Made in LA: Inside Steven Slate’s Laurel Canyon Compound

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Pulling up to Steven Slate’s offices in Laurel Canyon, my first thought was to double-check the address. It’s a quiet, residential neighborhood, albeit known for its rock-and-roll residents going back to the 60s (Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, etc.). But you don’t expect many businesses to be tucked away in these hills. Up the driveway, I quickly got that this was more than a house – there was more here than met the eye.

Slate’s canyon compound is made up of a main house – originally built as a hunting lodge in the 1920s – which contains his offices, and two smaller buildings: one for Slate’s personal studio, and the other, a suite occupied by veteran mastering engineer Howie Weinberg.

Steven Slate

Slate’s business began here in 2006, when he began selling his much-lauded drum samples. Initially used by mixers looking to supplement drum kits in need of a little sonic bolstering, the samples and the software accompanying them have grown into a full-fledged virtual instrument. Slate launched Steven Slate Drums 4.0 early this year and says it’s been the most successful release yet.

Along with Steven Slate Drums, 2006 also brought about the founding of Slate Pro Audio, a business dedicated to the design and manufacture of hardware devices. To date, Slate Pro Audio has released two products that distinguish themselves in their ability to capture many sounds from one box – The “Fox”, a mic preamplifier, and the “Dragon”, an 1176 style compressor with some very unique modifications.

Maybe the biggest news for DAW users, however, has been Slate’s foray into the world of digitally modeled analog hardware.

Along with his partner, algorithm designer and programmer Fabrice Gabriel, “Slate Digital” has become a force to be reckoned with in the pro audio plug-in market. Specifically, Slate Digital’s VCC (Virtual Console Collection) console emulation plugin represents one of the best attempts at modeling some of the world’s classic recording consoles. What sets these models apart from other plug-ins is Slate and Gabriel’s commitment to accurately modelling every aspect of the original gear – especially the imperfections and non-linearities that affect audio in such desirable fashions.

In Slate’s own words: “We model 100%, if we do 98% I think we’ve failed.”

In The Pipeline: Virtual Tape Machines, Steven Slate Drums, Top Secret Works

Before we began our interview, Slate took me for a quick tour of their offices. Set back off the road, the idyllic setting seems much more like a leafy residence than a place of business. Additionally, most of the manufacturing takes place off-site, further contributing to the sense of calm. However that impression was only skin deep, as there seemed to be different staff members at every turn.

It’s a relaxed environment to be sure, and with numerous products in development or update, the mood suggests this is a fairly well-oiled operation. We ended our tour in Slate’s personal studio, featuring a modified Neotek console with an API mix buss.

Slate's new Virtual Tape Machine plugin is scheduled to launch in June.

When I sat down with Slate, he opened up quite a bit about where the company is headed. There are some really stellar offerings coming in the near future…only a few of which can be discussed here, unfortunately! Slate seemed most excited to discuss his latest plug-in, the Virtual Tape Machine (VTM), which will launch into beta testing later this week.

Given Slate and Gabriel’s focus on perfection, and a marketplace rife with competitors, creating another plug-in tape emulator seems like a big undertaking. But to hear it from Slate, the competition may be what ultimately drove him to develop this product in the first place.

“To be frank, I’d listened to what was available currently, and I was really unimpressed, because it didn’t sound like exactly like what I felt I’d been hearing from tape itself…then we did some testing and confirmed that although they were modeling some things, they weren’t capturing 100% of what existed in the hardware.”

Slate has had a long love affair with tape, beginning with his tenure as a studio intern.

“I got into the industry when I was 14. I worked at this studio and I watched as the owner brought in the first blackface ADAT. He thought it was going to be the savior of the recording industry and said, ‘Turn those tape machines off, wait until you see this thing…we’re going to be the hottest thing in town!’ I remember thinking how hi-fi this digital machine was going to be, how breathtakingly awesome it was…and within five minutes we were like, this thing must be broken! So, analog tape has a special part of my soul when it comes to music.”

Given that there are some very accomplished manufacturers out there who have recently released some highly acclaimed tape emulations, this project definitely represented a risk for Slate, but his chief concern throughout was successfully creating something he would want to use himself.

“When it came time to do a tape plug-in, it was scary for me because I had a lot to live up to,” he says. “I had to capture such a complex sound that is so indescribable; there is so much going on. Fabrice and I made a commitment to each other though – we said ‘we gotta do this right,’ and by ‘right’ I mean that any differences between the machine and the plug-in will be simply indistinguishable.

“When it comes down to it, people don’t totally trust plug-ins. I mean everyone uses them, but everyone has this idea that even though the plug-in is good, the hardware would be better. Today, we have the processing power to [develop software that stands up to the hardware] – there is nothing stopping us from capturing these dynamic, nonlinear analog qualities.”

After over a year of intense development and endless listening tests, Slate is finally happy with the results – the VTM plugin is scheduled to launch next month. The plugin models two tape machines: A 16-Track Studer A-827 from NRG, and Howie Weinberg’s own transformer-equipped Studer 1/2” 800 B. Given the exhaustive modeling process, as well as the sounds I’ve been getting from the Slate VCC I can’t wait to hear it for myself!

Although the VTM will be the latest and greatest offering from Slate Digital, there are some other new products in the pipeline as well.

For devotees of the Slate Drum line, a new set of samples will be coming soon, recorded by some of the biggest names in the industry. Sitting in Slate’s control room, he played me some of the sounds in their recently recorded and unedited state. They continue to represent the flawlessly recorded, album-ready drum sounds that Slate users have come to expect.

As for some of the other products, I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you that there is at least one big reason to keep your eye on Slate at the coming AES show. Stay tuned…

Click to visit Slate Digital, Slate Pro Audio and Steven Slate Drums.

Bo Boddie is a Grammy winning engineer/producer and composer who has worked with Santana, Everlast, Korn, Reni Lane, and many others. He just completed work on Imperial Teen’s second release on Merge Records, as well as composition work on the new ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B@#$% in Apartment 23.

  • Jay Key

    Well, that’s great news, although that the big reason to keep an eye on Slate at the coming AES show is hardware. Was hoping for another fabulous plugin ;-)…

  • BenPom

    Chris Kantrowitz Rules.