I watched and waited for over a year before I finally purchased the Steven Slate Audio VSX headphone mixing system. VSX is a set of over the ear, closed-back headphones and accompanying software (to use via your DAW) to “listen” in various virtual rooms and spaces. Some of the virtual rooms are modeled from commercial or private mixing and mastering studios, while others simulate headphones, earbuds, and even car stereo systems.

I was cautious about jumping into VSX because it seemed too good to be true. I do own several other Slate products (plug-ins and the virtual microphone system) and have found them to be extremely useful.

I purchased the VSX Essentials Edition, which includes models of three rooms, one car, and three types of headphones. Most of the rooms have options for near-field, mid-field, and even far-field monitoring, depending on what the “real” room is outfitted with. The Platinum Edition includes many more rooms, cars, headphones, a boombox, and free access to future models when they are released. If you don’t purchase the Platinum Edition, additional rooms can be purchased separately online.

The headphones are lightweight, comfortable, and come with a detachable, straight cable with 1/8-inch plugs, a 1/4-inch adapter, as well as a carrying case. The Slate Audio Center installation software is downloadable (Windows or Mac) from their site. After installing it and registering a code (found on the box), I clicked on the VSX icon and easily installed the VSX software on my Windows 10 system with Pro Tools 2023.3. The installation process also activated the license on my iLok. I would have preferred being able to install just the VSX software (without having to install an installer to install the installer…) but it worked.

The VSX plug-in should always be inserted as the last plug-in on your master bus. It does lower the volume significantly, and there are routing suggestions on the Slate website to help work around this. I had no problem with simply removing my headphones and disabling the plug-in when I wanted to refer to my monitors again. The default setting will also automatically disable VSX room emulation when you bounce a track. I found myself always manually disabling the plug-in when I was done checking the mix with VSX, as I always referred back to my monitors before bouncing.

Steven Slate Audio suggests first listening to reference mixes, and I did just that. I grabbed a stack of CDs, imported the files into a session, and compared and listened to them in the various VSX spaces that were available. There are some suggested ways to apply the VSX outside of a DAW, but I opted to skip that (again not wanting extra software installed). I listened to a bunch of songs with my monitors and with VSX and it was certainly revealing.

I was doing final mixing and mastering for a local band, but I was not yet happy with the results. I knew there was mud in the low end, but I had not been able to clearly identify it via either my several monitors or various headphones. When I activated VSX, I could hear the low end a lot clearer. And, oh yeah, was there a lot of it. No, I did not become Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #151, #129, #84] overnight, but after a few iterations I was able to make level and EQ changes that resulted in greater clarity in my mixes; ones that translated across all of my listening options. Compared to where I started, it was night and day.

My studio is purpose-built, and it does have acoustic treatment, but it’s DIY and I admit it is far from perfect. It’s a multi-purpose room, but geared more toward tracking and less toward mixing and mastering. VSX proved to be a great supplement to my mixing environment. I will probably never mix only on headphones, but if I didn’t have a treated room or decent monitors I believe I could get a much better mix with VSX than just headphones alone.

After spending time with the Essentials Edition, I wanted to check out the other rooms, but unfortunately there are no trial options. Rather than buy a few a la carte, I sprung for the whole Platinum Edition. The upgrade was seamless and there are some very enlightening models. Could I have gotten away with only the Essentials? Probably, but there are a few of the Platinum rooms that are quite useful, and I’m excited to see what future models Steven Slate Audio comes up with. The VSX headphone mixing system is a tool that I will 100 percent be using on future mixes to ensure I’m hearing everything I should be hearing!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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