLA2A 's Peak Reduction control effectively add gain to the input signal, pushing it up against the fixed threshold and increasing the amount of compression. The Output and Gain controls respectively then adjust the output level. The elegance of this two-knob control system has given both units a reputation for being very quick to set up.
In addition to the main Input and Output controls, the VS1176LN has rotary controls for Attack and Release, calibrated simply from one to seven. The attack time can be adjusted over a 20-800µs range and the release time over 50-1100ms — as on the original unit, turning either of these controls clockwise shortens the respective time constant. The compression ratio is set using the four buttons on the left-hand side of the virtual VDU display, and you can also engage an 'all buttons' mode, which emulates the weird compression effect created when all four ratio buttons are jammed in at the same time — a common studio trick. Switches for three metering modes complete the facilities of the VS1176LN, and these let you meter gain reduction or output level.
The only processing option on the VSLA2A beyond its Gain and Peak Reduction controls is the Limit/Compress switch, which selects between two different ratio curves. The remaining switches at the right-hand side of the virtual front panel are for bypassing the processing and selecting the metering mode.
The first thing most people want to know about recreated compressors like these is how well they model the units they are based on. So I contacted FX Rentals who kindly sent over both an original black-face Urei 1176 and one of Universal Audio's hardware 1176LN recreations for comparison purposes. Lining these up against the VS1176LN demonstrated that the emulation is very faithful indeed, even when mimicking the distortion characteristics imposed by the faster limiting settings on bass and drums. I found the attack response between the units varied a little between the processors with matched settings in 'all buttons' mode, but at such extreme settings it's pretty tough to get two hardware units tracking closely, so it's hardly much of a criticism.
The bottom line for me is that the emulation has no right to be as good as it is when the VS8F3 and VS1176LN together cost less than a tenth of a pair of Universal Audio's hardware 1176LNs in the UK.
Irrespective of questions of realism, the second thing VS users are likely to want to know is whether these two plug-ins are worth having over and above the dynamics processing already on hand in the multitracker. Having compared both processors to the VS2480's channel dynamics, there is no doubt that VS1176LN has more warmth and attitude, and that the VSLA2A is smoother and more transparent. Furthermore, when I set up the compressors by ear to be as close as possible, both plug-ins seem to provide greater subjective volume for a given peak level. In this comparison, I'd plump for the plug-ins every time. Even the new soft-knee compression algorithm on the VS8F3 only closes the gap slightly, and only really with the VSLA2A in my opinion. Overall, I think that it would be a rare VS-based studio indeed that would find the comparatively small investment in these plug-ins wasted.
When coding the new Stereo Reverb algorithm, I take it that the Roland software developers had some processing bandwidth to spare after sorting out the main reverb block, so they added in a few extras. What I don't quite understand is why a pre-reverb compressor and expander topped their list of potential bonus features. Given the lack of EQ in the VS effect returns, I'd have thought a pre- or post-reverb equaliser would have been a much more useful choice, as in the original Reverb effect. And if you were going to put any dynamics process before a reverb, wouldn't something like a de-esser be a more sensible option? It's not that there are no uses for such a configuration: the compressor could be used to duck the reverb in the presence of the direct sound, or the expander could give the reverb an extra kick on the loudest notes. What's silly is that you'll have to sacrifice another of your effects slots if you want to tweak the tonality of the Stereo Reverb or de-ess its input — and chaining send effects is not exactly straightforward on some VS machines as it is. I'd rather that more useful processes were built in so that I only needed to sacrifice another effect slot to achieve the more unusual effects.
In terms of available parameters, the reverb block is almost identical to that in the VS8F2's Reverb, but with the same choice of reverb types provided in Reverb 2: two rooms, two halls, and a plate. A difference with the VS8F3 reverb, though, is that it has a stereo input, where the VS8F2 reverb sums its input to mono before processing. This means that the reverb will subtly reflect the stereo image of the input signal — an input panned to one side will produce a reverb return which favours that side. Both pre-reverb dynamics processes are the same as their counterparts in Vocal Channel Strip.
I checked out the new algorithm against the VS8F2's Reverb algorithm, and there was certainly a noticeable difference, even with the dynamics and equalisation of each of the algorithms switched out and the parameters matched as closely as possible. Completely removing the early reflections from both patches revealed the tail of Stereo Reverb to be thicker and less splashy, while isolating the early reflections of both algorithms demonstrated the smoother sound of the more recent coding in this department. Drums and vocals in particular seemed to work better with Stereo Reverb, but I also found that Reverb remained useful, despite losing out to its successor in terms of realism. A dense acoustic-guitar sound, for instance, was rather overwhelmed by the new reverb, whereas the sparser sound of the old one complemented it much more readily within the mix.
The next test was to line up both VS algorithms against my own Lexicon MPX550. Starting from the Medium Room preset on all three processors, I tweaked the settings to try to reach some kind of sonic consensus. Switching between the three emphasised the thinness of Reverb, but also highlighted that the VS8F3's sound had more of the metallic overtones characteristic of budget reverb units than were present in the MPX550's returns. I also found that the Lexicon reverb seemed to sit better with the dry sound than did the Stereo Reverb — perhaps this difference could have been reduced had Roland dumped the dynamics blocks and thrown all the available processing into the reverb instead. That said, Stereo Reverb is still much smoother than Reverb, especially when processing transient sources or using patches which rely heavily on early reflections.
Finishing up the Roland plug-ins is Mastering Tool Kit, basically a souped-up version of the original VS8F2 algorithm of the same name. The enhancer block uses the new nicer design, so there are some sonic improvements, but basically you know what you're getting if you've used the VS8F2. The bottom line is that if you want to compare your demo with mastered tracks on pretty equal terms, then this plug-in will do the job. That said, I'd still be inclined to use Mastering Tool Kit only for processing individual tracks (where the matter-of-fact brutality of which its powerful processing is capable is more often an asset), leaving the mastering to someone with the monitoring system, ears, and experience of a mastering engineer.
Compared with a computer software plug-in, you might see a VS plug-in as a bit of a swizz; even with a VS2480 fully loaded with VS8F3 cards, you'll only get four VS1176LN plug-ins running. However, I think this argument is not that relevant to people who have chosen to use multitrackers, because they've already made the choice for hardware over software, despite the inevitable limitations in flexibility. For existing VS-series workstation owners, the ability to use top-quality brand-name plug-ins in almost exactly the same way they'd have previously used the built-in effects algorithms can only be seen as a wonderful new opportunity.
Even without the ability to load third-party plug-ins the VS8F3 already makes a solid investment, improving the processing fidelity and adding some nice modelled 'warmth' options. But when you add in the ability to use other manufacturers' processors within the VS environment, the card becomes pretty much a must-have for anyone wanting to upgrade their production sound. If the discussion of the VS1176LN and VSLA2A hasn't already whetted your appetite enough, then the prospect of forthcoming TC Electronic reverb, Massenburg EQ, T-Racks mastering processing, and Antares pitch-correction plug-ins should provide ample reason to get out your wallet.
Thanks to FX Rentals (+44 (0)20 8746 2121) for supplying the comparison units used in this review. The daily rental for the hardware Universal Audio 1176LN in the UK is £47 including VAT.