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Plugins vs. Hardware: Why Software Is Better than You Think

Plugins vs. Hardware: Why Software Is Better than You Think

Ah, plugins vs. hardware… Forum dwellers have been battling out this heated debate online since the dawn of digital.

It’s a big question for intermediate producers trying to get the best possible performance out of their setups. Is hardware worth the investment?

The answer? It’s complicated.

I’ll never forget the first time I did a session at a hardware studio. My excitement to finally get my hands on real console faders was out of control.

But it was a completely eye-opening experience.

I began to appreciate the perks of the digital workflow when I faced the surprising challenges that working completely out-of-the-box presents.

Here are my top 6 reasons plugins can outperform hardware in the studio.

1. Analog noise is real

At the peak of the studio era, senior engineers had a team of assistants and technicians helping them make their work happen.

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In a busy pro studio, a single console channel going down meant the bottom line could suffer.

Today, the consoles you see in most hardware studios don’t get anywhere close to the level of attention that onsite maintenance staff could deliver in the analog era.

That means these aging, complicated, power hungry machines are often in questionable states of repair. A sketchy console (or any sketchy analog gear for that matter) can introduce all kinds of artifacts into a mix.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plugins_are_better_1-analog_noise.jpg

Every analog bounce is real-time. Even the slightest thing going wrong means you have to start over.

Every analog bounce is real-time. Even the slightest thing going wrong means you have to start over.

If you’re working with a console that’s not equipped with automation (or more likely, the automation is hopelessly broken—flying faders are one of the first elements to fail on many classic boards) you’ll have to capture the automation performance correctly too.

It can be incredibly hard to repeat!

2. Recall is a nightmare

Anyone who has ever had to recall an analog mix for a client knows what I’m talking about.

The idea of having to spend an hour or more resetting every single knob and fader at the eleventh hour just to turn down the hi hat mic down 1.5 dB because the client is freaking out before going to mastering is bone-chilling.

Remember that team of assistants I mentioned? Senior engineers would almost never have to recall their own sessions.

Junior staff would take care of basic tasks so that clients didn’t have to burn their star engineer’s precious work hours. But today’s analog studios rarely have that luxury…

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If you want to make a change to a mix that’s been bounced, you’ll have to go back to your pen-and-paper session log to pull it up on the console again. You wrote down all your settings right?

Getting yourself back to a fully constructed mix can take a long time. But the most painful part?

You’ll never actually get it back 100%. Super detailed session notes can get you very close, but you can’t turn back time and have exactly the same sound as a previous mix—frustrating!

The same goes for other types of analog workflows. In analog, sounds and settings happen in the moment. Be careful what you wish for!

3. Hardware is more difficult to use than you might think

Behind every beautifully organized rack of studio hardware is a tangled mess of cable.

Those cables terminate at a patchbay, where you’ll have to carefully make your connections with special patchbay cables.

Routing things properly in your DAW, inserting the right outboard on the correct channels and finding the right patch points on the patchbay can add hours to your process.

Routing things properly in the DAW, inserting the right outboard on the correct channels and finding the right patch points on the patchbay can add hours to your process.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plugins_are_better_4-hardware.jpg

That goes triple if you’re inserting hardware on tracks and busses on an old console.

And even then if you need to change a setting after you’ve printed, you’ll have to recall again!!

These drawbacks might not be too bad if your studio only has a single piece of hardware, but in that you case you’re probably dealing with another issue…

4. Your outboard is only as good as your D/A

Printing hardware processing on the way in is risky business.

Unless you have a lot of experience and you’re extremely confident with your gear, going a few dB too far with compression or EQ can turn your mix process into a nightmare.

After all, you can always add processing during the mix, but you can’t take it away if it’s already printed on the track you’ve recorded.

That means most outboard gear workflows include an extra round trip of AD/DA conversion to interface with hardware.

Multiple passes of conversion is where your audio interface really starts to make an impact on the end product of your mix.

Multiple passes of conversion is where your interface really starts to make an impact on the end product of your mix.

Top quality AD/DA conversion is almost invisible—even with multiple round trips in and and out of the analog domain.

But lesser quality interfaces can introduce coloration that results in reduced dynamics and frequency response at each stage of conversion.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plugins_are_better_3-converters.jpg

In many cases, a good quality plugin can sound better than mid-level hardware after additional stages of low quality conversion. You might be surprised!

5. Yes, top-tier plugins are that good

Digital processing got a bad reputation in the early DAW era for a reason.

The first few generations of plugins suffered from the same issues that plagued the earliest digital recordings.

Those sounds and records haven’t aged well. But plugins have come an extremely long way.

Plugins are now an incredibly important part of the gear marketplace. Plugin manufacturers have been throwing huge budgets and talented engineers at the problems of creating great-sounding digital audio tools for decades now.

Plugin manufacturers have been throwing huge budgets and talented engineers at the problems of creating great-sounding digital audio tools for decades now.

Of course, not all plugins are created equal. But pro-quality plugins from top manufacturers are more than a match for analog.

Today’s hardware modelling technology is incredibly sophisticated. Plugin designers take enormous pains to reproduce the desirable non-linearities of analog circuits.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plugins_are_better_5-top_tier_plugins.jpg

On the other hand, hardware gear manufacturing has gotten more refined as well.

Modern component tolerances and QA procedures ensure that hardware manufacturing is more consistent than ever.

This makes it much more likely that an emulation behaves almost exactly like any given unit you could buy off the shelf.

For a modern piece of gear that’s never been out of production, thorough modelling is effective enough that the difference between the hardware and a high-end emulation isn’t going to make or break your mix. But that doesn’t stop designers from trying to get closer and closer to the real thing!

6. Convenience isn’t just about making things easier

Back to my fabled first console tracking session.

For whatever reason, the studio’s headphone monitoring wasn’t properly configured and the only way to get headphone mixes was by fumbling around with scratchy pre-fader auxes on the console.

Not only was it a far cry from a “proper” headphone signal, it was coloured enough to be potentially misleading.

https://blog.landr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plugins_are_better_6-convenience.jpg

My point is that “convenience” doesn’t always mean “ease of use”—it can sometimes mean just having basic necessities like headphones and cue mixes available and easy to access.

It seems like there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about how digital is making engineers lazier and less disciplined.

It seems like there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about how digital is making engineers lazier and less disciplined.

But the flipside is that digital very effectively solves some of the basic problems that engineers run into. Why not take advantage of its strengths?

Plugins vs. Hardware

The plugins vs. hardware debate will probably rage on for the foreseeable future.

There’s so many opinions flying around on either side that it seems unlikely that it’ll ever be fully resolved.

Each side has its merits and valid arguments. Your decision whether to use one or the other rests more on personal preference than any objective benefits.

But before you write your plugins off as cheap digital toys that will never produce a decent sounding record, take a hard look at the problems of analog—the grass isn’t always greener on the other side!

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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