Ah, plugins vs. hardware … Forum dwellers have been battling out this heated debate online since the dawn of digital.
It’s an enormous 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 will always remember the first time I did a session at a hardware studio. My excitement to lastly get my hands on real console faders was out of control.
However, it was a totally eye-opening experience.
I started to appreciate the perks of the digital workflow when I faced the surprising challenges that working completely out-of-the-box presents.
Listed below are my high 6 causes plugins can outperform hardware within the studio.
1. Analog noise is real
At the peak of the studio era, senior engineers had a group of assistants and technicians helping them make their work occur.
In a busy professional studio, a single console channel going down meant the bottom line may suffer.
Today, the consoles you see in most hardware studios do not get anywhere near the level of attention that onsite maintenance employees may deliver in the analog era.
Meaning these aging, difficult, power-hungry machines are sometimes in questionable states of repair. A sketchy console (or any sketchy analog gear for that matter) can introduce all types of artifacts into a combination.
Every analog bounce is real-time. Even the slightest factor going wrong means you must begin over.
In case you are working with a console that isn’t equipped with automation (or more likely, the automation is hopelessly broken—flying faders are one of the first parts to fail on many classic boards) you will have to capture the automation performance correctly too.
It may be incredibly hard to repeat!
2. Recall is a nightmare
Anybody who has ever had to recall an analog combine for a client knows what I am talking about.
The idea of having to spend one 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 as a result of the client is freaking out before going to mastering is bone-chilling.
Keep in mind that the team of assistants I mentioned? Senior engineers would nearly never have to recall their own sessions.
Junior staff would care for basic tasks so that clients did not have to burn their star engineer’s precious work hours. However, today’s analog studios not often have that luxury…
If you wish to make a change to a combination that’s been bounced, you will have to go back to your pen-and-paper session log to pull it up on the console again. Did you write down all of your settings right?
Getting yourself back to a totally constructed combine could take a long time. However, the most painful part?
You will never really get it back 100%. Super detailed session notes could get you very close, however, you could not turn back time and have exactly the same sound like a previous combine—frustrating!
The same goes for other kinds of analog workflows. In analog, sounds, and settings occur at the moment. Be careful with what you want!
3. Hardware is more difficult to use than you may think
Behind every fantastically organized rack of studio hardware is a tangled mess of cable.
These cables terminate at a patchbay, where you will have to carefully make your connections with particular patchbay cables.
Routing things properly in your DAW, inserting the right outboard on the correct channels and discovering the right patch factors on the patchbay could add hours to your process.
That goes triple when you are inserting hardware on tracks and busses on an old console.
And even then if you should change a setting after you have printed, you will have to recall again!!
These drawbacks may not be too bad in case your studio only has a single piece of hardware, however, in that your case you are probably coping with another issue…
4. Your outboard is only as good as your D/A
Printing hardware processing on the way in is a risky enterprise.
After all, you may always add processing during the mix, however, you could not take it away if it is already printed on the track you have recorded.
Meaning most outboard gear workflows embody an extra round trip of AD/DA conversion to interface with hardware.
Multiple passes of conversion are where your audio interface actually begins to make an effect on the end product of your mix.
Top quality AD/DA conversion is nearly invisible—even with multiple round journeys in and out of the analog domain.
However, lesser quality interfaces could introduce coloration that leads to decreased dynamics and frequency response at each stage of conversion.
In many instances, a great quality plugin could sound greater than mid-level hardware after further stages of low-quality conversion. You could be surprised!
5. Yes, top-tier plugins are that good
Digital processing obtained a bad reputation in the early DAW era for a cause.
The first few generations of plugins suffered from the same points that plagued the earliest digital recordings.
These sounds and records have not aged well. However, plugins have come an especially long way.
Plugins are now an incredibly essential part of the gear market. Plugin manufacturers have been throwing large budgets and talented engineers at the issues of making great-sounding digital audio tools for decades now.
Of course, not all plugins are made equal. However, pro-quality plugins from top manufacturers are more than a match for analog.
Today’s hardware modeling technology is extremely sophisticated. Plugin designers take enormous pains to reproduce the fascinating non-linearities of analog circuits.
However, hardware gear manufacturing has gotten extra refined as well.
Modern component tolerances and QA procedures are sure that hardware manufacturing is more consistent than ever.
This makes it more likely that an emulation behaves nearly exactly like any given unit you can buy off the shelf.
For a modern piece of gear that is never been out of production, thorough modelling is efficient enough that the difference between the hardware and a high-end emulation is not going to make or break your mix. However, that does not stop designers from attempting to get closer and closer to the real thing!
6. Convenience isn’t just about making things simpler
Back to my fabled first console tracking session.
For no matter reason, the studio’s headphone monitoring was not correctly configured and the only method to get headphone mixes were by fumbling around with scratchy pre-fader auxes on the console.
Not only was it a far cry from a “proper” headphone signal, but it was also colored enough to be potentially misleading.
My point is that “convenience” does not always mean “ease of use”—it could generally mean just having basic necessities like headphones and cue mixes available and simple to access.
It seems like there’s lots of hand-wringing going on about how digital is making engineers lazier and less disciplined.
However, the flipside is that digital very successfully solves a few of the basic issues that engineers run into. Why not benefit from its strengths?
The plugins vs. hardware debate will probably rage on for the foreseeable future.
There are so many opinions flying around on either side that it seems unlikely that it’ll ever be totally 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 goal advantages.
However, before you write your plugins off as low-cost digital toys that will never produce a decent sounding record, take a hard look at the issues of analog—the grass is not always greener on the other aspect!