by Craig Anderton
I enjoy listening on headphones, and I enjoy listening on speakers. But I’m very aware that the sound is quite different – headphones offer clarity and intimacy, but also exaggerate reality. Stereo becomes super-stereo, reverb that sounded mixed in the back becomes more prominent, and there’s no interactlon with a room to give the warmth and depth you get with speakers.
Focusrite’s VRM (Virtual Reference Monitoring) technology attacks this problem by using DSP to emulate the sound of being in a room, listening to speakers. If you think this is all about EQ, it’s not; sure, that’s part of the modeling process, but so is controlled crosstalk between channels, delays, reflections, and an emulation of how ears actually intercept moving air. This is a very complex task, but the results are surprisingly realistic.
VRM first appeared in Focusrite’s Saffire Pro 24 DSP interface, which was the subject of a Pro Review here on Harmony Central. Given the interface’s relatively small size, laptop jockeys could take a Pro 24 DSP into a hotel room and mix on headphones far into the night, without disturbing anyone – but also enjoy the satisfying vibe associated with mixing through speakers.
But VRM has another, perhaps more universal use. Back in the days of big studios, it was common to have multiple speaker systems as a “reality check.” Sure, the studio would have big speakers that sounded (and were) expensive, and you’d mix on that. But you’d also realize that few listeners would ever hear your work over an equivalent system, so you’d switch over the bookshelf speakers, boomboxes, and other speaker types to get an idea of how the real world would hear your mix. At that point, it was common to make a few tweaks so that the mix would sound as good as possible on any speaker type, which led to the emphasis on creating “transportable” mixes. (Interestingly, one of VRM’s emulations is of the Auratone Cube speakers, which were the de facto reality check speakers many years ago.)
The box itself is petite – about 2.75”W x 2.75”D x 1”H. It sports a volume control on the top, 1/4” stereo headphone jack on the front, and on the rear, a USB port and coax RCA S/PDIF connector (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: VRM Box rear panel, with the USB connector on the left and S/PDIF coax input on the right.
The package also includes a USB cable and CD-ROM with software, although as usual, there was a more recent version (1.1) on the Focusrite web site. Helpfully, when installing VRM Box, a dialog popped up that mentioned a newer version was available, and offered to download it; as my computer was connected to the internet, I didn’t even have to open a browser.
The VRM Box is class-compliant, so the software doesn’t add drivers but instead installs the VRM software itself. Your computer’s CPU handles the overhead, but it’s not significant with any modern machine. The software is compatible with Windows XP SP3, Vista, 32/64-bit Windows 7, Mac OS X 10.5 (Intel only, though; PPC need not apply), and OS X 10.6.
In a typical scenario, you simply plug the VRM Box into your computer via USB, specify that it’s the default output device in your operating system’s preferences, and go. There is some added latency, but nothing unreasonable. Under these circumstances VRM Box supports 44.1 and 48kHz sample rates.
Another option is to use VRM Box with an existing audio interface. In this case you still need a USB connection to the computer (this provides power to the VRM), but you also connect the audio interface’s S/PDIF out to the VRM Box’s S/PDIF in. When connected in this manner, VRM Box can handle all samples rates (not just the “standards”) from 32kHz to 192kHz.
As with the Pro 24 DSP, there are three listening environments – pro studio (Fig. 2, 10 emulations), bedroom studio (Fig. 3, 9 emulations), and living room (Fig. 4, five emulations). 15 speakers are emulated, so there’s some overlap – for example, the Stirling speaker appears in all three environments. If you want to appreciate the difference among the various environments, call up the Stirling and change environments – this makes it easy to hear what the environment contributes to the sound of the speaker.
Fig. 2: The pro studio emulation offers 10 different speaker sets.
Fig. 3: The bedroom studio speaker options have some speakers in common with the pro studio and living room, as well as a few that are unique to the bedroom studio.
Fig. 4: The living room environment has the least number of emulations, but is very useful when trying to determine how your mix is going to sound in the real world of consumer electronics.
Unlike the Pro 24 DSP, you can’t change your listening position, which is fixed. I don’t find this to be too much of a limitation, as I always “sat” in the center when mixing anyway. It was interesting to shift to the side with the Pro 24 DSP, but once you heard the difference, there was little reason to stay there.
Another limitation that you can’t vary the virtual distance from the virtual speakers. Some people like to monitor with their heads well “inside” the speaker sound field, while others like to kick back a bit and hear the effects of the room. VRM Box chooses a compromise position that is unquestionably effective, but there were a few times when I wanted to move a little closer to the “speakers.”
If you want just a hint of what the modeling entails, click on the “i” button to see the info screen (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5: The Info screen provides information about the currently selected emulation.
This gives details about the speaker being emulated, the environment, and the listening position. It’s read-only – you can’t vary any of these parameters – but it’s interesting to get some hard figures on the environment and speaker being modeled.
So does it really, really sound like you’re in an acoustic environment listening to real speakers? Well, no. First of all, headphones are simply not going to move the amount of air a speaker does. Second, you’re still listening on headphones, and that’s a physical reality.
But VRM does bring the “speaker experience” to headphones in a surprisingly lifelike way. I’d draw an analogy with a good, properly tweaked amp sim. If you’re sitting in a room playing through a guitar amp, then listen to a simulation of that amp over hi-fi speakers, it’s going to have a different “feel.” But if you record the amp sound, record the sim sound, and then listen back to the recorded sound, you’ll have a hard time telling the two apart. So it is with VRM; if you listen to the sound and downplay the physical differences (e.g., you can feel the bass with speakers), you really get that sense of being “outside the headphones” and in an acoustic space. The fact that it works at all is worthy of note; that it works well make the process all the more valid.
Ultimately, my favorite use of VRM is as that “reality check” I alluded to earlier with speaker-switching. I used VRM when mixing some of the Harmony Central NAMM videos, and wanted to hear what the video would sound like over desktop computer monitors, which is how I assumed many people would hear the videos. I accented the lower mids just a bit more than I normally would for big speakers, but it didn’t sound out of place with the big speaker emulations – there was just a slight bit of apparent “warmth” - but this made a significant difference when played back on my physical laptop speakers, as well as through the VRM emulations of small speakers (flat-screen TV, budget micro system, and computer desktop). That experience alone convinced me that VRM has value.
But for many people, that value wouldn’t necessarily translate into buying a whole new interface – which is why VRM Box is a great idea, as you can get the benefits of VRM without rendering your existing interface obsolete. What’s more, it’s so compact you can throw it in a computer bag and have a high-quality headphone amp at all times, even if the situation doesn’t dictate using VRM.
Of course the proof is in the listening, so check out these links to demo videos of VRM technology posted on the Harmony Central YouTube channel:
Just remember that you must listen to these on headphones, or you’ll miss the point entirely. If you find these snippets intriguing, bear in mind that the real thing is more effective and more versatile.
Overall, I think Focusrite could have a hit on their hands once the word gets out about what this little box can do – it’s a clever implementation of clever technology.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.