I am an adequate musician for many tasks, a barely competent recording engineer (that’s probably being generous), and when it comes to producing and mixing, I know just enough to be a significant danger to myself and those who love me. But I love music — I love playing, I love writing, and I love recording music. I love making music, and in this review I’m going to tell you how the VRM Box from Focusrite can help desktop musicians like me make music.
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of recording a full album in a professional studio with a professional producer, and that experience helped really hammer home the fact that I had a lot to learn about recording, and it’s one of those lessons that I want to talk about today. In a word, that lesson is “speakers.”
Never fear, however, because being Bryan Chaffin, I have plenty more words where that particular bon mot came from.
Speakers, or monitors to use the proper parlance, are very important when you’re recording, for obvious reasons, but they’re even more important when it comes to mixing your music. You not only need the right monitors, you need more than one set of “the right monitors” to do it properly (I’ll get to why in a moment), and man, oh man, that can be expensive.
In fact, it’s frankly too expensive for all but the rich to even contemplate, let alone do right: If you want to really equip your desktop “recording studio” with the right monitors, you’ll need good reference monitors (you can start with, say, a pair of KRK Rockit 6s, which cost $199.99 each, on sale), something like the Auratone 5C (you can pick one up on Ebay for US$150+/-), and then something to represent high-end home stereo systems, where you can spend as much as you want (hey, the Adam S2.5-A is only $2,300ish per speaker, so get two!).
Seriously, this stuff is expensive even on the low end. But maybe I should take the opportunity to explain why you even need this sort of stuff. I won’t claim to be an expert (see my intro paragraph), but the reality is that anyone who has tried to mix a song or two quickly discovered that the speakers/monitors/headphones that you use to make your mix will always have their own acoustic characteristic(s) — their own flavor, if you will — and that characteristic will influence your mix.
In short, every one but the best trained ear will mix to their monitors (and the best-trained ears are still using multiple monitors to avoid doing so), and that far more often than not, when you mix towards one set of speakers, your mix will not sound right, or even good, on most other speakers. To solve this, you can use different monitors to simulate different (preferably common) listening experiences until you get a mix that works everywhere (more or less).
Dude…check this out
Now, any musician who has ever made a demo recording probably knows about “the car test.” That’s when you take the recording you think sounds great and put it on a CD (or cassette, if you’re all old and stuff (like me)), and then listen to it in your car while you drive around. Doing so inevitably leads to the humbling and frustrating realization that what you were convinced sounded awesome when you were mixing it sounds like crap in your car, especially when you compare it to a commercial recording.
If you’re a desktop musician or producer, you’ve done this over and over again until you got it right, but each attempt involved time in the car — and away from your digital audio workstation (DAW). But heck, that’s just what you had to do.
It turns out that the big boys (and girls) in the pro world use these different sets of speakers I keep talking about to simulate that car experience, as well as a variety of other listening experiences. That Auratone 5C speaker I mentioned is sort of a classic way to find out what a song sounds like through an AM radio or an old TV set. Other speakers like the Yamaha NS-10m (or 10s) might be good for hearing it like you would in a car. That Adam speaker I mentioned will bring a Hi Fidelity home stereo experience to your mixing room.
Pro studios have these speakers set up in their control rooms, along with gear that allows the producer to switch back and forth between them. They’re positioned just right in a room that has been acoustically designed to be as flat as can be, and the whole thing costs a lot of money.
Watching a pro
The producer I worked with in that recording project I mentioned had an amazing ear, and he would casually flip between his big expensive reference monitors, an Auratone 5C, and then something bassy (I don’t remember what it was), and then back to the reference monitors. He knew his speakers, he knew his control room, and he knew what to listen for.
In other words, with experience and these different monitors, he knew that when he heard this through that monitor it meant that he needed to change something in the mix, and the end results was that when the band got a mixdown to download and audition, it was several steps down the mixing chain the very first time we got it.
|The speakers & rooms modeled in VRM Box|
|Professional Studio||Japanese White Classic|
KRK RP6 G2
US Passive Nearfield
|Living Room||British 90s Hi-Fi|
British 80s Hi-Fi
|Bedroom Studio||KRK RP6 G2|
British 90s Hi-Fi
British 80s Hi-Fi
Budget Micro System
And finally, the product I’m reviewing
All of that brings me to the VRM Box from Focusrite. This device is the desktop musician/producer’s answer to having several sets of speakers to listen through without actually having the speakers, the gear needed to run those speakers (amps, switches, cables, and enough room to set it all up), or the expense. Focusrite has modeled fifteen sets of speakers — mostly the kind of speakers used in high end recording studios — in three listening environments that allow you to listen to your music in just about every way imaginable, all in a box 2.67” (68mm) on a side that lists for $124.99 (Amazon has it for $99).
The speakers modeled are listed in the table to the left, and the three listening environments are a professional studio, a living room, and a bedroom studio. Each room is different, and the speakers that are included in more than one of those three environments will sound different depending on the environment you’ve picked.
Tip: My advice is to use as many rooms and speakers as you can when you’re working with a tune. Also, your ear will adjust to what it’s hearing, so switching frequently between monitor models will keep your from getting “tired.”
The VRM Box itself is the descendant of Focusrite’s rackmount gear, which is aimed at pro studios, but this device is aimed squarely at us, desktop musicians and producers. You’ll need a set of flat headphones (this is very important — you want studio headphones, not headphones with bass boost, noise cancellation, or any of the other effects aimed at consumers), and you can use it straight through your Mac (or PC, if you float that way), or through an audio interface with S/PDIF-out.
Plug the device into your Mac (it’s USB), plug your headphones into the 1/4” headphone jack, and then use the included controller software from Focusrite to choose your listening environment and speakers. That’s it. With this small box and the software, you now have access to an amazing arsenal of modeled speakers.
Consult the book of armaments!
How does it work? The short answer is, “It depends on how you mean that.” If I feel like flattering myself, I’ll claim pro-am status (again, see my intro paragraph). I don’t have familiarity with most of the speakers that are being modeled, and I certainly don’t have an expert ear. I don’t even have access to these speakers to try and A/B them so that I can compare the model to the real deal — and it’s no coincidence that this is what makes this product so valuable to me in the first place.
Listening through modeled Genelec 1031A speakers in a pro studio
(Note that the software shows you precisely where you are sitting in the model)
What I do have, however, is the tiniest amount of common sense and a lot of experience making demos for my former band and for other recording projects over the years. Using the former and drawing on the later, I can tell you that using the VRM Box can shave hours (which really means days) off of your mixing and recording projects and will help you produce a better song.
I should also note that I was also able to A/B mixes I made before I had the VRM Box to mixes of the same songs made using this device, and to say that this resulted in night and day comparisons is understating it.
The key to that opinion is understanding that no matter what kind of speakers you have, you still have to understand what you are hearing, just like that producer I worked with knew his gear. Whether or not Focusrite’s models of the Auratone 5C or Genelec 1031A speakers are exactly right is almost immaterial (for the record, my gut feeling is that they are very close). What is material is whether or not those models can allow you to hear your music in a way that approximates and resembles real-world speakers so that you can get a better mix.
In short, I’ll let studio snobs and other recording experts worry about how exact the models are — as a desktop musician, I am far more worried about my specific results.
My specific results
In my testing of this product, I got that better mix mentioned above. When working with some demos I’ve been recording, I was able to go from speaker to speaker, do my level best to make it sound right, and when I was then ready to take those mixes to my car, home stereo, to my iPhone’s earbuds, and even just out to iTunes through my Audioengine A5s (still my absolute favorite desktop computer speakers), I got results that were far better than I’ve gotten without this device.
VRM Box isn’t going to magically make you a better mixer or producer, but it will make getting the best mix you are capable of producing far easier and faster than you could otherwise even hope to get, and that’s worth far more than the $99 price tag on the device.