THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
ROB LONG CALLS A TIME OUT ON THE HARDWARE VS. SOFTWARE DEBATE AND OFFERS UP A HEALTHY OVERVIEW WITH SOME LOW STRESS SIDE OPTIONS.
The debate over hardware vs. software is now old news, but one that nevertheless continues to unite, divide and generally amuse engineers from all walks across the globe. Audio forums still buzz into the small hours with banter over the pros and cons of both methodologies.
One thing is blatantly clear: there is no one, solitary way to do anything. One engineer’s bliss is another’s headache. There are as many ways to go about tracking, mixing and processing audio as there are people doing it. As soon as a convention is established in the industry, somebody flips it on its head and proves that the opposite is equally viable.
The lowdown is quite simple – there are advantages and disadvantages to using either hardware or software, and in today’s reality, a combination of the two is virtually inevitable.
Theoretically, hardware should provide the highest quality sonics and help you get the best signal into your DAW. It should be able to add character and warmth to your recordings during the tracking and mixing processes. Be it a high-end preamp, a valve compressor, a full-blown console or an analogue tape machine, specialised design and engineering, capacitors, transformers and tubes all combine to add depth, colour and ‘mojo’ to the signal path. There is truth to the claim that simply passing audio through some high-end devices improves sonics, fattens tones and introduces harmonic colour, before even touching a dial. Good outboard gear is an investment and can last a lifetime.
On the downside, quality hardware is expensive to buy and often costly to repair. A mono outboard compressor can only treat one sound source at a time, and could set you back $1,000 or more. On top of this, recalling the settings for a remix is generally a slow and painful process.
IT’S OKAY TO BE SOFT
Software is far more affordable, and can be used in multiple instances across as many tracks as your computer can handle. The ‘bang for buck’ factor is a no-brainer: you can buy an entire virtual FX rack for the
price of one decent piece of outboard kit. And of course, the modelling technology has evolved by light-years, with software versions of most classic studio favorites available, often from the original designers. But software isn’t all about hardware emulation. There are software FX programs that go where no hardware has ever gone; the possibilities are now in a completely different sphere.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of software is convenience. The ability to instantly recall a mix, make a minor adjustment and reprint in minutes is an undeniable gamechanger. Having literally hundreds of presets at your fingertips makes for a super efficient workflow.
Once again, however, there are limitations. Software is only a programmed emulation of a hardware unit, or variations thereof. The quality of a plugin varies greatly from brand to brand and model to model. In a blind shootout with hardware, it’s realistically only a small percentage of emulations that could compete.
Many plugins consume a lot of processing power, and sometimes things get a little overloaded and your workflow is interrupted. Software is also an investment, but eventually, upgrades to your system and changes to your DAW or operating system are bound to affect what you can take with you into the future.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Thus, the concept of the hybrid studio is possibly the most appealing long-term option in this day and age. Really, all this means is that a combination of digital and analogue processing is used at various stages in the production process. The possibilities are endless, of course, but let’s look at some popular ways of combining and integrating both elements in the studio.
Firstly, it takes some basic hardware just to get a signal into your DAW. At the very least, you'll need A/D converters, a preamp or two, and probably a mic. Once the audio is in the box, it's possible to do everything you need to do right in the DAW, all the way up to post-production, mastering and CD authoring.
If, however, you want to get things sounding closer to the final product
before it hits the A/D converters, you’ll need to work up some more serious signal chain action on the way in. After recording for some years, most people get to a stage where they're confident enough using plugins during mixdown and can achieve the sounds they are striving for. Why not start applying some of that expertise during the tracking stage? To many engineers and musicians, there’s nothing more fulfilling, simple and direct than patching together a chain of their favourite hardware devices and dialing up some good ol' analogue tone in real-time, then printing straight to ‘ tape’. If you know what you’re looking for and know how to achieve it, there’s no substitute.
At this juncture, it’s important to acknowledge that yes, it is possible to apply software processing over an input channel whilst tracking, by recording through a plugin. The main issue is latency – the additional audible delay caused by the extra processing phase. This can make it hard to play in time, unless you can monitor with a direct input source rather than through the DAW outputs.
Tracking with hardware is sheer joy if you have the experience and skill to pull those great tones straight up. You can save yourself a tonne of time in post-production and end up with a more natural and convincing result.
Whether it’s in the budget or not is another question, though. One high-end channel strip – including a preamp, EQ and compressor – could easily set you back between $1,500 and $3,000. This may be achievable for one or two channels, but things quickly get silly if you’re hoping to track an entire band in a live setting. It’s about being realistic, and getting the most use out of what you have. If you track in stages, you can easily re-employ your chain for each new sound source.
Of course, an analogue console is the traditional ‘dream’ option as the centrepiece of the studio; a quality
console will produce a killer tone. It's all about hands-on efficiency. But once again, it’s a toss up between tone and flexibility. Unless you have an automated console with flying faders, you'll end up having to reset the desk fully just to mix out a minor tweak. Combine this with a potentially mind-numbing re-patch, and it's headache o’clock. You can’t have everything... Or can you?
Tracking with quality hardware chains is the obvious progression from recording ‘dry’ signals into your DAW and then doing all of the other processing in the box. But what about incorporating some analogue cream into the mixing or post-production phases? This is a great way to get extra mileage out of some of your expensive hardware, throw in some spice, and add an extra creative stage to your workflow. Once again, a fully automated console is at top of the list, but let’s look at some of the more achievable options.
IS IT IN THE MIX?
Part of what a mixing console does is ‘summing’ the audio down from multiple channels to a stereo output. As the adage says, "The sum is greater than the parts" – the interaction and harmonic distortion between the channels can add dimension and body to the mixdown. Running DAW outputs through a console for EQ and summing alone is common practice – all levelling automation and other FX processing can still be done inside the box, so you get the best of both worlds.
Theoretically, a summing mixer can perform a similar task. The audio tracks in the project are grouped and bussed down to (usually) 16 DAW outputs and routed into the summing mixer. The summing mixer’s stereo outputs are usually then passed through a stereo preamp (as high quality as possibly) to make up for a loss in gain and to add some colour to the overall mix. The resulting audio is the routed back into the DAW and re-recorded as a final ‘coloured’ mix. Some engineers use summing mixers simply to be able to run critical elements (vocals, kick, snare, and so on) through hardware chains on the way to the summing device.
Summing mixers can be totally passive; they do nothing but sum multiple channels into a stereo pair. However, there are many commercially available summing mixers that handle the gain makeup internally, as well as offering other features such as an insert over the master buss, or even over each channel. Some go further and offer built-in EQ, compression, or advanced control of harmonic distortion and saturation.
An even simpler scenario is to run your master DAW outputs through a stereo outboard chain – typically an EQ or a compressor. But even a stereo preamp can add flavour. Bonafide stereo pieces are obviously much more convenient for this task, but you can try matching the settings on two mono pieces to achieve the same result.
Mixing from digital sources onto two track analogue tape, then re-digitising, is still widely practised in mastering rooms around the world. True tape compression is widely accepted as holding benefits over a mix, and it's easy to get some of that analogue air and sweetness.
Whichever way you roll, there are doubtless benefits to both digital and analogue processing, and to software and hardware. It's up to the individual to find what works for them. The only limit is your imagination... Well, and maybe your budget.
ABOVE: CONSOLE GAMES
RIGHT: DRESSED TO COMPRESS
BELOW: EQ TIME
ABOVE: PLUG-IN BABY
BELOW: A PATCH BAY ONLY A MOTHER COULD LOVE
ABOVE: SUMMING MIXER