Mix engineers used to prefer hardware to software because it sounded better. Is that still true? And if not, is there still a reason to use it?
The world of audio can be a strange one. People who have worked out of analogue studios for their whole career are selling all their gear and moving 'in the box', while smaller studios not too long in the game opt for expensive hardware gear and even install analogue consoles. There is more newly designed and manufactured hardware on the market than ever, whilst plug‑ins are getting better and better and more expensive. So what’s going on?
If you have ever visited one of the popular audio forums online, you will know that all those ‘hardware vs software’ discussions are filled with heat. They are basically endless and eventually lead to the same result: some say hardware is always better, and some say they don’t hear a difference. Let’s take a different, practical look on the matter.
If you received a set of plainly numbered audio files, one from a hardware unit costing £$2k and the others from plug‑in emulations, you’d expect one to sound noticeably better, right? The web is full of these blind shootouts, and I have done them and shared them myself. If you really take the time to match all contenders as closely as you can, you’ll find yourself hard pressed to form conclusions beyond “That one sounds a little duller, while that one sounds a little brighter.” Often, it’s a struggle to hear a difference at all. So if you can’t immediately hear a clear difference in terms of better or worse, then what’s the point of shelling out £$2k for that hardware unit?
Plug‑ins have come such a long way that most A‑list mixing engineers use them exclusively for mixing. Even longtime hardware advocates like Andrew Scheps and Michael Brauer have moved completely in the box. Yes, recalls and deadlines are a key factor, but you don’t believe these guys would have made such a move if they felt their mixes became worse, do you? Today, almost every piece of hardware, old or new, has been emulated in a plug‑in. So not only can people keep using their favourite gear, but they can use as many instances of it as they want and their CPU or DSP lets them. And all without the need for maintenance, or a substantial electricity bill.
If the best engineers in the world can and do make great‑sounding records in the box, the quality is good enough. However, there is still a case to be made for hardware, and this is especially true in the context of a home or project studio.
For me, the discussion about plug‑ins vs hardware ends here in terms of quality. If the best engineers in the world can and do make great‑sounding records in the box, the quality is good enough. However, there is still a case to be made for hardware, and this is especially true in the context of a home or project studio: it can help you find a unique sound which is yours alone. And which, if it’s good, attracts potential clients to have you mix their stuff because they want that sound....