Plug-ins VS Outboard Gear

Written by: Michael Heeley

The decision to use plug-ins or outboard gear is one that all engineers must face, whether they are a home studio hobbyist, or the seasoned professional.  Although in the real world, most people use a combination of either, for the sake of this web-log, or blog as the kids call it, we are painting the world black vs white, right vs wrong, god vs. the devil.  Ok, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole, but we are comparing and contrasting the two.  But fear not, good readers! I’m here to help you to decide which format to use.  There are many factors when considering whether to use plug-ins or outboard gear, but we will focus on 3; cost, ease of use, sound.

But before we get to that, let’s make sure we’re sure we know what we even mean by the terms “plug-in” and “outboard gear”.  Simply put, a “plug-in” is a software based audio program that can be used to affect existing sounds, or to create new sounds, such as a virtual synthesizer. They are usually, but not always, a separate program that is open in conjunction with your DAW and virtually “plugged into” a track to perform its audio function.  Outboard gear, on the other hand, is physical hardware used to alter your sounds.  These are the multitude of boxes racked up in the recording studios you see on TV, like this:

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to our 3 main factors we’re focusing on, cost, ease of use, and sound.

The first factor we’ll look at is cost.  Both software and hardware come in a variety of prices and quality so it is important to remember that this is not a comprehensive list.  We will look at comparing the hardware and software versions of a couple of standard audio effects, and the value both types have for the engineer.

One of the most commonly used audio effects is a compressor.  It can be used on virtually all instruments, including the voice.  A compressor’s main function is to change the dynamic range of a signal to lower the volume of loud sounds, and/or raising the volume of soft sounds.  A quick Google search shows that compression software can range anywhere from about $30, all the way to $1000 or more.  The same search for prices on hardware compressors result in a range from $130, all the way up to $10,500.  Obviously, just like anything else in life, you will get what you pay for.  Most of us who are recording at home, do not have a need for an $11,000 compressor, unless we have more money than we know what to do with.  (If that’s the case, call me, I can help you spend some of it).  But when looking for a product with a reasonable cost, plug in software will usually get you where you need to go sonically, and will have more features for the dollar.

Also, some companies make software that mimics well the sound of it’s hardware, eliminating the need to purchase racks and racks full of gear.  For example, the SPL De-Esser, a common piece of equipment in most recording studios sells for around $800 for the hardware version, and $200 for the software bundle that has 2 different De-Esser emulators.

Now look, I’m not saying that all plug-ins sound like their hardware counterparts.  If you are looking for a warm, analog sound, especially something with a tube preamp, then hardware is the way to go.  I also get that the $300 software version of the Elysia Alpha 2 Compressor (the aforementioned $11,000 piece of hardware) may not be an exact representation of the original hardware.  But, for $300.00 you’ll have the ability to use that plug in on multiple tracks instead of having a rack of hardware that costs more than most used cars.

The second consideration when choosing between hardware and software is ease of use.  Most hardware, with the exception of mixing boards with recall functions, don’t have the ability to save your settings.  So if you are working on several different tracks and having to go back and forth between the two, you will have to write down all of the settings for your hardware so you can put it back to where you need it when switching from track to track.  Let’s take the De-Esser from above as an example.  Let’s pretend I’m working on 2 different tracks, for 2 different projects.  The first track is a voice over for a commercial with a female voice.  I already have a mix of the backing track, taking up the first 2 tracks in my DAW.  Her voice is track 3.

My second project is a band project with the drums taking track 1-8, track 9 for bass, 10 for guitar, and 11 for the male lead vocals.  I only own one De-Esser and both clients want to hear a rough mix.  What do I do?  Well, I have to route my De-Esser into track 3 for the commercial mix with the female voice, which requires a different “s-reduction” point and other settings.  Then, when I print that rough mix, I have to re-route my De-Esser to track 11, change the settings for male and print that mix.  Oops, I forgot to write down my settings for the first track, and have to start all over when I go back to do the final mix!  So frustrating!

With the software, not only am I able to use the same plug in on multiple tracks with multiple settings, but I can save everything in each session, so it will instantly be recalled when I go back to that session.  No longer will I have to shake my fist at the sky when I forget to write down my settings on my hardware.

The third factor we will look at is sound.  Yes, sound is subjective, but many people really can’t hear the difference between a good quality plug-in, and a decent piece of hardware.  Much of the music we listen to now-a-days is created in an almost all digital format, so the richness of the analog or solid state hardware is lost in the digital processing anyway.  Way back in 2002, when my band was recording in expensive recording studios, we would record to 2 inch analog tape, transfer to Pro-Tools and use both plug-ins and hardware for mixing, but then mix down to ½ inch tape to get the tape compression that only analog tape can give you.  That was considered an ADA recording.  Analog, Digital, Analog.  Many recordings today are DDD recordings, that is, recorded into a computer, mixed in digital and then mixed down in digital as well.  With all of that digital recording, the sonic nuance that comes from hardware can be lost, and definitely not appreciated.  With the costs involved in purchasing all of the different hardware, only to be lost in digital processing, it doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense to have a ton of hardware outboard gear.  The exceptions to these I’ve mentioned before.  If you are looking for the warmth or natural distortion that only a tube mic pre can give, then you really don’t have a choice.  A plug in, no matter how expensive or easy to use, will not be able to accurately recreate that sound.

So to recap, there really isn’t a winner in the battle of “plug-ins vs. outboard gear”.  Many engineers and producers I know would much rather use hardware for the sonic qualities if given the choice, but to have as many options as one can have with the purchase of just one plug in suite, most of the time software is the drug of choice.  Many of us juggle several projects at once, and to have everything in your computer to recall at a moment’s notice makes a very strong case for the “plug-in” camp.  In the beginning of this journey I vowed to keep separate the two for the sake of comparison, in the real world, many of us like using a combination of hardware and software.  For example, a lot of  engineers like having a nice tube mic pre-amp to warm the vocals while recording, and then use software for the compression and effects, combining both worlds.  In conclusion (college professors love when you end your paper with “in conclusion”), to paraphrase a popular British pop band from the sixties, in the end, the sound you make, is equal to the sound you take…Or something like that.

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