Plugins vs. Hardware: One Take on the Never-Ending Debate

This is an argument that, for me, has gone on a touch too long. We’ve reached a critical mass. The world’s going to cave in on itself and we’ll be stuck in about eight billion degrees of molten iron, and then we’re not going to be able to record anything except for the sound of our dying yelps.

Plugins versus analog hardware. Ones and zeros against tubes and transformers. Cats fighting dogs. Butter trying to eclipse the market for bread.

Two Revision D 1176s

You’ve got a mic modeler that turns your SM57 into a U 47, eh? Or maybe you despairingly believe that no digital emulation of the Cooper Time Cube will ever match the literal garden hose in a box that you’ve got in your bunker. Do you think your virtual 1176 equals a perfectly-maintained vintage Revision D, or are you going to cry to ‘till the cows come home about how your “Blue Stripe” hardware unit beats the pants off of the cartoon version even though the Blue Stripe 1176 is, in my not-so-humble opinion, a complete flop? What about the Fairchildren? Won’t someone please think of the Fairchildren?

Let me drop the gavel here. All rise as the Honorable Judge Sean makes his ruling.

There’s a metric ton of outboard gear that will never be “exactly recreated” in the digital plane. There’s a large army of plugins that will functionally and sonically walk all over the mud of overhyped rack units. And unless you’re some brilliant number-crunching software coder or pocket-protected circuit designer who gave up a cushy government missile defense job for building studio compressors, there isn’t a whole lot you can do to change that.

So let’s get real for a couple of minutes here and go over the overtly dumb bull-plop we’ve been arguing about since the advent of Pro Tools (or “Sound Tools,” as it was originally known).


Apples to Sports Cars

The very basis of this debate sits squarely on the puny, narrow shoulders of comparing something that only exists virtually with something that actually takes up space in the physical world -- something you can touch. Does this not-so-minor detail make one objectively “better” than the other? Heavens, no! It just makes them completely different things that shouldn’t be compared in the first place.

Consider a few indisputable facts here. Plugins, like any digital file, can become inexplicably corrupt when your computer decides it hates you, or they can be accidentally deleted, or the designer could drop off the face of the planet and stop supporting and updating the thing and then when you go to upgrade your DAW, suddenly this virtual entity fails to exist. Hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars evaporate. Gone.

That’s the digital world. Get used to it. You’re purchasing a license to use something for some varying amount of time. You’re not actually buying something. This goes for a lot more than just plugins.

So does that make hardware perfect? Hah! Anyone who has ever had any sort of collection of analog gear, even if it’s just guitar pedals, knows that this stuff has moving parts, circuits which can let the mysterious magic smoke escape with the unpleasant odor of crisped capacitors… hell, a whole lot of the old stuff has components that literally cannot be bought when they fry. Unobtanium. You’ve got to get newly-manufactured “compatible” replacements that sink the value straight into the crapper and completely futz with what the thing does sonically. At that point, why did you even buy it?

You can download a single 1176-like plugin for a couple hundred bones (hell, some of them are free) and get dozens of instances of said plugin on one session. You can also spend ridiculous amounts of your money on a single hardware unit that has one input and one output. Now when you want to use the thing on multiple tracks, you have to sit there and find the sound you’re looking for, print it, go on to the next track and repeat, then the next one, and then two hours later, decide that the first pass on that kick drum track is flat wrong and you need to redo it. You’re chasing your tail and you wasted two hours and my, oh my, I sincerely hope no one is paying for the privilege of sitting there and watching this nonsense.

But guess what: If you have fifty 1176 plugins on your mix, your mix is probably very bad. You have an instantly recallable awful mix.

And that’s where the “apples to sports cars” analogy really digs in. We are talking about two completely different things that both have their ups and downs. Maybe “bicycles to sports cars” is a more fitting parallel, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.


The Truly Fair Fight

Fairchild 670

So let’s say you’ve chosen to ignore the 800+ words above and want to shoot out the latest and greatest plugin emulation of something you’ve already got in your rack. I mean, really, if the plugin can do what the hardware unit does, why do you own the hardware unit?

You take a grand piano recording -- a very dynamic and harmonically complex entity -- and stick your spankin’ new graphically impressive Fairchild 670 plugin on one insert, then pop your $30,000 beast that eats sixteen $250 tubes every 6 months on a hardware loop from your DAW.

Stop right there.

If you want to truly make this a fair fight, you’ve got to put the plugin on that same D/A-A/D loop. I don’t care that you read about how digital conversion is perfect. We heard the same thing about CDs in the ‘80s...“Perfect Sound Forever!”

Whenever you pass voltage through any electronic device, the original signal will be affected. I don’t care if you’ve got $15k in Lavry converters."

Converting a signal two additional times, to analog and back, will affect the original signal. Whenever you pass voltage through any electronic device, the original signal will be affected. I don’t care if you’ve got $15k in Lavry converters. So go ahead, subject the plugin to a converter loop.

Here’s another couple of doses of reality for you: has the outboard piece seen service since Gerald Ford accidentally became President of the United States? Did the designer of the plugin model your exact unit in its current electrical and operational condition? Did the designer of the plugin actually model anything at all, or are you just looking at a very convincing drawing?


What Do We Want? Results! When Do We Want ‘Em? Results!

Well, here we are. You’ve got a “scientifically accurate” comparison (kindly excuse me as I laugh myself into the grave) of a digital emulation of a Fairchild 670 against the real McCoy -- something that was designed as part of a gigantic machine to cut the masters for vinyl records, not something that was designed to be used on your piano. Time to play it back and evaluate.

Got your tinfoil hat ready?

You’ll have one of three opinions at this point, and they’re all stupid because what you just did is stupid:

  1. “Not only does the plugin sound great, it totally puts the hardware 670 to shame! The top-end is way more extended and the track just pumps and breathes so perfectly! I can really hear what it’s doing! Time to cook up some fakakta story about how irreplaceable the Fairchild is on the very online listing where I’m trying to sell it!”

  2. “The hardware buried this dumb cartoon! I can really hear what it’s doing! Tubes forever! The real Fairchild isn’t supposed to pump and have all those compression artifacts the way that plugin does, and the genuine article rounds things out so amazingly and is totally worth the $30,000 I spent on it for some reason!”

  3. “I can’t hear what they’re doing. I can’t tell the difference…”

You see what I’m getting at here.

The Verdict

There are amazing plugins, and there are useless plugins. There’s incredible outboard gear that maintains or increases its value, and there’s revolting “Blue Stripe” 1176s (which can actually sound very good after they’ve passed through Bob Alach’s hands, but...).

Use them both correctly, and use them only when necessary. Get everything you need, everything you’ll use, and nothing you won’t."

So what do you do? Plugin or outboard gear? Digital or analog processing? Very simple: Use both. Use them both correctly, and use them only when necessary. Get everything you need, everything you’ll use, and nothing you won’t. If you land on a trial-period plugin that saved you your skin on multiple occasions through the seven days you had it for free, buy it without thinking twice. If you get a hardware unit that does the same thing, but better, you’ll still have the plugin for tracks that are not mission-critical.

On the flipside, if you pick up some highly desirable piece of vintage gear that everyone on the interweb says is the bee’s knees and you get it in your place and don’t see what the fuss is about, sell it immediately and try another box, or even try a plugin. Maybe a plugin you’ve already got that you’ve been ignoring. We’ve all got ‘em.

To quote the infamous sports broadcaster Pete Franklin, “You could argue, but you’d be wrong.”

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