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Hardware v ITB

Matching An Outboard Mix Using Only Software By Pontus 'Evan' Hagberg
Published June 2024

Hardware v ITB

Can plug‑ins ever match the sound of outboard and an analogue console? Our unique comparison recreates a 48‑channel hardware mix using software alone.

Hardware versus in‑the‑box mixing has been a hot topic for almost as long as any of us can remember, but I don’t think there has ever been a true A/B comparison. Has anyone completed a full 48‑channel mix using hardware, then meticulously replaced it all with plug‑in equivalents, matching the levels and carefully replicating EQ curves — not just using equivalent plug‑ins, but also using test tones and spectrum analysers in an effort to make them sound, as far as possible, identical? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t believe there has been an A/B test of any sort on a full 48‑channel mix. Until now: I’ve done just that, and in this article, I will take you through the process I used and report what at least some of you should find to be pretty interesting findings. But first, it’s probably helpful if I explain just how I got to the point where I would be insane enough to attempt such a painstaking comparison...

Hear For Yourself - Audio Examples

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The MP3 files below are for convenience, but if you wish to truly hear the audio in high quality WAV format, download the ZIP file and audition in your own DAW.

1 - Symphony Of Sweden - Analog Hardware version

2 - Symphony Of Sweden - In The Box version

3 - Symphony Of Sweden - Analog mastered L8.2 (v1.1)

4 - Symphony Of Sweden - In The Box mastered L8.2

5 - Symphony Of Sweden - 2 Bar Alternating version

Hardware Crazy!

I’ve used hardware by preference for a while. Earlier in my career, though, I mixed exclusively ‘in the box’, and never quite managed to get my mixes to that point where they sounded ‘like a record’. I was happy that I knew what I was doing, and was certainly getting good results. But I still felt that the final product could sound better, so my thoughts turned to hardware — and when I saw a used SSL XLogic SuperAnalogue channel strip in a music store at a bargain price, I bought it. Back in the studio, I used the hardware insert feature in Pro Tools and, lo and behold, my lead vocals now sounded like a record. Whoa!

The author’s Neve 8424 mixer, with some of his SSL X‑Racks above, and (below) just some of the outboard he has acquired over recent years in his hunt for sonic perfection!The author’s Neve 8424 mixer, with some of his SSL X‑Racks above, and (below) just some of the outboard he has acquired over recent years in his hunt for sonic perfection!Hardware v ITB

Of course, that bargain turned out to be my most expensive buy ever! I called the store to ask if they had any other analogue gear in stock and, sure enough, they had a Neve 8801 EQ as well. When I first used that, I almost cried, and my gear obsession then very quickly ran out of control. I wanted more and more channels of analogue processing, and tracked down the last remaining stock of what I consider an extremely underrated product line: SSL’s X‑Rack, a modular system they created before the 500 series became ubiquitous. The UK prices were fair and the exchange rate with the British pound favourable, so I ended up with five X‑Rack chassis, each filled with modules, and during the next 18 months, I tracked down even more units from as far afield as Mexico.

Of course, I needed a lot of A‑D/D‑A converters to send audio between my DAW and all these real‑world channels and, although I’d never really bought into the analogue summing hype (it might change the sound subjectively, but I don’t perceive any ‘shortcomings’ in digital summing), I figured that with all this audio already in the analogue domain, it would make sense to have an analogue summing option available so I could mix in the analogue domain, or pass through fewer stages of conversion. To that end, I ordered a Neve 8424 console (reviewed in SOS October 2020), a versatile, high‑quality mixer with no onboard mic preamps or processing. That was perfect for me, since those bases were already covered by my outboard.

This brings us very close to today, but there was one more step in my productions that compromised two and half albums for me! In recent years, I’ve been working with a rock project called Symphony Of Sweden, which has had some minor success on Spotify. Even though I was mixing their tracks in the analogue domain, I felt that my mixes lacked the openness and the airy high end of the best albums. Partway through the third album, I tracked this down to my mastering processor, Softube’s Weiss MM‑1 Mastering Maximizer plug‑in (which uses exactly the same algorithms as the legendary Weiss DS1 Mk3 hardware).

If you’re reading this, Softube, don’t worry, because I have much better things to say about this plug‑in later! But, at this stage, MM‑1 was causing real problems for me. Until the point at which I captured the final mixes, everything was sounding great. I used the Neve 8801 EQ and SSL G‑Bus compressor on my analogue master bus and then, as the final processing stages, added the Weiss MM‑1 and a dither plug‑in before bouncing the final 16‑bit/44.1kHz master. Part way through the third album, I listened very carefully and could hear that the Weiss plug‑in was doing something I didn’t like: the energy it added was great, but it also ruined the high end for me. To solve this, I put my trust in analogue gear again: I was one of the first in the world to buy the expensive‑but‑wonderful LAAL, an analogue look‑ahead limiter made by Polish company HUM Audio Devices (reviewed in SOS February 2024). Half of the songs on our third album, Haunted, have the LAAL in place of Softube’s MM‑1.

Oversampling Awakening

At this point, I was a happy camper: having chosen my analogue path, I could finally make mixes and masters that I was genuinely proud of — that sounded ‘like a record’ — and I could easily have continued with that approach. But, about a year ago, I was making a sound library for a plug‑in/virtual instrument company, and in the process, I discovered something that would make me revisit this analogue/digital debate.

The core idea for this library was to use my analogue synths, but I also wanted to include one of my Firechild trademark sounds from a PPG Wave 2.2. As I didn’t have that synth any more, I tried to create it using Waldorf’s plug‑in version instead. Initially, I thought it seemed nothing like I remembered the hardware sounding, but for reasons I can’t really explain — it was just pure luck...

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