Saturday, February 25, 2012

VRM Box: Virtual Reference Monitoring

At the moment, I don't have a proper set of monitor speakers, mainly as I dread their cost, bulk and general loudness. A set of Yamaha HS50Ms will cost at least £130+ per speaker, and I would still have to sort out stuff like proper stands, wiring - and my room is not treated at all.

What I do have though, is a nice pair of AKG K240 MK2s. Personally, I have no idea how good they are, but some professionals I do admire use them for mixing, hence my decision to purchase that pair. In use, I found them very detailed, and not fatiguing like my Grado SR80s. Very comfy as well!

Headphones differ from speakers in that your left ear only hears what's coming from the left speaker, and vice-versa with the right ear. Speakers on the other hand, are heard by both ears, abeit with a small delay. This causes a lot of issues with mixing as they just don't sound the same.

Various pieces of hardware and software have been developed to feed a varying amount of each stereo channel to both ears, in order to mimic the effect of speakers. In my quest to locate one for use, I came across many such as the Redline Monitor from 112db, Hear by Ircam:Flux, Isone by Toneboosters. (Isone sadly I could not test as it was only available as a VST on OSX, and Logic does not use VSTs out of the box). The choice which I picked though, is the VRM Box. Not too difficult a choice as

- TB Isone I could not test, as mentioned above.
- Redline Monitor was quite pricey (and now with the vrm box, it does sound quite similar)
- Ircam's Hear - did not want a mixing plugin that required iLok >.> Else it also sounded very similar to Redline, and has support for 5.1 which I have no idea about.
- VRM box was priced the highest, but it came with a piece of hardware which doubles as a headphone amp, and a multitude of speaker emulations.

Installing the software was a snap, as was the hardware - just a USB cable. Sound quality wise, I could not tell much of a difference between the macbook's output vs the vrm box or my Mackie Blackjack. (My dell M6400's headphone out sounds really lo-fi.) The AKGs were easily driven by the VRM Box, so hopefully if I upgrade to higher impedance headphones down the line, it'd still be able to drive 'em.

Hearing all the "mixes" I did from before with the VRM engaged, it was very obvious how badly mixed they were. While I thought the mixes sounded alright on the AKGs, I never could get them to sound good on either of my laptop's speakers.

At the time of this post, I was orchestrating* a backing track, and choose to mix at the same time. With the VRM box active, I get a very different soundstage, one that feels like it's actually surrounding me, not something that's inside me, or to one side. Switching between the headphones and the mac's laptop speakers were a good test, and I was quite surprised to hear how similar the balance of the mix was, between the VRM'd headphones and the mac's speakers.

Further testing needs to be done on proper speakers. In addition, I have doubts about the low frequency response of the headphones... perhaps I would be well served with just one mono speaker with a good woofer - not only can I check for phase issues in mono, but the extended low range could help as well.

Hopefully, I will be able to record and mix a track this Sunday, and I'll report back in with the results.

*I use the term very loosely ;-)

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