For those of us who find our headphone mixes don’t translate well, focusrite has created a virtual listening environment that replicates the experience of monitoring on speakers.
One of the biggest difficulties for many home and project studio musicians is achieving accurate and reliable monitoring, especially in the low frequency end. Regardless of what room treatment you apply, a cheap pair of monitor speakers in a small room will never accurately tell you what’s going on below 100hz; And there are plenty of musicians for whom even a modest speaker setup isn’t possible, whether it’s because of lack of space, money, or easygoing neighbors. many of us are therefore forced to mix largely or entirely with headphones, and we hope or pray that these mixes will translate reasonably well on speakers.
With this market in mind, several manufacturers have tried to come up with clever ways to process a headphone signal to replicate, at least to some extent, the listening experience on speakers. Focusrite’s take on this concept is called Virtual Reference Monitoring, or VRM, and it first appeared on its Saffire Pro 24 DSP audio interface, reviewed by Hugh Robjohns in SOS November 2009. Recognizing that VRM will have greater appeal, focusrite has repackaged it into a single box stand that will integrate into most systems with a spare usb port.
hip to be square
the vrm box is a small, light, square object with a single large volume control. A quarter-inch headphone jack resides on one side, while the opposite side houses a USB port and a coaxial S/PDIF input. it will work as a plug-and-play usb interface, two in and two out, but to use vrm, you need to install its control panel utility from the supplied cd.
for a simple headphone mix, you can use the vrm box as an asio or core audio output for your daw. however, many people will want to use it in conjunction with another interface, and that is not an entirely trivial proposition. Adding multiple interfaces on one computer can be a recipe for trouble, especially on windows, while repeatedly going to your daw’s setup pages to switch between the vrm box and your existing interface would quickly become very tedious. focusrite’s solution, assuming you have a spare s/pdif output on your main interface, is to connect it to the vrm box’s s/pdif input. it will then automatically lock on an incoming s/pdif signal at any sample rate up to 192khz. though, since the vrm box itself will only work at 44.1 or 48khz, presumably it’s resampled at a lower speed for processing. I initially had some trouble getting the vrm box to work properly on windows 7, but the focusrite tech team responded and quickly found a new driver that fixed the problem.
I originally assumed that when connected via s/pdif, the vrm box basically became a separate dsp, but it didn’t. It turns out that unlike the Saffire Pro 24 DSP, the VRM box’s VRM processing is actually handled by the host computer rather than by a DSP. so if you use it this way, your headphone signal is pumped out of your main interface, then back to the computer, to be processed with vrm, before finally emerging from the vrm box headphone output. this seems unnecessarily complicated, it binds an s/pdif port to no great purpose, and on my pc, it seemed to make pro tools 9 pretty unhappy (i don’t blame focusrite for this, as i’ve noticed before that pro tools running on windows doesn’t like to have more than one audio device connected). it also means that the signal comes out of the vrm box noticeably later than it does out of the speakers, so you really need to mute or dim the speakers while listening on phones, to prevent the speakers from spilling out of time.
Overall, I can’t help but think it would be easier to offer vrm as a plugin that you can run on your daw. Of course this opens up the possibility of the user accidentally bouncing mixes with vrm applied, but other than that it would simplify things a lot and also make it a lot easier to use. because there is no physical control apart from the volume dial, any room ambience or speaker model changes must be done within the vrm control panel, so there is no easy way to switch between vrm settings or even turning vrm on and off. while listening to your mix. a physical on/off control for vrm would be very helpful.
The emulation of Yamaha’s classic NS10m speaker is shown in this screenshot.
vrm software understandably puts a noticeable load on the host machine, and I found that mixes that previously played fine in cubase stuttered and dropped when I turned vrm on. it also requires a certain amount of headroom to work properly, and you can switch a ‑6db pad to give it some breathing room.
The vrm features themselves were described in detail by hugh in his review of the saffire pro 24 dsp, so I’ll just summarize them here and refer readers to that review for more details. in essence, you can choose between three virtual monitoring environments: a studio control room, a bedroom, and a living room, and various sets of speakers that you might normally find in those environments. from what i can tell the rooms and speaker options are the same here as they are on the pro 24 dsp, but while that interface allows you to monitor in various virtual positions within the room, that’s not an option here. /p>
I almost passed up the opportunity to check the vrm box, thinking it would turn out to be a hack with little practical value. how wrong I was! Within five minutes of plugging it in, I realized all sorts of things were wrong with my mixes. Of course, not all headsets sound the same, and VRM won’t compensate for the idiosyncrasies of your particular phones; For example, I often find it difficult to get the lead vocal level right on my sony mdr7509s, and vrm didn’t particularly improve things from this point of view. in other respects, however, it was very helpful. my own ‘studio’ is crammed into the corner of a small loft space, and making accurate judgments of bass levels and tones on my speakers has never been possible, so I often use headphones to do so. switching between studio monitor models was a real eye-opener in this regard. I started with the Adam S2A speaker model, and the family resemblance to my own Adam A7 speakers was unmistakable. however, mixes that had sounded good on both these speakers and multiple pairs of headphones translated quite poorly on some of the other speaker models. the ‘british studio’ model, based on a pair of sought after s8s, struck me as particularly revealing, with any excess in the low end leading to horrible honks and booms, and any hint of sludge on a vocal or reverb return sticking out like a sore thumb .
The ‘virtual speaker’ psychoacoustic effect works surprisingly well, giving you the real feeling of sitting in front of a stereo sound source rather than in the middle of one. I’ve lost count of the number of times I hastily pressed stop, thinking the whole office might hear whatever it was I was listening to! I’m not sure it makes music any more enjoyable to listen to, and it certainly doesn’t sound as good as a couple of actual questeds or genecs in a decent room, but it doesn’t have to be that way to be useful.
for me the main value of the vrm box is to check how well the mixes are translated and to that end it is a very valuable tool. For those who are mixing on the go and only need a single headphone output, the hardware element does its job very well. for the rest of us a plugin would be simpler, but despite this I will surely buy a vrm box. I can’t think of any other affordable product that has made a bigger difference in my own mix.