In a perfect world, recording musicians and engineers would own the best individual tool for each job. We would have on hand the best audio-to-digital converter, the best preamps, the best effects. And when we go on the road – or on the street – we’d have a separate, high-quality collection of equipment to capture and process audio there, too.
Unfortunately though, most of us don’t have an unlimited budget. So we look for products that can handle multiple needs with high quality at a reasonable price.
Cakewalk has recently released just such a product, the VS-100. I’ve spent the last couple weeks with the unit, and here I share my impressions.
All-Star utility player?
First, what is the VS-100?
- It is a USB 2.0 audio interface, meaning it takes audio, transforms it into digital bits and sends them to your computer.
- It’s an eight-in, six-out mixer, with two preamps for microphones.
- It has on-board compression, equalization and reverb – three crucial effects.
- It’s a control surface for your recording software, so that instead of using a mouse to adjust a virtual fader, you can lay your fingers on a real fader.
- It’s a stand-alone recorder, using the convenient SD format to save your work. So you can record audio without using a computer.
- This IS Cakewalk, a preeminent creator of recording software. So you get a robust package of software, naturally — including versions of Cakewalk’s wonderful Dimension and Rapture software sythesizers and Sonar recording software.
During my time with the unit, I found that it handled its multiple tasks quite well — in fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a single piece of equipment that does so much. And when you take into account its price — $699 at major retailers — I’m not aware of anything that can touch the VS-100.
Given its multiple applications, you need to spend a little time with the VS-100’s manual to figure it out. Luckily, the manual is pretty straightforward. I was up and running in under an hour.
Sometimes when software companies extend into hardware, trouble can ensue. But in Cakewalk’s case, all it had to do to find hardware expertise was to look to parent company Roland, which has been producing quality music hardware for decades.
In my testing, the VS-100 performed admirably. The recorded sound was clear and the controls easy to understand. The preamps provided plenty of clean gain, and the on-board effects worked well, within reason. I prefer to limit effects on the front end anyway, to preserve maximum flexibility once I get the tracks “in the box” and I can use my plug-ins.
However, in a live setting, effects can prove extremely valuable.
To really put the unit through its paces, I took the VS-100 to a recent acoustic solo gig. Initially I was going to use it only to record some songs. But as I studied its features, I decided to use the VS-100 as my mixer as well. I sent my vocal mic into one preamp and my guitar into the other, and used the main outs to go to my powered speakers. At the same time, I used the VS-100 to record the session onto an SD card.
I made sure to keep my voice on one channel and my guitar on the other. Then, when I imported the tracks into my computer (running Sonar 8 Producer Edition), I was able to split the stereo track into two mono tracks, allowing me the luxury of independently processing each track.
At my humble solo gig, the VS-100 worked flawlessly. I was able to dial in just the right balance of guitar and vocal for the venue. And the on-board effects really helped me sculpt the sound for the room.
I did have one problem with the recording — and it was caused by operator error. Foolishly I failed to check levels before I hit “record,” so my tracks were way too quiet. Even so, because the VS-100 is so clean, I was able to get a usable recording out of it even after drastically raising the levels in the computer. (You can hear the recording here – just click on the “Colorblind (Live on The Hill)” song.)
In sum, the VS-100 sets a new standard for functionality. It handles a wide variety of tasks that working musicians perform every day, and it handles them well. If you’re looking for an interface that works on the desktop as well as on the street — and one that includes a digital mixer, a hardware controller and an SD recorder, to boot — the VS-100 needs to be at the top of your list.