SM PRO AUDIO V-MACHINES
An upcoming Australian product seems set to redefine the portable VST player.
Text: Brad Watts
We’ve seen a number of synths and processing units, recording systems and even consoles appear over the last few years based entirely around off-the-shelf Intel CPUs. These products are essentially a PC wedged into a box with a bespoke operating system – usually some variant of Linux beaten into submission enough to host the manufacturer’s software.
There are plenty of examples of this design model: The Mackie D8B console and HDR recorders were a PC, the Korg Oasys workstation is as well, and the Muse Receptor is most definitely a PC in a rack. Lifting the lid on any of these units will reveal the familiar motherboard, hard drive and CPU configuration found in any moderately spec’ed ‘DOS box’. Just add a soundcard and you’re away.
We all know there are a variety of ways to skin a cat – not that I’ve ever actually skinned one – but when it comes to the PC-in-a-box musical instrument design, one particular company has taken the lead from the aforementioned quasi creations and developed something that’s bound to impress.
V-Machines are the result of a creative collaboration between two Australian companies: SM Pro Audio and VFX Systems. Taking this Frankensteinian notion further, the two companies have redesigned the PC-in-a-box concept from the ground up and the results are quite compelling. Sure there’s an Intel inside, but that’s essentially where the comparisons end. Other processors lurk inside these V-Machines, performing various tasks such as taking care of the displays, buttons and the built-in MIDI interface. What’s most impressive is that SM Pro Audio and VFX Systems have squeezed the whole shebang into a tiny, yet powerful, musical instrument.
I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen of the V-Machine range thus far, both conceptually and economically. I’m also thoroughly enthused by the fact that the entire V-Machine project has been developed in Australia. It’s not every day you hear of such devices being built in this country, so hats off to the entire V-Machine team for their determination to develop these ideas locally.
I was fortunate to preview the first of these devices at ‘V-Machine headquarters’ in Melbourne. Here the team of a half dozen programmers and designers have been looking towards the release of the first V-Machine before the end of 2008. Further designs are slated to follow next year.
The initial release is of the V-Machine itself; a stand-alone VST and VSTi player. Further down the track the development team plans to release a V-Pedal guitar unit, and following this, a rack-mount V-Rack (slated for 2009). But first let’s have a look at what this inaugural V-Machine has to offer.
The V-Machine is a very compact box. Pick it up with one hand and sit it on your controller keyboard if you like; it’s light and takes up a minimal amount of space. Connections to and from the V-Machine include a headphone output (with a dedicated volume control), left and right audio outputs on 1/4-inch jacks, a stereo 1/8-inch audio input, MIDI input and a selection of USB ports. A single Type-B USB connector also allows connection of the unit to your PC or Mac for uploading and editing plug-ins. Two further Type-B ports enable the connection of USB storage devices, thumb drives and the like, or of course, connection of a USB controller keyboard. Some plug-ins require an iLok or Syncrosoft protection key, so these devices can also be connected here.
Apart from these fairly obvious uses of the USB ports, SM Pro Audio also tells me that, further down the track, there is likely to be support for connecting another audio output – ostensibly a standard USB audio interface – although at this point I’m not aware if this means any third-party interface, or a proprietary device from SM Pro Audio. I suspect more likely the latter. Additional outputs would enable features such as cue sends for DJ-ing applications, for example. When used for accessing USB storage devices, the V-Machine will playback mp3 or .WAV files as well as acting as a VSTi and VST effect device, making the unit ideal for one-man-band performances.
INTERFACING WITH THE MACHIN
The top panel of the unit is home to a large LCD display and eight parameter buttons. These allow access to patches and editing of any plug-in that’s loaded into the V-Machine. Full access to all plug-in parameters is possible via these controls, so you’re in no way constricted compared with using your plug-in in a traditional computer-based system. Incidentally, the screen contrast will adjust to the current lighting conditions automatically – a nice touch.
Getting your VST plug-ins into the V-Machine is managed by the V-Machine’s own software. This application is essentially an emulation of the actual hardware, so you can use this interface to check out plugs and set up patches before downloading VST .DLL files into the V-Machine hardware. A patch within the V-Machine can constitute up to four VSTi instruments and a pair of VST effects, with a four-channel mixer setup to blend the four instruments and two effects.
So what’s driving this little beast? Under the bonnet is a 1GHz CPU and 512MB of RAM. While this may initially seem underpowered for such an endeavour, I should point out that the RAM is used purely for the storage of .DLL files. Plus the 1GHz CPU is ample when you consider there isn’t the massive overhead of driving a graphical user interface. In practice, the unit responds incredibly quickly, showing no signs of latency or lag; even changing patches is incredibly fast. The upcoming V-Pedal guitar-oriented V-Machine will feature a faster 1.5GHz processor and the V-Rack unit will be boasting a faster unit again – along with eight sets of I/O with XLR connections and further refinements.
From what I’ve seen of these V-Machines, the future seems bright for this Australian endeavour. SM Pro Audio and VFX Systems have taken a concept used by other manufacturers and expanded and developed the idea into a much more interesting and usable device. As a carry-about audio file player, instrument and accompaniment unit, the V-Machine is going to turn heads – especially when people notice the price. I can’t wait to get my hands on one for a good play, and I’m especially keen to audition the V-Pedal when it becomes available in 2009. This is certainly the future of live VSTi use, and Australian developers have the concept firmly by the scruff of the neck. A solid 10 out of 10.
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