If you want to use compression on a vocal track, there are two routes you can take: run audio out through your interface through a hardware compressor and back into your computer, or just slap on a plugin compressor. Same if you want to use EQ, or delay, or reverb; you have the same two choices: hardware or software?
I used to get bummed by this choice: I didn't have the money for expensive hardware gear, or even a place to put it if I did. The mere mention of hardware effects felt like a reminder of poverty to me, and like a death sentence for the quality of my music. But I don't feel that way anymore, and I'll tell you why.
Advantages of Software Effects
There are a number of features that make software plugins a compelling choice compared to hardware. These are the ones that come to mind for me:
- Plugins are cheaper. Everybody loves the compressor from Empirical Labs called Distressor. You want one of these? It costs $1,350 in hardware form. The software alternative also by Empirical Labs is only $250, and there are alternatives from other companies that are even cheaper. This is just one example, but anywhere you look, the plugin version is cheaper. There's no arguing: it costs less to duplicate and sell software products than it does hardware products.
- Plugins don't require routing and bouncing. Routing an output through your interface to your hardware plugin and back takes time to set up and time to bounce, not to mention conversion losses unless you have some of the best converters on the planet.
- Plugins support automation. If you want the parameters of the effect to change through the song, isn't it nice to be able to precisely draw in those changes with automation instead of having to "perform" the effects unit like an instrument?
- With software, you can make changes, or remove plugins later. If you use hardware effects, the audio is printed back in. That means no changes without a lot of hassle.
- Plugins have recall: when you open a session a week or a year later, each plugin remembers how it was last configured. If you ever decide that the lead vocal was compressed a little bit too much in last week's session, you'd have to reconfigure the hardware compressor from scratch to try again instead of just raising the threshold a bit in the plugin. The way around that is to take notes of all of your settings each time you use hardware gear, and that also isn't fun.
- A plugin can be used more than once in the same session at the same time. Hardware is limited to how many units you buy.
- Virtually all plugins can process in stereo, whereas your favorite hardware effects unit might be restricted to mono unless you buy a second one.
- Plugins have presets. You can use stock presets, or make your own as you discover how you like things to sound.
- Software inserts can be rearranged in order later: that's a huge advantage for sound design and creative mixing.
- Virtually all plugins can lock to the tempo of your session, for delays based on rhythm instead of time passed. A huge convenience.
Wow, so maybe the benefits of software are something to consider. But don't they sound bad compared to rack-mounted gear?
I'm not going to lie: there are a lot of bad sounding plugins out there. But there are also bad sounding hardware effects. There are great sounding hardware units, of course, but there are great sounding software plugins too. It comes down to the talent and team size and philosophy of the people designing the product, not the form it takes.
A lot of people endlessly pursue vintage: it's got to be a vintage bass passed through vintage effects to a vintage amp captured by a vintage mic sent to a vintage mic preamp and routed through more vintage effects to be captured by a ... vintage interface? Okay, maybe that last one's not a thing. But why are we so stuck on vintage? And why are seemingly all new plugins just emulations of vintage gear?
There are a few reasons:
First, it's the sound a lot of people grew up with. People love to reminisce, and it's easy to wear rose-colored glasses when remembering the favorite bands of your youth. A lot of people want to try to replicate that, as if it's the only way. The truth is that a lot of that gear didn't sound that good, but nostalgia pushes us to try to recreate it anyway.
Second, digital for a long time sounded really bad. Early DAWs and software effects were just nasty. Even early digital to analog converters sounded nasty. The technology just wasn't there. We're well past that now, but it seems to have left a coppery taste in people's mouths for a long time.
Third, there's the weirdness aspect. A lot of beloved hardware units weren't that perfect and freaked out in unexpected ways. And sometimes those freakout settings were exactly what a sound or song needed. People came to love these units because of the warts they had, not because they were perfect. Maybe software designers are too careful to remove all the warts in a plugin, robbing us of some that might be useful or sound special. Or maybe there are warts, but all the engineers are too hooked on old gear to learn new gear enough to find them.
Fourth, sometimes sounding "too clean" isn't a good thing, and music needs a little grit to sound interesting and real. A little distortion can add a lot of character. It's the same with carefully sculpted noise, or other aspects of effect "failure". Saturation is the artificial addition of harmonics of sound, and old hardware gear added tons of it, even when that wasn't the purpose of any given piece of gear. Those little duplicates of sound repeated at new frequencies added a certain thickness and character that was often subtle, but very real. Digital doesn't have that, and as a result, can sound too "sterile". Because of this, adding a saturation plugin or two to the most important elements in a song can add a certain thickness or realness that's desirable. We're learning to move music away from sounding too perfect because too perfect doesn't always sound good. I share a lot more about this in my earlier post, Creative Processing with Effects.
Fifth, as a plugin designer, it's a lot easier to decide the concept of your next plugin if it's recreating something old instead of inventing something new. I suspect this is why the plugin market is truly flooded with software emulations of this or that piece of vintage gear. Some of the original gear was great, but we don't need thirteen different emulations of it made by eleven different brands. Maybe that laziness in design concept is keeping plugin developers from thinking more freely and creatively. And when 90% of the new plugins coming to market are emulations of vintage hardware gear, it's a way of telling those of us that buy plugins that the old way is the only good way. And that's just not true.
When Hardware is an Option
Maybe you have an unholy amount of money and a preference for analog gear. If you have the space to store it all, go for it. Who am I to tell anyone that what they love is wrong?
There is something to be said for creative limitations. Having fewer options at your fingertips for how to process sounds can help you come up with new ways to use old options. So restricting yourself, whether by owning a few choice pieces of rack mounted gear or slimming down your plugin collection, could help you engineer. It also might encourage you to lean less on engineering as a crutch and to shift your weight further onto songwriting. That's never a bad thing.
Engineering with fewer choices can be faster. There's no room for analysis-paralysis when you only have one option for a desired effect. And sometimes, having an effect printed onto audio can just help you move past that decision and onto what needs to be done next.
I met an engineer with a truly impressive studio. Money didn't seem to be an issue, and he acquired whatever he wanted when he wanted it. He told me he uses software or hardware based on each client: recording a techy young kid making modern music? The client will probably feel better seeing plugins being used over hardware. And when he's recording an old fart that doesn't trust computers? He leans on rack mounted gear for all of his processing needs. That's one way to keep the client happy.
If I had a couple of million to spend on a studio, I'd probably get a few fancy mics, and I'm sure I'd put some real money into preamps and converters. That said, past a certain threshold, microphones are less about sounding "better" and more about sounding "different". And if my preamps and converters were replaced by things costing 20x the price, would I be able to hear it? Would my listeners? I'm honestly not sure. Maybe I'd be able to hear it in controlled tests, so why not upgrade if I had the money? But the quality of my music would still come down to the song, the production, the performance, and the engineering. Not a fancier microphone, or better quality preamps or converters.
And that's it. Even if I had a couple of million to spend on a studio, I don't think I'd buy any more hardware than that.
To be sure, a bundle of money would go towards upgraded monitoring and room treatment. Those are the gifts that keep on giving.
When I was working out of a real, physical studio, I had access to hardware. But I realized pretty quickly that I didn't like it. The permanence clashed with my need for flexibility, the inconvenience clashed with my need to stay in the creative groove, and I never found the hardware benefit over what plugins could provide me. I write this post with the full realization that I'm biased, but I'm sharing the bias I've slowly developed over years because it's truth to me. It allows me to do more work more quickly with a greater a degree of control, and I no longer feel doomed to using inferior tools when I'm using software. That's why I'm sharing this with you.
If you have analog gear and love it, that's great. I'm glad it's working for you, and I'm glad you know how to use it to its fullest extent.
But for those of you feeling like you're missing out because you're poor, or you don't have the space, or you have to stay mobile: you're not missing out. The greatest tools you have are your experience, your tastes, and your creativity. Everything else is supporting, even the world's best gear. And plugins have sufficient quality and convenience to be all you need while you grow your experience, your tastes, and your creativity.
Are there any pros to plugins or hardware that you feel I missed? Do you have any one plugin or one rack-mounted unit you feel you can't live without? Share about it below.