While it would be short-sighted to underestimate the importance of the computer in today's music studio, it would be equally foolish to make the assumption that every project studio has a computer at its heart (though many more may have one as an appendix). Indeed, judging by the types of systems we encounter on our Studio SOS visits, a significant number of users still prefer working with traditional hardware, and in most cases the choice depends on the user's approach to making and recording music. For example, if you simply wish to capture several musicians performing at once in as efficient and intuitive a way as possible, then a hardware recorder that follows the old multitrack tape paradigm is still the friendliest option. Arm the necessary tracks, hit the red button and you're in business. If, on the other hand, you make extensive use of MIDI instruments or your approach to music requires a lot of editing, building up tracks one part at a time, a computer system is clearly an attractive option.
It's no secret that my own studio is now very much based around a computer running sequencing software, though I also use a hardware 24-track recorder where appropriate. In any case, a software-based studio is not the same thing as a hardware-free zone — virtually all systems still need mic preamps, a mixer, microphones and monitors. What's more, fantastic though some of today's software instruments are, every instrument (hard or soft) has its own individual character and different instruments can't be considered interchangeable. I have some wonderful software instruments from the likes of Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, Steinberg and Emagic, but at the same time I still use a Roland JV1080 and a couple of Korg Wavestation modules. Not only do these provide me with instantly accessible sounds that I can't easily get from software instruments, but they also allow me to use far more MIDI parts in a composition than I could if I relied entirely on software instruments — my computer would simply run out of steam.
Even if it were practical to replace all your instruments with software, you'd still need a controller, usually in the form of a keyboard, though in my case it's mainly a guitar synth or a set of MIDI drum pads. If you're a guitar player, you'll probably need a recording preamp or some form of guitar/amp modelling. So the idea of a whole studio that fits on top of your computer desk is a pipe dream for most people, especially those who've come to appreciate the benefits of a moving-fader control surface.
What this all comes down to is that, in terms of the actual amount of hardware involved, there's a lot less of a difference between hardware- and software-based studios than you might think. Indeed, an all-in-one 24-track workstation and a pair of monitors might well take up less space than its software equivalent.
On a practical level, both hardware- and software-studio users are ultimately working with the same basic tools — a multitrack recorder, a mixer, EQ, effects and so on. Similarly, the same recording and mixing techniques apply in both areas, which is why the sequencer user can still benefit from reading articles about hardware processors, and someone with a hardware recorder can pick up valuable production tips from articles that relate to working with software. All studio equipment does is provide you with a set of tools to do a job and, at the end of the day, all that really matters is that the job gets done.
Paul White Editor In Chief