FIG. 1: Roughly the size of a thick paperback, the V-Machine is a highly portable solution for hosting VST plug-ins without your computer.
The advent of Steinberg's VST plug-in format was a pivotal moment in the history of music technology. Shedding the shackles of dedicated, bank-BREAKing outboard gear for software-based signal processing laid the foundation for today's modern project studio, raising the bar for the pace and quality of music production across the board. Still, plug-ins have long been dogged by one irksome characteristic: they're designed to run on standard computers, making them cumbersome to use on the road or onstage.
Enter SM Pro Audio's V-Machine, a handy device conceived to bridge the gap between plug-ins and portability. The concept isn't new — Muse Research released a similar product, the Receptor, in 2003 — but the V-Machine packs this capability into a compact, road-ready chassis that's smaller than most portable audio interfaces yet surprisingly affordable. The V-Machine works only with Windows VST plug-ins, and its internal architecture relies on the DLL files associated with those plug-ins. Fortunately, compatibility with Mac plug-ins (as well as Syncrosoft copy-protected plug-ins) is in the works.
Is this little unit the holy grail of VST portability that working musicians have been clamoring for? Read on for a rundown on what works, what doesn't, and how the V-Machine might fit into your rig.
The most striking thing about the V-Machine is how tiny it is — about 4.5 × 7 × 1.5 inches — about the same size as a large paperback (see Fig. 1). The box contains only a slim Getting Started manual, but more-extensive PDF documentation is available on the enclosed driver disc. Online video tutorials and a dedicated knowledge base are encouraging signs that support will be ongoing and comprehensive.
FIG. 2: The V-Machine''s tidy rear panel sports plenty of USB connectors alongside unbalanced outputs and a stereo 1/8-inch input jack.
On the rear panel, one USB type B port offers connectivity to a Windows-based host computer, allowing you to transfer plug-ins to the V-Machine and run the custom control software, VFX. In addition, two USB type A ports let you connect MIDI controllers and flash drives without a PC (see Fig. 2).
Supplementing two unbalanced ¼-inch outputs, the headphone jack is a convenient way to monitor the V-Machine's plug-ins. It's particularly handy for quickly auditioning plug-ins without patching the unit into a larger system — think hotel rooms, airplanes, or anywhere else that proper studio monitors would be a tight fit. I found the amp slightly underpowered, though, and I was disappointed that the connection is ⅛ inch rather than a studio-standard ¼-inch headphone jack.
I was even more disappointed by the V-Machine's ⅛-inch audio input. I haven't seen a piece of studio gear with a minijack input since I sold my old DAT Walkman back in the mid-'90s, but a minijack is the only way to get audio into the V-Machine. I was hoping to seamlessly integrate the device into my studio setup as an additional VST effects processor, but aside from the obvious inconvenience of adapters or Y-cables required by using a miniplug, the fact that the audio input is unbalanced — along with the rest of the unit's I/O — gave me the impression that the V-Machine is aimed solely at live performance and not pro studio use.
It's What's Up Front
The V-Machine's front panel is sleek and straightforward, with a large, backlit LCD monopolizing the top left quadrant, and four rows of two rubberized buttons located just to the screen's right-hand side. The LCD is divided into four lines that display bank, preset, parameter, and parameter values, and the buttons increment or decrement the adjacent value displayed onscreen. Text on the LCD is big and easily readable from a distance in both dim and brightly lit environments, and information from all VST plug-ins is presented in a clear-cut and consistent fashion. Patch selection is a bit sketchy as there's no button to load or cancel — you simply scroll to the desired patch and pause on it for more than a second. That's not bad for preplanned live performances, but also not conducive to casually scrolling through presets.
Each pair of buttons serves a secondary purpose when pressed in tandem, providing additional control over the unit right from the front panel, including a quick MIDI Learn command that's convenient for mapping controllers to plug-in parameters on the fly.
Bridging the Gap
The VFX software serves as the bridge between your PC and the V-Machine, allowing you to configure and tweak plug-ins using the native onscreen GUI. It's essentially a 4-channel virtual mixer with 2 sends and a master fader; each channel can be loaded with up to 3 plug-ins, giving you slots for a maximum 21 simultaneous plug-ins. The VFX software's potential for flexibility is quite impressive, and you can easily create complex, layered stacks of instruments by placing multiple plug-ins on each channel. Although the VFX software runs in Windows only, SM Pro Audio says that both Mac and Linux versions are in the pipe, so users of those platforms may eventually find the V-Machine a useful tool for running plug-ins that aren't native to their operating system.
Loading plug-ins into the V-Machine can be a chore, and the easiest way to minimize the pain is by using a VFX Info file, a small text file that tells the VFX software how to properly install the plug-in on the V-Machine without errors. Unfortunately, VFX Info files are not available for every plug-in you might own, and my experience installing VSTs without an Info file was a crapshoot at best. When I tried importing AudioRealism's ABL2 plug-in, for instance, the VFX software crashed hard and dumped me to the desktop. However, simpler, single-file VST plug-ins like Big Tick Audio's Ticky Clav installed easily, and I was able to get Arturia's Moog Modular V up and running flawlessly thanks to a VFX Info file available on the SM Pro Audio Web site (see the online bonus material at emusician.com).
The V-Machine's clean front panel is great for traveling, and the lack of any knobs or faders means less stuff dangling off the unit and potentially getting snagged or broken in a careless moment. However, fewer tactile controls also means more difficulty when trying to tweak parameters; as a result, my hopes of using the V-Machine as a standalone effects processor for DJ sets were dashed. An external MIDI controller is absolutely essential for getting the most out of the V-Machine.
Once I patched in a good controller, though, the V-Machine was a breeze to use, and the large LCD makes it perfect for onstage use. Latency was so low as to be unnoticeable, even with large stacks of VST instruments. I never encountered a situation in which the V-Machine crashed or locked up. Its stability during hours-long sessions was comforting, leading me to believe that the V-Machine can be trusted to perform reliably in critical live-performance situations.
Are We There Yet?
The V-Machine is a valiant effort with a great deal of potential, but in its current form, its compromises are obvious. It is a well-built little box, clearly targeted at traveling artists and built to withstand the rigors of the road, and in many ways it's straightforward and easy to use. Hooking up USB MIDI controllers is a breeze, and the unit is rock solid at negligibly low latencies.
However, the V-Machine's lack of knobs or faders makes it a hard sell for anyone looking for an all-in-one standalone VST solution, and the omission of professional-grade I/O is a serious oversight. With a few minor upgrades — balanced audio, additional ¼-inch connectors, and a few knobs and faders — the V-Machine would easily find its way into stage rigs and DJ setups worldwide. SM Pro Audio does have a larger version that adds these features in development (the V-Rack), and pro studio users would be best off waiting for this more comprehensive unit.
Still, for basic VST playback and onstage work, the V-Machine performs solidly and reliably at a bargain-basement price. The pint-size powerhouse packs an impressive amount of storage and processing muscle into its diminutive frame, wraps it in a rugged metal chassis, and makes connectivity a breeze for quick setup at gigs.
Best known as a DJ and producer in the electronic group Deepsky, Jason Blum is currently focused on commercial mixing and mastering in his Los Angeles studio.