Compressors, equalizers, reverb effects, delays… for the weekend-producer as well as the serious home-studio owner, kitting yourself out with some real hardware units can prove pretty costly. The big question is whether or not the virtual audio plugins designed to emulate real hardware and that you can use from the comfort of your DAW, do just as professional a job. So how good are current plugins at modelling hardware and how does it actually work?

How Does Hardware Modelling Work?

We’ll start off with a lightly technical explainer: any audio plugin developer has roughly two routes to creating a convincing emulation of the technical performance and features of an analogue (or digital) hardware module. The first is to output both static (linear) and changing (non-linear) signals through the hardware and carefully measure the input-to-output characteristics of all the front panel controls and settings. Using this data, you can develop a DSP code (Digital Signal Processor) that mimics all of these changes.

The second route is to take a deep dive into the analogue circuits of the hardware, studying everything down to the component level before modelling each individual component block as a mathematical function. Most of the time, both techniques are actually combined and finished off with some hyper-critical listening sessions to gain the most accurate results possible.

Can You Emulate Ageing Hardware?

Analogue equipment is made up of various different components, like transistors, resistors and capacitors. All of these components naturally age over time, having a satisfying effect on the sound. It’s this specific ‘character’ that’s really hard to model, although functions can be added to imitate the effect, like the ‘wow and flutter’ function of any tape-deck simulator.

According to engineers, the effect is essentially linear vs. non-linear, so poses a massive challenge with no real solution yet in sight. So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the future. After all, it’s exactly that non-linear character that the users of vintage hardware fall in love with. If you take valve amplifiers as an example: the hardware is made up of a load of non-linear components, each adding their own specific array of ‘imperfections’, like saturation and distortion, and it’s precisely these less predictable characteristics that makes the hardware so much more charming, whether you’re a producer or a musician. However, it’s not that replicating this unpredictability is impossible – guitar simulation software especially does a pretty good job already – but for compressors and equalisers, it’s far harder to achieve that naturally aged feel.

Faster Computers

Since computer processing power is only increasing, plugin developers are able to produce more heavy-duty, high-end audio plugins. This level of processing power is also way more attainable than it used to be, pushing down the cost of the modelling process. A lot has happened since Waves developed and released the first ever plugin some 25 years ago. These days, we have immediate access to everything from tape-emulators to vintage compressors and equalizers, tape echoes and so on – all for a fraction of the price of the original hardware. There are plenty of companies busy making this software, including Antelope Audio, Universal Audio, Softube, IK Multimedia, Native Instruments, Overloud and Line 6.

The Real Thing or the Plugin?

The unpredictable fluctuations that happen as real hardware gets older as well as the hands-on feel that you can only get with a physical set of controls are near-impossible to replicate with a plugin. There’s something magical about it. But there’s also a lot to be said about plugins. For a start, you can happily load up multiple plugins in your DAW with no issues. If you want to do the same thing with hardware, things gets eye-wateringly expensive very quickly. Say you want to send a load of different audio sources through an LA-2A compressor independently – you’d have to buy an LA-2A compressor to manage every audio source.

Basically, both approaches come with their own set of pros and cons. The difference is ease on one side and authenticity on the other – but the gap between the two is actually getting smaller by the year. When using plugins these days, you’re barely making any sacrifices on sound quality, and the fact that more and more serious engineers choose to work fully ‘in-the-box’ is a good indication that, if you want to make a professional end-product, you can definitely do it using a few plugins. However, the quality level from plugin to plugin can vary enormously, so always make sure to do your research before you get out your wallet!

Which audio plugins would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

See also…

» Audio Plugins
» Instrument Plugins
» DAWs
» Studio Gear
» All Studio Gear

» Digital Mixing with Hardware Effects – How It’s Done

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