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.

Australian Guitar - - Home Recording -

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.

GO HARD

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

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