In the last few years, the increase in computing power has led to an explosion in the availability of high-quality virtual instrument and effects plug-ins, many of which emulate classic hardware. I'm the first to admit that I'm a plug-in fan and have used them extensively on many recordings, usually alongside 'real' instruments. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get when someone tells you "that's the best drumming I've ever heard" when you've actually used BFD, although it is true that these kind of comments usually come from music fans rather than musicians, who can usually spot a fake when they hear one. I recently used Real Guitar to perform a pretty complex piece of picking, and was rewarded with praise for how my guitar playing had really improved. (Before you ask, I did explain the truth from behind my blushes.)
I don't think I'm alone in my use of software instruments; plug-ins have become an everyday part of music-making and even the pros use them nowadays, right?
Not necessarily. I have noticed an interesting trend emerging over the last few months. While Sound on Sound is full of glowing reviews of new and seemingly accurate representations of the equipment of old, the interviews with professional musicians and engineers that grace the pages between reviews often tell a rather different story. Here, it's often a case of "We did the demos using plug-ins, but when it came to the actual recording we used the real thing". This is usually followed by a tale of how weeks were spent scouring the second-hand shops of New York or Hollywood to find that elusive Roland Juno or Space Echo. Of course, I can't ignore the fact that some of these interviewees do say that they use plug-ins, but the overriding opinion seems to be that if it ain't in a big metal box, it ain't worth having.
This got me wondering why this difference exists. You could argue that hardware instruments actually do sound a lot better than their virtual counterparts and, if you can afford it, it's always better to use the real thing. Personally, I feel that, while this may be true of sounds recorded in isolation, I'm not sure that you'd really notice in the middle of a busy track. Analogue instruments have their own character, which changes even between examples of the same model, so you could also argue that this should translate into a more individualistic recording. However, this argument falls down somewhat when I hear musicians claiming that purely digital instruments, the sounds of which are all generated by software anyhow, sound miles better than their emulated cousins. In my experience, this isn't necessarily the case. For example, I feel that my software version of the Korg Wavestation is sonically at least equal to the hardware version that sits next to it, and probably superior in some other ways.
You can't ignore the snob value, of course. If you can afford to pick up a rare classic for a couple of thousand dollars just for the bleeps, blips and bloops on your latest album, then you're going to do so, aren't you? It's a status thing.
It's also true to say that some people prefer playing the originals. While my emulation of a Hammond B3 sounds a million times better than my old L100, I still miss the feel of the organ's keys and drawbars. While you can, to some extent, get a similar experience with modern controller keyboards, drawbars and bass pedals, it's still not quite the same and, as yet, no-one has perfected a virtual valve smell, or the virtual hernia I almost got from carrying the bloody thing!
I think the real reason, however, is that there's little in the recording chain today to separate the 'pro' from the serious amateur (unless you count recording and mixing environments). In the past, you could nearly always spot a professional recording because it was made using the kind of equipment most of us could only dream about. These days, the professionals often use exactly the same software and hardware that the rest of us do, so just what is there to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Eventually, vintage hardware will become as rare as a 23-minute Moog solo and as fragile as a pop princess's ego. When that happens, the content of the reviews and interviews in Sound On Sound may converge in their common admiration for the latest plug-in. Until that time, the pros will continue to search through the junk shops of America, while the rest of us carry on making music with the superb software now on the market.
Stephen Bennett is a writer, musician and film-maker based in Norwich and Sweden. He's still waiting for someone to create the Look Like Johnny Depp & Sing Like Paul Buchanan plug-in.