Hardware vs Software

This is an issue that comes up again and again. Can software compete with hardware for audio processing? Are the latest greatest models that purport to be indistinguishable from the real deal just a pretty picture on the screen, or do they actually sound the same? The internet is awash with opinions on this, and it wouldn’t do to feel left out…

It’s possible for software designers to replicate an eq curve, and some have done a great job of modelling the action of certain compressors. But the sound of analogue gear is usually in the way it distorts, and it’s in those distortions that the emotional component of the sound seems to live. It’s the thing that makes us go ‘Oooh’ when we hear a Pultec equaliser, it’s the crunch in the attack of an SSL compressor, the warmth of an LA2A and the depth that a desk can give you. And that distortion is not easy to model. It’s extremely complex and varies depending on the nature of the source.

Some designers have made a better job of this than others. Listening to the latest UAD Pultecs and LA2A’s recently, I found myself feeling some of that satisfying emotional pull. I think this can and will go further, but it’s no accident to me that the software company who seem to be leading the field in hardware modelling are really a hardware manufacturer. They’ve used their understanding of analogue to their advantage. And that’s also true of guys like Steven Massey, who makes amazing sounding plug ins, which while they don’t model specific pieces of hardware, have a very analogue sound. Those plug ins are designed as analogue circuits, and then replicated in software. Another great example is Dave Hill, who has always blurred the lines between his wonderful sounding analogue and digital products. His RA plug in is nothing short of astonishing in terms of achieving satisfying colour in a digital environment.

But I digress…what about the models? Is the software sonically identical to the hardware? Well this is a bit of a moving goalpost because every example of hardware is subject to variation, and my idea of a Fairchild might not be quite the same as yours. I think my answer would have to be no, at the moment it’s not an exact clone. But is that the right question to be asking?

A more relevant question might be ‘Can we make as GOOD a mix with software as we can with hardware?’ That’s a rather harder question to answer, and it’s impossible to make any sort of meaningful scientific comparison, because we can’t perform the same mix twice without being endlessly influenced by other factors.

Both software and hardware have advantages and disadvantages in music production. And often they are same thing…The flexibility of the digital equaliser may allow us to fit the pieces of the mix together beautifully, or they may lead us to over-correct, notching out problems that don’t exist. Such fine automation might allow us to achieve a perfect vocal balance where compression alone is too heavy handed, or it may cause us to focus so finely on the minutiae that we fail to see the whole. A piece of hardware that makes things sound bigger just by running through it may achieve what no amount of equalisation and compression can, but we may become blind to the fact that sometimes things don’t need that particular colour. As always it comes back to our judgement and skill.

These days there are other factors at play. Most mixers would agree that whatever their rig, there’s a necessity to be able to recall the mix and make changes at a later date. This will usually be because the artists don’t attend the mix session in the way that once they did, and we may need to get on with a different job for a couple of days until they’ve come back to us with comments. Some hardware can be effectively recalled, but some (particularly certain desks) simply can not. So software becomes a better tool for the job in that scenario. Cost is another…budgets are a fraction of what they were, and only a handful of guys can afford to half a million dollars of esoteric outboard sitting around. The way those guys cope with the recall issue is to have four of everything, all set differently, and choose the one that works best at the time. That’s an expensive way to work. I think we now work in an industry where it pays to be the cog that fits. Some great jobs just don’t have the budget to work in the way that we might most prefer. Adapt. Now is not the time to be the guy that MUST have an E Series to deliver a great mix. Sometimes compromises must be made. Look for the advantages in the way you’re working.

So what’s the conclusion to all this? You are the product. Your best friend is the fader. Never feel that you can’t do it because you don’t have access to a certain item.

Discuss if you will.

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