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Outboard effects versus plug-ins.

I’ve decided to buy some type of good reverb for my DAW. There are so many hardware units on the market, but my question is more fundamental. Should I add a hardware unit, or are the software plug-in versions going to be good enough?”

Historically some software plug-ins have left something to be desired in terms of sound quality compared to their high end hardware counterparts. Sometimes this is less a problem with the plug-in and more a problem with the architecture of the DAW they are written for, but in either case there are some users who feel the results are better when they do most of their serious processing outside of the computer.

When you consider that many outboard effects are built from the ground up to do exactly what they do, and have exactly the right processors (and other components) in them to do that job in the most effective way, you can see the advantage. A great sounding reverb is more than a few lines of code ported over to whatever system your computer happens to be using. Many users report they do get better results with outboard gear. This goes for reverbs, compressors, equalizers, etc. Another reason to consider a hardware reverb unit in particular is because any plug-in reverb worth its salt is likely to take a good bit of computing power to run, which means you may not be able to do all the other stuff you need to do in your mix.

That said, computers have so much more power today than even just a couple of years ago that it has become possible to devote much more of the computer’s resources to signal processing functions. The recent trend we are seeing is more plug-ins with a real emphasis on sound quality. In those cases they really do begin to rival some of the very best outboard units. With something as involved as reverb there is still a gap between what the best plug-ins do compared to the best hardware units, but the difference in cost is also quite significant.

The main advantages of plug-ins have been price and convenience. With a single plug-in costing a few hundred dollars, you are able to get multiple instances (instantiations) of a given processor (though with reverb one is often enough). Compare that to buying individual outboard pieces (each with its own power supply and enclosure) and the cost savings quickly adds up. Plus every plug-in parameter gets stored with the session, which greatly simplifies recalling projects later. In fact, most plug-ins allow virtually every parameter to be automated within the session. This type of flexibility combined with their relatively low cost is why plug-ins are so widely used in DAW’s. Really the only major rub has been the sound quality, and that’s becoming less of an issue all the time, though we’d still say to choose your plug-ins wisely. Your Sweetwater Sales Engineer can bring some real world experience to the table on this, and help you make the best decision for your needs.

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