Fuse Audio Labs presents you with the most-used features of an audio console track in a single plugin alongside analog coloration and more.
Before we talk about the plugin, let’s go over the story of channel strips so that we understand what to expect. It started back in the 60s when processing audio required a lot of large hardware gear. And the brand EMI Central Research Laboratories came up with channel processing for the first time, inspiring manufacturers to build desktop audio consoles that provided a whole new means of mixing music.
Introduced in 1968, the EMI TG12345 console featured a compressor/limiter alongside an EQ on every channel for the first time. Likewise, the 70s saw designers like Bill Putnam developing individual channel modules that were then incorporated into a DIY frame by clever studios like Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama. One of his most famous modules is the 610 recording console alongside the LA-2A and 1175 compressors.
The tradition has kept up even today. Nowadays, many DAWs like Cubase, Reason, and Mixbus feature built-in channel strips on their mixer. Similarly, others offer a plugin that provides the same features of a channel strip: filters, a compressor/limiter, expander/gate, EQ, etc. The main difference from the past is that you can now use third-party channel strips to get a unique sound.
Among such plugins, Fuse Audio Labs VCS-1 is a well-designed channel strip plugin with zero latency that offers multiple types of preamp emulations. It provides a comprehensive set of features to enhance and maintain the dynamics of your recordings or virtual instruments. Furthermore, it has a resizable user interface with an option to change the UI quality. The latter helps save your computer resources.
VCS-1 sports a resizable GUI evidently inspired by vintage gear. All of the parameters are categorized and labeled cleanly. However, an intuitive way to reposition the modules would have taken the UI to a whole new level.
Each module in this plugin provides all the necessary parameters, making it feel far less limiting than many comparable plugins. Likewise, the mixer view and grouping speed up mixing considerably.
The plugin stays very clean unless you add the preamp saturation. Similarly, the filters and EQs have peculiar resonances, making them behave differently than simple EQs. However, by no means do they sound annoyingly quirky or honking.
Value For Money
VCS-1 brings a lot to the table with its multiple saturation types, comprehensive controls, and a conveniently linked ecosystem. Furthermore, it’s a zero-latency plugin, meaning you could use it for live performance too.
Let’s have a look at its UI in a little more detail:
VCS-1 is divided into multiple sections, each featuring a channel module. However, the positions of the sections do not signify the signal flow. Instead, a module at the bottom left allows you to change the routing system, which I’ll get to later. First, you’ll find a preamp section at the top left and a set of filters below it. Similarly, the unit in the middle holds a parametric EQ, followed by a dynamics column on the right. And finally, a master metering section shows gain reduction and input/output level.
You’ll find an options menu at the bottom left corner of the UI, where you can set the UI size and quality. You can set the UI size from 80% to 125%, depending on your computer screen size. Similarly, the UI quality control features a low and high mode. I suggest setting the UI quality to low if you don’t have a discrete graphics card. However, if you do have a video card (GPU), changing the UI quality makes a negligible difference.
Fuse Audio Labs have packed in a comprehensive set of features in their channel strip. The plugin offers an interconnected ecosystem between multiple instances of the channel strip, providing you with a virtual console system. Furthermore, the plugin itself provides deep control over each of its modules, which adds flexibility. Let’s check out its key features in more depth.
The preamp section features a preamp module that adds coloration to your audio to emulate hardware gear. You’ll find three types of preamps: DOA, BJT, and FET. First, the DOA preamp emulates a discrete operational amplifier, the cleanest option among the three. Second, BJT represents a discrete bipolar junction transistor amp, which mimics transistor circuitry. So, it adds some even/second-order harmonics when pushed alongside some frequency coloration. And lastly, the FET or field-effect transistor mode produces tube-like distortion, ideal for rock vocals, drums, bass, and guitar.
You can set the preamp’s drive from -20 dB to +40 dB, where a higher value drives the module for distortion. Similarly, an OL (overload) LED will light up when the signal reaches an audibly saturated level. Furthermore, you can turn down the Mix knob to blend in some dry signals. Try turning the drive up high and turning down the mix to get a mild “exciter” effect. And finally, enable the HQ mode to reduce any aliasing. However, since the plugin works with zero latency, you may still encounter some aliasing and ringing if the issue is severe. In that case, switch to a higher sampling rate.
VCS-1 employs two filters: a high-pass and a low-pass filter. The high-pass filter
has a frequency cutoff ranging from 10 Hz to 1 kHz, whereas the low-pass ranges from 2 kHz to 40 kHz. Furthermore, both of these filters have slope steepness fixed at 12 dB/octave with a very subtle resonance.
You can toggle each filter on and off by clicking on a LED indicator below the frequency knobs. Also, you can set the filter mode to stereo, mid, and side. The mid and side modes are handy for rolling off the frequencies from a specific part of the stereo image. So, the most typical use would be to set the filters to the side mode and turn up the high-pass filter to around 120 Hz to tighten up the bass.
VCS-1 features a five-band parametric EQ in the second column of its user interface. Now, honestly, I was more than a little confused because one band was doing nothing when using this EQ. However, I admit it was because I wasn’t expecting to see a band toggle button on a channel strip! So, note you can click on the band labels to turn that band on and off. These labels include HF, HMF, MF, LMF, and LF.
Each band provides a specific range of frequencies you can control. For example, the high-frequency band (HF) ranges from 2 kHz to 24 kHz. Similarly, the lower mid-frequency band (LMF) ranges between 50 Hz to 2.5 kHz. Furthermore, you can manually control the resonance of three bands, excluding the HF and LF. Similarly, you can activate a High Q (resonance) mode for the HF and LF band alongside a button to switch between shelf and peak mode.
I must mention that this EQ has quite a sharper resonance compared to many other channel strip plugins, where smooth, wide curves are prevalent. So, the resultant sound is pretty unique. Additionally, you can switch to a mid or side mode to get even more control over your mix. And if you need to control both the mid and side parts, try adding two instances of this plugin, disabling the rest of the modules in the second one!
As is customary for channel strips, VCS-1 provides a compressor and an expander in its dynamics column. Furthermore, you can add a limiter in the compressor module, whereas the expander module can function as a gate too. The limiter is positioned after the makeup gain, and it uses the same time constants as the compressor itself. So, it’s not a brick-wall limiter. You can use these units to control audio level fluctuations, remove noise during silent parts, emphasize audible signals, etc.
The compressor module offers standard threshold and ratio knobs alongside attack and release controls. The attack ranges from 0.1ms to 100ms, whereas the release ranges from 50ms to 3s. Furthermore, you can set the release to Auto to let the plugin set the value automatically depending on the input signal.
Likewise, you’ll find a Knee knob that sets how hard or soft the compressor is. Similarly, Stereo Link turns the compressor from mono (100%) to dual-mono (0%). The latter processes each channel of a stereo track separately to allow some stereo movements. And the Parallel knob will enable you to blend in the dry signals to easily get a NY compression effect, ideal for drums and vocals.
Next, the expander module has similar controls as the compressor. However, it’s a downward expander, meaning it lowers the volume of the signals that go below the threshold. Likewise, you’ll find a Gate button that switches the module into a complete gate, which silences any signal below the threshold. It’s essentially a downward expander with a 1:∞ ratio. So, it’s excellent for removing breath noise, mic noise, or string picking sounds. Furthermore, the Invert button allows you to listen to the signals that the expander/gate has attenuated/removed.
Master & Mix
The final master column features three meters and a few other controls. These meters include the compressor and expander gain reduction meters and a level meter. Furthermore, the signal level meter changes from input level to output level when you click on the meter. Similarly, you’ll find a mute button, a phase inversion switch, and a mixer icon below the meters.
The mixer icon reveals a new page in this plugin where you can see all of the VCS-1 instances in your current project. It labels each of these channels/plugin instances by the track name, although you need the VST3 version for it to function accurately. This console page lets you toggle each module of the various plugin instances on and off alongside the other controls in the master column. It’s handy for gain-staging when you don’t want distractions from FX tracks or sends. Furthermore, you can bring up any of the plugin instances by clicking on an ‘E’ icon at the top of each channel/track.
Let’s go back to the regular plugin page by clicking on the ‘E’ icon at the top of the channel belonging to the track we’re in. A purple-colored ‘E’ icon indicates this channel. Or you can also press M on your keyboard to toggle between the mixer and regular mode. Now, you’ll find a Width knob and an output volume control below the buttons we just talked about. The Width is handy for adding wideness to the stereo image by up to 300% or reducing it into mono.
The routing module is an important module in this plugin. It lets you change the position of various modules in the signal chain to customize the sound. The workflow is fairly straightforward, although not as convenient as dragging the modules around as you could in similar plugins. However, let’s detour a little before getting into that.
The module features an EXT SC button that introduces an external side-chain signal to control the compressor and expander. Likewise, the Listen button allows you to audition the side-chain signal. These features are most typically useful for ducking instruments behind a kick. However, this feature isn’t available in the VST 2 version of the plugin.
Going back to the module positioning, you’ll find three modules listed in the routing section:
You can position the preamp in three different ways: Input, Output, and Pre->Dyn. The input mode places the preamp at the start of the signal chain, and that’s the default position. Similarly, the output mode puts it at the end of the signal chain. However, the Pre->Dyn mode sets the preamp before the dynamics modules.
You can change the filters’ position in the following ways: Filt->Dyn, Dyn->Filt, and Filt->SC. As you probably guessed, the first mode sets the filter before the EQ and dynamics, whereas the second one places it after the dynamics. Likewise, the Filt->SC mode allows you to filter the side-chain signal before it enters the dynamics. This mode is excellent for isolating the kicks from a drum bus.
The following positions are available for the EQ: EQ->Dyn, Dyn->EQ, and EQ->SC. The first two modes set the EQ before and after the dynamics section, respectively. Similarly, the EQ->SC mode makes the EQ process the side-chain audio instead of the main audio.
VCS-1 provides a comprehensive set of tools for controlling the dynamics and enhancing your audio recordings. It features a preamp section with three types, each offering a different style of saturation and coloration. Furthermore, its EQ sounds quite sleek and modern thanks to its steeper resonance than many “traditional” hardware emulations. Similarly, the compressor provides a full set of features without leaving anything, including an attack knob, a parallel mixing control, and a stereo link. These help you tackle any type of compression task without adding another compressor.
After using the plugin on multiple types of recordings, my favorite became using it for equalizing the master and compressing melodic instruments like guitars, vocals, or synth leads. It instantly brightened a track I was working on when turning up the high-shelf. Of course, I’m as skeptical as anyone, and I went ahead and recreated the exact parameters in a stock EQ. Somehow, VCS-1 sounded like it cleaned up some of the mud itself. Surely, the resonance had something to do with it!
Hence, my stubborn self did manage to make the EQ sound similar enough with some tweaking and setting the slopes near 10 dB/octave. Nonetheless, adding the mild preamp saturation became a whole different story. Add the width control and other various functions to the task, and you can practically hear VCS-1 getting smugger.
So, does this plugin sound good? Yes, the EQs are effective and practical, and the compressor is distortion-free, although it does start pumping when pushed hard. Overall, it presents a very typical style of sound and workflow that gets your mixing session miles ahead super-fast with merely one plugin.
Value For Money
The most significant feature of this plugin is its versatility and speed. You can add VCS-1 to any track at the top of the FX chain, and half your mixing session is done. Furthermore, the plugin provides a grouping feature accessible via the chain-link icon at the bottom right of the user interface. A group makes multiple instances of the plugin mimic any parameter changes you make in one of the instances in the group. Additionally, you can create up to sixteen groups. This feature is indispensable for mixing large projects or for surround sound post-production.
Similarly, many channel strip plugins tend to limit the controls per module. For example, some provide fixed frequency selectors for the EQ/filter, fixed resonance selectors, and others remove the attack parameter from the dynamics modules. Conversely, VCS-1 delivers a complete set of controls with a separate limiter stage instead of merely swapping the compressor for a limiter. Such small differences make this plugin feel much more usable and efficient.
If you have never enjoyed using channel strip plugins because they feel severely limited, I suggest you take VCS-1 for a spin. From triple-mode saturation to parallel compression, it provides everything you would need to manage the sound-shaping tasks while mixing. Furthermore, it includes a built-in stereo width control, external side-chain, convenient metering showing input or output, and a flexible routing system. Likewise, its grouping feature and mixer view make your job faster and easier. Hence, I recommend this plugin for people looking to speed up their workflow and receive multiple effect modules at the price of one. Also, if you are a live performer, VCS-1’s latency-free operation will allow you to process your audio while performing.
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K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica.