Does working with hardware dramatically alter working practice? Our weekly music tech column investigates.
Sounding Off is a regular series in which Jono Buchanan offers his thoughts, advice and analysis on the world of music technology.
The merits of working with hardware or software in the studio has formed a long-running debate, ever since plug-ins became viable components of production work but the conversations tend to focus on the sonic qualities of one working method or the other. This week, I'm going to focus on another debate, simply that of whether working with software creates a different working practice to that of a production made with hardware. Leaving the sonic result aside, if you're lucky enough to own or have access to a raft of hardware, is working with all of those boxes likely to achieve a different musical result, or are the two processes broadly comparable?
We all know that crafting a production takes time and that working from initial inception of an idea all the way through to a mixed conclusion is the work of many hours, no matter how inspired the original impulse. That said, when inspiration does strike, it can often be a matter of responding to it quickly; we've probably all been falling asleep in the wee hours at some point in our lives when a melodic hook, great beat or lyrical idea pops, fully formed, into our heads and experience tells us that ignoring these moments often means an idea wasted. At such times, software is a go-to solution. The advantage of being able to set up a collection of instruments quickly, loading sounds from memory and quickly firing in the necessary notes before tweaking sounds means that for accomplished programmers, even the most fragile ideas can be captured for all time.
The advantages of software extend beyond this too; the value of being able to recall a mix, with all of its patches, channel strips and automation months or years after a mix is complete, without recall via hardware mixers, rough guessing of EQ and dynamics settings (and with not a single patch cord in sight) is impossible to quantify, particularly if your work is being paid for by a waiting client. So, for experienced users, software allows you to work almost at the speed of thought, in that as ideas arrive, they can be realized quickly and your DAW can become a slave to your creative whim very easily.
However, the potentially unconscious down-side of working this way is that productions put together this quickly don't let you 'come up for air' in quite the same way that hardware often does. My studio is much like any other, in that in front of me is a controller keyboard and behind that is my computer screen, so if I want to work in software, I need never leave my chair—I can dial up the instruments I want to use, program their notes and then set about processing them with software effects. The hardware in my studio, in the form of keyboards, hardware compressors, channel strips, my faithful old mixer and the like is deliberately slightly out of reach—in order to use these devices, I have to get up and go to each device in turn and I've noticed recently that the moment I do this, my working methods change.
For starters, there's something tangible about having physical control of an instrument or device, whether that means adjusting synth parameters or reaching for hardware EQ settings. Secondly, I notice that I'm expecting to have to slow my workflow down when I decide to integrate hardware into a project and, in this way, I make slightly different decisions about what sounds and settings to use. Not only that but by stepping outside the sweet spot of my mix (which sounds best from my chair in its central position), I notice different things about it, some of which also then influence how my production progresses.
Lastly, accepting that hardware settings are temporary does make you 'get them right' earlier in the working process. If I'm using a hardware channel strip to process an analogue synth patch on an instrument which doesn't feature memory locations, I know that the next time I switch on that synth to work on a different track, or need that channel strip to track vocals, my settings will be lost. So, I tend to take a little longer to get the sound right but then immediately accept that once it's recorded into my track, as an audio file, it's 'fixed' in a way that a software equivalent never quite is or that, better still, the hardware 'start' forms an interesting launch-point for software development of an idea, via elastic audio, conversion to sampler or via effects processing.
What's clear is that both practices have huge advantages and, as consumers, those of us lucky enough to have devices offering both approaches have never had it so good. If you want to keep ideas flowing, both at lightning speed and at a more considered pace, a little bit of both might just prove the perfect balance.