Outboard Gear vs Plug-ins

A debate that always seems to be raging is the great war of outboard gear vs plug-ins. There is a flood of software coming out these days that will emulate the sound of some of the best, and hardest to find, outboard gear around. Companies like Waves, URS, Universal Audio, and many others are making plug-ins that offer you a decent facsimile to their hardware counterparts, and usually at a fraction of the cost. Sounds like a dream come true, but is it TOO good to be true?


Depending on who you ask you’ll get any number of responses to this, and some people are quite emphatic about their response. As usual, I’m somewhere in the middle but I thought that it might be helpful to you guys to get to hear the opinion of a guy who owns basically all of the major plug-ins out there, and has used a good deal of the hardware that’s out there. I’m fortunate enough to have all of the URS and Waves emulations, as well as some emulations from McDSP, and have used the UAD stuff. This post will be strictly opinion based, but down the road I do hope to post some A/B comparisons between the real deal hardware, and the software that claims to copy it. As I posted a few days ago, my time is limited right now due to the amount of work I’ve been putting into my album, so me ranting is as good as you’ll get for now. :)

The first thing that everyone wants to know, is actually the least relevant piece of information in my opinion. How do the plug-ins sound? Everyone wants to know if they sound as good as the hardware. You would think that for an audio plug-in this would be the most pressing issue, but in my opinion it’s not. An analogy…You’re looking at a $3000 channel strip from high end hardware brand “X.” It sounds great, gets rave reviews, and is generally accepted as the golden standard of channel strips. Unfortunately you can’t afford it, as you only have $300 to spend on a channel strip. So instead you get a less expensive, chinese made, channel strip. It sounds fine, does the job you need it to do, and is all you could afford. It doesn’t matter if it sounds as good as the $3000 channel strip, because the $3000 channel strip isn’t a possibility for you financially. What matters is that it sounds good enough, and does the job you needed it to do.

The same thing applies to these software emulations. If you can afford the hardware, and want that exact sound, then buy the hardware. I’m going to go out on a limb though, and assume that because you’re considering software emulations, you either can’t afford the hardware, or don’t feel like messing around with trying to find vintage gear. Either way, the hardware is out for you. Because the hardware is out of the question for you, you must accept that you won’t get the exact sound of that hardware. What should be at the forefront of your mind now is getting software that sounds good, regardless of how it compares to the original hardware, and that it does the job you want it to do.

These plug-ins all bring something to the table, that hardware can’t touch, and that’s convenience. Let’s look at the Wave API bundle for example. While I’ve used the hardware that this bundle is based on, and I LOVED it, the plug-ins offer so much more in the way of convenience. With the plugs, you don’t have to worry about writing down settings on hardware, or taking pictures of your rack, to make sure you can recall of your settings. It’s all saved for you in the session. You open your session and all of your EQ, and compressor settings have been saved. If you had mixed through the API hardware, then you would have had to have documented your settings, dialed in all of the knobs to exactly where they were, and then open up your session. Along those same lines, you can save presets in the plug-ins!!! I’ve got about 4 or 5 presets that I’ve made for each source (vox, bass, guitar, etc) that I know sound good, and work as great starting points on all of my mixes. Usually within about 10 minutes of opening a raw session I can get a useable initial mix, from which I can start to sculpt things a bit more. With hardware, this just isn’t possible.

A big difference between the two is going to be cost. Again, looking at the API bundle, it costs you about $775 to buy the software and you’ve got as many channels of each of the EQ’s and compressors as your computer can handle. For the hardware, you’re looking at about $6000 for just 1 of each piece that’s included in the waves bundle. Back to my channel strip example. The software costs almost 1/10 what the hardware does. Is it really fair to compare the two when it comes to sound?

The last thing the software has going for it is longevity. As long as you have an iLok, you have the plug-ins. Hardware breaks down. It’s a fact of life. Parts degrade, accidents happen, things just break. With software, you always have it. From here until you delete the program you have got the exact same processor that you’ve always had. You don’t have to find service centers, or source out parts, it just works.

After all of this, you’re probably gathering that I’m a big fan of the software. What can I say? I was born with a mouse in my hand and I like technology. BUT, I still see a place for hardware in this world. It sounds great, and brings an indefinable “secret sauce” to the sound that you just can’t get out of software. Also, it just plain feels good to twist some knobs. I’m still a gear junkie, despite my love for software, and I get a thrill out of patching things together, twisting some knobs, watching real meters fly, and flipping switches.

So what’s my conclusion? As I’ve stated many times before, if it does the job that you want it to do, then use it. it doesn’t matter if it’s hardware, software, vintage, new, cheap, or expensive. If you can get the results you need with it, then it’s the right tool for the job. Bottom line is, get out there and mix. Don’t spend your life pouring over forums debating whether or not the UAD cards sound as good as an 1176, or if the Waves SSL bundle sounds as good as the real deal console. Just get SOMETHING and start making noise. Don’t let the search itself cloud the reasons why you began the search.

Until next time
The Bearded Man

~ by beardsandgear on June 16, 2010.

5 Responses to “Outboard Gear vs Plug-ins”

  1. Liked the post. However one thing you failed to mention is value. What will your software be worth in 3, 5, or 10 years? Probably nothing. It’s a pain to sell. If you buy a good UA, Vintech, or API piece of hardware and take good care of it, there is a good chance you can get close to the same amount out of it in 10 years. Sure you may have to do some maintenance, but if you want to use your Waves bundle for 3 or 5 years, how much will you pay in WUPs? I’m all for the convenience of plugins and use most of the ones you mention, but now I am focusing more on hardware for all of the above reasons. Oh yeah and it just looks good in a rack!

    • Good point. Software will have a lower resale value, if anything 5 or 10 years from now, but since Waves is constantly updating all of their bundles/products, it also means that you won’t NEED to sell it off or replace it in 5 or 10 years. Chances are, whatever task you bought that software to perform today, you’ll still be performing the same task in 5 or 10 years. I’ve always needed, and will always need a good parametric EQ, or compressor, for instance.

      Have to play devil’s advocate. ;)

  2. Great sounding mixes come from knowing how to get the most out what you have not having the most, so it really doesn’t matter in the end rather it’s hardware or software if the finished product sounds great. I feel blessed to live in a time when I can have 20 channels of Neve or Api or SSL it wasn’t very long ago most of us would be lucky just to have an 8 track machine., that said I still love my hardware.

  3. I wanted an awesome guitar tone to play live but couldn’t possibly justify purchasing, say, a full-stack Orange amp and could never get away with hauling that thing around and setting it up. I was also looking into the Fractal Axe-FX but couldn’t justify the purchase price of $1500 for just a guitar emulator (that will probably be out of date in a few years anyway). I decided to build a desktop computer using an Audiophile 192 sound card. It sounds great, has very low latency, is reliable (so far), and is actually quite easy to set up and tear down (only takes me one trip from my car). I’m really a tone junkie but I’m not that into music to justify purchasing so much gear. When I don’t play/edit music, I can just play video games on the computer. I’m running 100% free VST plugins hosted in Reaper and I couldn’t be happier!

  4. […] idea that the original units are still the best persists. That is exactly the argument that Beards and Gear examines. He presents a level-headed take on the […]

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