Slate VMS Skepticism, Mens’ Asses, and MoneyBall

Brandon Drury —  February 25, 2014 — 29 Comments
Slate_Pitt2

The Lottery Microphone Daydream

Let’s say we’ve got Johnny Cash and he’s tracking Hurt not long before he bit the bullet. We put the ol’ bastard in front of mic A and the sound is just lacking. Lacking what? For now, let’s play dumb. It’s just not right.

Then we put him in front of microphone B and suddenly out of the sky, the Wild Thing version from Major League (at the end of the movie where Charlie Sheen comes in to relief pitch) blasts from the sky. It’s the same feeling as when Moses parted the Red Sea or the ending of the movie Four Rooms. It’s like getting a parternity test and realizing it’s not yours. Sheer bliss. Money falls from the ceiling and goosebumps appear in places that scare you a bit.

The Realty

It’s never happened. I don’t think it ever will. At least I’ve never seen it happen.

When I was at the Michael Wagener Workshop, we had a robo singer sing through 15 mics that were all up to Michael Wagener’s standards. We listened. I didn’t even think of Charlie Sheen one time. You could hear differences in microphones. Yes, differences. Not improvements! (Radically important distinction, btw!)

The truth is, after all the damn microphone shootouts I’ve done in my life, I can’t remember one time saying, “Holy shit! That mic just rules for what we are doing.” The differences are well below anything emotionally significant. In other words, it doesn’t freaking matter if we use one LDC or another in almost all cases. Mutt Lange is infamous for ordering his engineers to process each individual SYLLABLE. Think about that.

We are taught to be picky about the subtleties like the wine snobs who haven’t learned the value of just chugging the damn thing. SMILEY

Moneyball

Enter Moneyball

Some of you have maybe seen the Brad Pitt movie, Moneyball, (I always wanted to name a band “Brad Pitt’s Ass” after seeing Troy) where Brad Pitt is the GM of the Oakland A’s, they’ve got 1/5th the budget for players as the New York Yankees, and somehow they’ve taken the Yankees to the wire for the past two years in the playoffs. So HOW did they do it?

I liked the movie,but I think the Moneyball book may be the greatest book ever for a guy in my position. Let me explain my position.

I feel absolutely ostracized when I hit Twitter (or even visit it). The usual shit occurs. Some asshole is recording an album so he takes a picture of his 1073 and Tweets “Analog glory”. I can’t imagine Mike Tyson Tweeting a pic of a ultra high end boxing glove to acheive status from it. Tyson achieved status from actually winning (well, and raping), not fashion. Let’s not sugar coat this. The music industry didn’t fall apart in that phase where you couldn’t give away a Neve 1073. Music was still music. The 1073 is a fine tool, but flashing tools is for people who aren’t busy or secure enough.

I can’t put into words how alone and confused I’ve felt since I realized my Rane Ms 1b ($51 used on Ebay) is a more effective tool than my API, Vintech, and Wunder preamps for my tastes. I feel like I’m the only guy on the planet who doesn’t get it. I feel like there is something wrong with me for liking the Rane better. I do. It’s not my hearing, either.

The saving grace of Moneyball for me has been the major league scouts. These guys don’t even pretend to invoke logic. Their job is a full-blown crapshoot. In both the book and the movie, they draft pitchers and 3rd basemen based on them being “good looking”. Yes, you heard me! Ugly, outstanding athletes are ignored. (This clearly doesn’t happen in basketball as we all know what Shaq looks like.) Repeatedly, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has to say, “We aren’t selling jeans!” to remind the players that the contour of a man’s buttocks is not the way to choose major league players. (Comedian Doug Standhope has an outstanding rant on the NFL buttocks in his last Netflix adventure.)

I’m not making this up. They’d even consider what the potential player’s girlfriend looked like. Bonkers!!

To counter the knuckleheads (major league scouts), the book dives into some of the ultra-math used by real-deal fringe scientists in baseball. The section on derivatives would be exceptionally interesting to anyone who studied the 2008 bailout and enjoys math. (I know 3 of you are out there!) Applying it to line drives and fielding was quite spectacular. I don’t expect anyone in audio other than Ethan Winer (HEADBANG!) and Boz from Boz Digital Labs to care about the real deal science behind our tools just like no one in Major League Baseball was remotely interested in the science of what makes a team actually win even when there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The Media Problem

The book mentions that one advantage a poor team like the Oakland A’s had over a rich team like the Red Sox was the poor team was relatively immune to public scrutiny. The Oakland A’s went out and hired a bunch of fat and sometimes handicap guys (seriously) that had this uncanny knack for not getting out (aka SCORING!…aka WINNING!!). The press went easy on the A’s because Oakland couldn’t afford the ultra stars. If a team that could actually afford big money talent and showed up with guys who had the single most important trait of a winning baseball team/player but looked like Revenge Of The Nerds, it would be political suicide regardless of the results.

This Steven Slate Virtual Microphone Thing

There’s a ton of talk about Slate VTM. His video sucks. I take that back. The video raises excitement. So from a profitability standpoint, he’s done exceptional.

Here’s the freakin’ problem. Not once has he shown that my recordings will improve with it. If my recordings don’t improve from this thing, it is a fashion piece. I don’t need a new hat.

Here’s what I want:
I want Steven Slate singing into his microphone with all the modeling stuff on bypass. Just a clean mic and a clean preamp. Is that flawed? Crappy? Boring? I already know. (Well, I’m willing to bet that I know.) Slate has the “it” thing with his voice. He has an A-list voice. It doesn’t need EQ. He’d sound outstanding with an SM58, just like Bono seems to.

When we turn on all those vintage sex machine mic models like the U47, 251, etc. what happens?

I’ve not used it, but if Wild Thing and Charlie Sheen don’t show up, I can’t say I give a shit. If this thing doesn’t help me win the f’ing game, why should I buy it? Convince me that this u47/251/u67 idea is even worth my time.

Pushing even further, if the clean mic and clean preamp sound great on Slate, why can’t we use an ADK Vienna and a $51 Rane MS 1b (a clean mic and clean preamp)?

Conclusion

Moneyball has shown that Major League Baseball with its labor costs of over 2.903 BILLION DOLLARS (2012) were too stubborn, too latched on to “old ways”, and too ignorant to even look at why some teams won with tiny budgets that they plundered zillions into bullshit and fashion. It makes total sense that logic, reason, and the absolute need to WIN don’t happen much in this tiny microcosm known as home recording.

I don’t want to crap on the guys who buy fun stuff because they like to. I’m not ever judging that. Somebody has to buy $10k compressors and the latest and greatest gizmos.

However, I’ve decided to exercise the same logic I use to buy car insurance and toothpaste to run my recording studio. My results will be the same and maybe little Max will get into MIT. BEERBANG!!

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

29 responses to Slate VMS Skepticism, Mens’ Asses, and MoneyBall

  1. Well said. I guess that most of us in recording land have been sucked into gear wanderlust at some point or other. My own monthly copy of Sound On Sound almost always resembles a 1970′s skin-mag, by the time the month is through. And to be fair, the tools we have at our disposal now were unimaginable even 10 years ago or if they were available as hardware, unaffordable. At least for me. But when you listen to any great song recorded since popular music became, well, popular, what you hear is exactly that. A great song. In any genre. Which means great writing, great musical performance and (usually) a great recording. And the last of those, for me at least, is the least important. When I listen to Aretha soaring inimitably over “Angel”, the hairs on the back of my neck may well be responding favorably but I’m never thinking about choice of mic, preamp or any of that muso-porn stuff. In fact, my gut feeling is that you could have plonked an SM58 out of my gig-bag in front of her and she would have still sounded just as majestic. Right, back to work looking for some musical mojo. Peace out!

  2. Excellent display of mastery over the English language. I will mention that I have had a few times where i could definitely hear things get worse by changing to the wrong mic. I can think of plenty of times where the sound has been wrong by using the wrong preamp (those $100 – $300 2-channel tube preamps are never coming into my studio again). I can only think of one time when the sound got significantly better by changing mics. I was miking up a 5150 stack, and I could not get a 57, i5, or 421 to sound good on that amp+cab. I put a sennheiser e604, marketed as a percussion mic, in front of the speaker without even paying attention to where it was positioned. And that ended up being the sound we used on that album.

    While mixing, the band said “absolutely not” when i asked them about drum triggers. Then we went and re-amped the second guitar and doubled it with POD Farm.

  3. What’s your audio newsletter WAR, Brandon?

    I may have to keep you on my fantasy team this season.

    FWIW, I saw over on the ProTools Expert blog James Ivey ‘show and tell’ the new UAD pres on the Apollo, running their Guitar plugin with and without a there 610. Nice demonstration of real time virtual guitar amp, but all the mic pre did was muddy everything up and … I danno … sound worse different.

    There is a science of psychoacoustics out there to be further discovered. So, similarly to studies with color that have shown some colors in rooms, e.g., pink, have a calming effect on agitated people, we may come to find that some orders of harmonic distortions and frequencies bumping and cutting do actually sound ‘better,’ more musical to most people … but the science isn’t there yet.

    So, we’ll be living with the emperor’s new gear for a long time.

  4. I absolutely love these types of wake up calls. It is so true that these type of things are unnecessary for most people in this recording industry. If people only knew how much research has been and still is being done on how to trick people into liking something, they would probably go back to 4 track recorders.(maybe not that far). But in all seriousness, Why do you all think so much money is paid to icons to endorse things. They are simply using all the fame that came from a particular person,that is well known, and well liked. And shifting the association of the goodness that came from that person, on to their own unrelated products. And it works.

    Back on topic, It is easy to get caught up in what the latest hype is about, because we somehow keep looking for the BEST(that we can afford).

    Most people really should put money into more practical things like, lessons, or room treatment, and they will be further ahead than with new gear.

  5. Brandon,

    I wish more engineers thought as you do.
    Thanks again for your perspective.

    Great respect and appreciation!
    -Z

  6. Greetings,

    Why are you the only (just about!) audio guy on the net I actually ‘get’ ;)?

    Mauri Berg

  7. Good food for thought. One small typo near the video, you mention the Slate VTM instead of the VMS.

  8. shananalalananalalananasha February 25, 2014 at 11:59 am

    These days, I barely bother listening to anything which I can get close to with Izotope Alloy’s EQ and multiband transient, saturation, and compression tools. That includes your Sasquatch Kick thing, by the way, along with most of the latest and greatest saturating EQs and compressors.

  9. Smart, funny and interesting.Reading Brandon is like watching a man who got out of the matrix. I fucking love it.

  10. Hi Brandon,

    I enjoy your posts but I’m a little confused on this one. You lost me a little with the long reference to Money Ball. Final conclusion I would think should be does the VMS do what it is suppose to do? Does it make a SM57 sound like a Neumann? Now I’ve heard a good engineer/ producer should be able to make a great recording with just a SM57 but I’m sure having a few Neumann’s hanging around wouldn’t hurt.

  11. I guess I should read up on these before commenting. At $2000.00 plus for a VMS I could buy a nice collect of other real mics. ( or a shit load of SM57′s :) )

  12. its an interesting read, and crazy world..i enjoy your humorous honesty and perspective.
    and what you said about always needing EQ anyway, even on the expensive mics, what is that saying really? I can get Virtual Mic from Free Plug Ins…I need real tools if Im spending my kids lunch money on mics.

  13. Hahahah thanks bro, always feeling much better after reading your posts :)

  14. very true. everyone loves some pixie dust, but who can tell the difference between it and fairie dust. besides you are supposed to sprinkle it and say omg, that’s the best song i’ve ever heard not we need to throw some eq on that. personally i can hear the difference between an SM57 & SM58 when soloed but who can hear it in the mix? high end gear is good but better if only there is a lot of difference in the obtained results.

  15. Hey B,
    My brother from a different mother.

    Great analogy. The book was great (money ball). I had a chance to see
    Slate’s mic pre video a couple of weeks ago. You crossed my mind the whole time watching it.

    I thought it was a great promo. Steven rarely produces anything that is not great. I couldn’t help but think his new mic gadget was nothing more than an EQ with presets associated with vintage mic curves.

    It is probably more. I haven’t used one. So my opinion is unfounded .

    Clean quite and not expensive is my criteria for a pre amp. That is not crazy.

    You are not alone and I think you” get it “pretty dam good brother B

    Well Done !

  16. Thank you for your filosofisiticated way of watching and comment this fantastic world of” tiny microcosm known as home recording” and what it brings to us all. Its all about music.. and (unfortunately) all about business

  17. first, i am a bit envious that you have apparently seen more of brad pitt’s ass then me. fine. life isn’t fair i guess.

    another good point well made Brandon. its works on an entrainment level too. bonus.

    what mic is Steven Slate singing so close to? i would never try that with my mics. for me 18″ is about the min.

  18. Great post Brandon! Very very true. I feel like especially in todays world, where technology has come a long way, the standard of living is way higher for everyone. Maybe in the 1500′s, if someone spent 3000$ they could actually get a mic that you could make a recording with, but in todays world it seems easy to get a decent recording for cheap. Maybe the absolute pros notice a difference between the $3000 mics and the $100 ones, but for the average mixer it seems like it shouldn’t make a difference.

    And now it’s even seeming like a pro such as yourself doesn’t feel the $3000 investment is worth it, or perhaps even that the $3000 mic isn’t even better…

  19. Honestly, I think that by creating accurate models of legendary equipment, they are in a way taking the magic and exclusivity away from analog, OTB mixing. VMS seems like a brilliant idea, and I hope they pulled it off well. That way people who really do like the workflow and sound of using “vintage gear” can get what they like for a much more reasonable price than they would otherwise. Just like amp sims allow you to record DI and then use “expensive” amps and EFX for reasonable prices (eg the Amplitube group buy for $100), this is allowing people to pay a fixed, not TOO expensive price for a solid mic/pre/converter combo and then get the sounds of whatever mic they wanted to use. If they pulled it off, it’s brilliant. Will it help people who love the control of using technical plugins to make bold moves? Probably not. But some people do enjoy this workflow, which is similar to EZMix. Pick a preset and bam! You’ve changed the sound to fit more like you wanted it to in the mix. It doesn’t work? Pick another preset.

    I don’t currently have plans to buy this system, but I see no reason to dis it.

  20. I actually followed the thread on “Earshutz” about VMS with interest. SS was copping some pretty torrid artillery fire from the analogue die-hards. That’s to be expected – I actually think he courts it, because plain common business-sense dictates that having people talk about your products is better than them not talking about them…

    Reading his replies, the thing that struck me was that (ironically perhaps) he and Brandon actually share a point of view – that there is no “analogue magic”, and that it all basically comes down to noise, frequency response & time-based errors – and that all of these can now be modeled with a high degree of accuracy within the digital domain – at least enough accuracy so as to be indistinguishable even to people who have used the original equipment.

    As I see it, where their viewpoints diverge, is as to whether we should even bother trying to digitally emulate the analogue glories of yore. Obviously, Slate has a very powerful monetary incentive to do this, whereas Brandon sees it as his duty to tip over these long-standing “sacred cows” of audio and give us a reality check about what really matters – essentially the source.

    What I do think is ironic is this: Slate is using the mythology of these tools as the very basis and appeal of his marketing campaign, yet to justify the effectiveness of his new digital solutions, he must peel back the mystical facade on those much-lauded pieces…. which, in effect, makes the originals not so desirable & mysterious after all…

    …diminishing returns?

  21. True enough, and that is funny if you think about it from that perspective. What I do with compression, EQ, saturation etc while mixing will overwhelm any mic subtlety. All the same, using time-tested and well loved audio-smearing hardware as a basis for plugins doesn’t seem like a bad goal. Most of the time I’ve found VTM to improve the mix. Slate seems different from waves and UAD in how he approaches it, I guess. I feel like he’s actually trying to tackle some DSP challenges and deliver a result. That’s why the compressors are sold as a bundle. I’d be very surprised if he put out a different tape emulator any time soon. I can’t say that for Waves.

  22. I think it is certainly an interesting idea. If it actually works, you could have any gear imaginable at your fingertips. However, the same results could probably be achieved with any decent mic, pre, and free plugins with a little more Work.

    I’m really interested to see how it all pans out.

  23. What I do think is ironic is this: Slate is using the mythology of these tools as the very basis and appeal of his marketing campaign, yet to justify the effectiveness of his new digital solutions, he must peel back the mystical facade on those much-lauded pieces…. which, in effect, makes the originals not so desirable & mysterious after all…

    …diminishing returns?

    I’m not surprised you picked up on the cognitive dissonance implicit with the Slate VMS, fHumble. Either old, analog tools are magical or they ain’t. If they can be matched digitally, they certainly aren’t magical. Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility that Slate has found a way to bring us any possible benefits of the old, popular, and fashionable gear. It just sure seems to me that an EQ and distortion preset are not going to get me any closer to my goals.

  24. Honestly, I think that by creating accurate models of legendary equipment, they are in a way taking the magic and exclusivity away from analog, OTB mixing. VMS seems like a brilliant idea, and I hope they pulled it off well.

    I agree 100%!

    It’s funny when playing a full-featured digital synth like a Virus. When I come across the “Moog Bass” Preset, there’s a part of me that says, “Oh yeah, right!!!!! Sure, buddy!”. Then I remix a song from 3 years ago where I can’t remember what synth I used (Moog, Virus, etc) based on the sound. Suddenly, I have to eat my words.

    If the Slate VMS works, then all that sexiness (directly derived from scarcity) of having all these world class mics will vanish. Suddenly, all that hype around the U47 mic won’t exist when the client is a nervous local insurance salesman doing voiceover. None of the models will make her sound like Morgan Freeman and that’s the entire freakin’ point.

  25. And now it’s even seeming like a pro such as yourself doesn’t feel the $3000 investment is worth it, or perhaps even that the $3000 mic isn’t even better…

    Larry from ADK sent me the Custom Shop Vienna. I put it up against the Vienna MK8 I’m always raving about. I hear less low mids in the Custom Shop version. I heard no magic. All I heard was a change in frequency response. I guess ADK made the Vienna mK8 too good because I don’t feel any need to write a review about the more expensive Vienna. Some people will need the higher price tag, but I heard no benefits.

  26. personally i can hear the difference between an SM57 & SM58 when soloed but who can hear it in the mix? high end gear is good but better if only there is a lot of difference in the obtained results.

    Maybe I’m a heavy handed mixer, but no one would know if I used a 57, 58, SM7, ADK Vienna mk8, AT4050, or Soundelux U99 on a given vocal when I’m done. I always do my thing and VERY rarely does a vocal go through the entire process without processing. That processing over shadows the mic 95% of the time. That’s the problem. Anyone who digs in and solves problems they hear will make a vocal do what they want. The end results are usually impossible to decipher.

  27. I enjoy your posts but I’m a little confused on this one. You lost me a little with the long reference to Money Ball. Final conclusion I would think should be does the VMS do what it is suppose to do? Does it make a SM57 sound like a Neumann? Now I’ve heard a good engineer/ producer should be able to make a great recording with just a SM57 but I’m sure having a few Neumann’s hanging around wouldn’t hurt.

    The VMS is a microphone, preamp, converter, and processor all in one. So it won’t change the way a 57 sounds.

    The short version is that Moneyball illustrated that scouts chose players based on crazed dogma, opinions they formed from bs, and had no real idea what actually won ball games. I think there is a parallel in the home recording world. I think we can look at this gig with real science and figure out quiet quickly that the U87 has never kicked the crap out of a $300 mic in a blind test. The only reason to buy a U87 in 2014 is fashion/politics.

    To put it another way: Why would I even want a U47 or 251? It’s an unorthodox question, I admit. When these mics kick the hell out of an ADK Vienna MK8, then I’ll shut up and admit defeat. SMILEY

  28. I will mention that I have had a few times where i could definitely hear things get worse by changing to the wrong mic.

    Sure! If a source has too much low end and you toss a ribbon 1″ away, that low end will get worse. Of course, anytime a source is “thin”, using that ribbon 1″ from the source is going to improve things.

    Talk about “low end” and “thin” is nothing but frequency response, which means EQ. I’m still looking for a great reason why I shouldn’t use EQ and why I need to memorize the frequency response of 92 mics in my closet when I already have an EQ. I’m told EQ is “bad” (and I do understand the phase shift going on), I just haven’t heard how that hurts me.

  29. I’d think that, after all of that expensive product development and marketing video production, Slate would have taken the time to make sure the closing titles were put on there straight.

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