Hardware Vs. Software
You may have noticed from my OSC Toy Box blogs and YouTube Mix Breakdowns that I like to mostly use hardware keyboards/synthesisers (as opposed to software virtual-instruments). I thought it might be apt to have a broader discussion around why I opt to predominantly invest in and use hardware instruments as opposed to software and the whole "inside the box" versus "outside the box" debate.
"Inside The Box" means inside the computer (i.e. internally created and/or altered, edited, manipulated, processed, etc)
"Outside The Box" means outside the computer (i.e. externally created and/or altered, edited, manipulated, processed, etc)
I'll begin this article with a bit of backstory as to how and why I work the way I do and then address some specifics on why I cherry pick certain "outside" and "inside" methodologies.
Background: Old Habits Die Hard - Make It Outside, Mix It Inside (The Box)
My first meaningful experience of recording was done using a Yamaha AW16G hard disc recorder. I had almost no personal-computing experience as a kid, so the idea of recording on a computer seemed very alien (and expensive). These Yamaha HDD recorders however were the hot, new product in the early 2000s for budding home-recording artists (like me). I was in my teens and worked at a guitar and pro-audio store, so utilised my staff discount perk and blew all my wages on it!
Principally, it's like a miniature DAW and audio-interface in a neat little package: 8-inputs (preamps), 16-channel capacity, each with a few (I think maybe four) effect-slots (EQ, compression, gate, etc) and some auxiliaries for reverb/delay applications. Lastly, once you'd made your music, you could burn it straight to CD. I was living in the future and the possibilities were endless...
In retrospect it was hugely restrictive, but at the time I felt like I had the entirety of Abbey Road Studio in this little box on my desk. Ignorance is bliss, right!
When (at university) I finally graduated to a PC running eMagic Logic 5.1 (eMagic developed Logic before Apple acquired it), I basically continued with the above-mentioned modus operandi. I used microphones for acoustic instruments, and my digital piano and a Roland XV-2020 I used to have for all the other stuff. I.e. all sound was created outside of the box, but the mixing was all handled inside the box. I was really late to the whole MIDI thing!
Getting Into MIDI - The Bottomless Pit of Software Instruments & Creative Stagnation
Once I finally got into the whole MIDI sequencing thing, I did what most aspiring producers do and hoarded as many software instruments and plug-ins as I could.
Spoilt with choice, I'd spend hours wading through presets and throw all sorts of things at my music. I fell into the trap of "this preset sounds nice, I'll use it", as opposed to considering what would best serve the piece of music I was making. The music I made was really just a collage of presets as opposed to coherent pieces with an artistic/musical voice.
Like many young musicians, I was prone to procrastination and fickle about creative direction/tone/style. Having a near endless selection of tools to choose from only further compounded this. I was spending all of my creative time scrolling through software instrument presets and trying to find that one sound that would stand out and make the piece of music I was working on really pop.
I was working exclusively inside the box at this point, but unable to adequately focus amidst the wide choice and visual noise of all the pretty software instruments. My musical development and creative process stagnated and was suffering; it was all the poorer for this newfound endless horizon of possibility.
During this time, I learned a lot about my creativity. I gradually came to realise that I need to place limitations on myself and the environment in which I work. I now knew that if I arm myself with every tool possible, I become lost in indecision, whereas, if I'm restricted to a few specific things, I become much more decisive and efficient, allowing the creativity to flow and not get bogged down with the technicality of what I'm using to create the sound.
Note: I know many, very good producers who have an enormous catalogue of software instruments and use them to great success. The above is in no way a comment or slight upon their practice, rather a reflection of my need for a simplified, more minimal work-flow and studio setup.
Upgrading & Future-Proof Issues - Repeat Purchases!
In the late 2000s I finally gave up on my PC and Logic 5.1, and took the plunge, switching to Apple Mac and Logic Pro 8 (or 9, I forget which). Naturally, I lost my enormous collection of (PC) software instruments. Attempting to recreate my collection proved overly problematic, with many being PC-only (and it was a waste of time, because whilst I liked having them, I didn't really use them all).
Around this time, I purchased some software instrument and effect plug-ins, but over time, as operating systems and software versions updated, I began to encounter issues of incompatibility and issues of "no longer supported" meaning I needed to purchase the newer versions of plug-ins I already owned and which I was happy with (until a software update broke them). Out of principle, I did not purchase the upgraded plug-ins.
Not having much (if any) spare income, I felt burned by this experience and it turned me away from any desire to spend money on software instruments or plug-ins.
Between the procrastination of having too much choice (mentioned above) and the ease with which companies appeared to end support and expect repeated purchases, I made a conscious decision to move towards only using hardware instruments that would not be rendered obsolete/broken by an Apple Mac OS upgrade.
After all, no OS X update is going to render my Roland JV-1080 unusable now, is it!
Less Choice = More Focus
Only having a small number of hardware instruments has forced me learn them thoroughly, empowering me to really milk them for all they have to offer (as well as switching me onto new creative possibilities). It's given me a newfound appreciation and respect for their design and capabilities (and of course, their musicality).
It's important to note here that software instruments can be just as sophisticated, powerful and nuanced as hardware instruments (synths and samplers), however, my failings and inability to be selective when using software instruments, coupled with financial concerns about longterm compatibility steers me away from them on the whole.
Furthermore, my decision to preference hardware is solely driven by personal workflow and financial considerations. It is in no way motivated by sonic quality, as I believe software instruments are just as capable as hardware instruments, in terms of sound creation and overall tonal quality (at least when we're considering synthesisers and keyed instruments; if we were talking acoustic instruments, there's obviously nothing better than the real thing, but that's a discussion about sampling that's best left for another article).
More Hardware = Less Convenience
It's without doubt that plug-ins are way more convenient (than hardware), as you can save settings on the computer and patch-recall is instant. When using hardware, I'm often making notes of hardware settings in my DAW or taking photos of controls/dials, and if I wish to recreate a patch it can be a little cumbersome at times. This is especially noticeable when working on commissions when I need to return to projects and revise things upon client feedback.
Side-note: If I end up doing a lot more commission work, I may consider investing in a small selection of virtual alternatives to my hardware (such as the Roland Cloud), to negate time lost to manual patch-recall.
Between detailed notes and a phone full of photos of my Roland JU-06A with different settings, I am able to get by. Whilst I account for this when planning production time, it nevertheless is undoubtedly a slower workflow. I.e. Sound creation outside of the box is not without its drawbacks (plus you need extra peripheries such as multi-channel MIDI interfaces, cabling, space, etc).
Side-note: There's possibly a discussion to be had about using hardware and recording the audio from it might place less strain on the CPU versus using a big, powerful, multi-voice software instrument. However, I think in this instance, there are arguably too many variable to cover in a simple way, and there's probably more detailed science and coding involved than I could hope to understand!
Hardware Effects? Nah...
I used to have grand ideas of amassing outboard effects/processors to the extent that most of my EQ and compression could be done with hardware and I'd only be using the computer for mixing levels, panning, reverb and a few other bits of finessing.
This was an overly ambitious notion, as the cost and space required is just far too excessive and it would slow my work-flow down considerably (setting-recall and/or adjustments, etc), which would get in the way of the creative process. Therefore the dream of putting together a killer rack of hardware processing was shelved many years ago and now, sits on my "when I win the lottery" to-do list.
Stock Vs. Third Party Plug-Ins
Effects - In the last 7-8 years, I've primarily used a small handful of Waves, iZotope and Valhalla plug-Ins as alternatives to the stock plug-ins that come provided with Logic Pro. Historically, I believe it's fair to say that Logic's plug-ins weren't great; a bit sterile, and/or over-invasive.
That said, in recent years, Logic has really upped its game on the stock-plug-in front. The vintage emulation on the console EQ and the different compressor algorithms are very good; they've become both nicer to use (visually) and aspects of their sonic handling has improved for the richer. I've found myself using Logic's stock plug-ins more and more for the daily bread & butter processing.
Since upgrading my Apple Mac a couple of months ago (which broke my Waves plug-ins ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), I've been getting by just fine with stock Logic effects and a little bit of finessing with iZotope oZone.
Side-note: iZotope oZone is rather expensive, but as a package, is very extensive and makes up for the few shortcomings that Logic Pro still has (namely tape-warmth emulation, in-depth dynamic EQ, multi-band stereo widening/narrowing and the all important maximisation - Logic's Adaptive Limiter just doesn't cut it for me; it's too blunt a tool for my liking).
Instruments - I'm a little bit of a Logic Pro fanboy, so expect a little bias here, but... I really like Logic Pro's stock software instruments (apart from Ultrabeat! That thing is about as user friendly as a kick in the face!).
Logic's old, legacy synths such as ES1 and ES2 (whilst admittedly in need of a visual makeover) are refreshingly flexible. It can be argued that they're perhaps a little sterile (tonally), but they can easily be warmed up with appropriate mixing and use of effects. Furthermore, like Logic's effects and processors, the instruments have been massively improved over the last few years. The addition of the Retro Synth and Alchemy were very significant, and the new Drum Machine Designer is absolutely great!
With my new Mac upgrade, another of my third party plug-ins that has broken is Native Instruments Battery 4. Logic's Drum Machine designer however, looks to be made in Battery's image, and I'm able to load in Battery 4 samples, so I've been able to transition to that seamlessly (as a "stock" alternative to Native Instrument Battery 4)
Lastly, whilst not impossible, it's highly unlikely that Logic will discontinue their software instruments, meaning that for the foreseeable future, using Logic's instruments is reasonably future-proof.
Hardware sampling in the modern era is a bit lost on me. I get that people like the sound of the old Akai 12-bit digital conversion and the Akai digital compression, but it's too logistically complicated (and slow) for my liking (to use hardware samplers). Furthermore, I believe Logic has always had a good sampler-game. The EXS24 is iconic and the new sampler, aptly named "Sampler" loads EXS24 patches without issue (so no problems there). Lastly, Sampler's user interface is fantastic (I hope the developers follow suit and do a similar overhaul of the legacy ES synths).
Honourable Mention To The Free Plug-Ins
There are a few, free plug-ins that I use quite often. Namely TAL Chorus, Melda's visualiser and some iZotope's freebies, such as Vinyl. I also like to use the free software instrument from YMCK: Magical 8Bit, for Chiptune tonalities. These are free, and help fill the gaps present in Logic's stock plug-in arsenal. They're not essential, but they are very effective, efficient and user-friendly. Whilst I use them often, were they to be discontinued, a viable replacement could probably be found and I wouldn't begrudge paying a small fee for such replacements.
To Sum Up - In & Out (Of The Box)
I do the majority of my sound creation outside of the box, and I do all of my mixing inside the box. I.e. my production process is both outside the box and inside the box, simultaneously.
As discussed above, this is driven by:
Early recording experiences
My inability to work effectively when faced with too much choice
Allowing creative practicality to take precedent over logistical practicality
Cost-effectiveness (or fear of future obsolescence)
I ought to also give an honourable mention to my innate love of keyed instruments. I can't really explain it, but I've always had a strong passion for keyed instruments. If it's got a piano-like keyboard, I want to know about it and more importantly, place my hands upon it. I'm in no way a spiritual man, but I often feel a sense of revery or sanctity when in the presence of high-quality keyboard instruments, or instruments evidently crafted for a specific musical purpose and/or to pioneer new directions in music, whether they're acoustic or electronic. For example this totally wild and bonkers Čtvrttónový Klavír Piano (three-tier, micro-tonal piano pictured above) on display in Prague's Museum of Music (I saw this in 2006 when on a city-break in Prague and it blew my mind! - Not really related to the article, but just wanted to mention it ≧◠◡◠≦).
Undoubtedly my affinity for keyed instruments has a subconscious influence on my preference for having tangible, real-world instruments, as opposed to virtual, sotware instruments.
So, What Should You Do?
Maybe you are in the early stages of your music production and unsure whether to take an inside the box, outside the box or hybrid approach. Or perhaps you've been at this for a while and feel like shaking things up a bit. Take solace in knowing that there are no rights and wrongs, as each method has its merits and drawbacks and ultimately, it boils down to preferences and circumstance, and it's a matter of doing what feels right for you. I don't believe there's a sonic or acoustic benefit either way; both methods can sound equally as good as each other.
I'm therefore not going to tell you what you should do. As I've alluded to, there are numerous factors such as experience, budget, work-flow preference and more that will influence your decision on how much you do inside vs. outside the box. Ultimately, it's a personal choice based on what you believe will suit your creativity and work-flow best.
However, if you're still unsure, I'll pose a couple of conversation starters to help get the get the ball rolling on what might be best for your situation:
Is your computer and DAW setup blowing your budget? If so, stop there. Don't overreach financially to buy additional hardware or software. You don't need it (yet?). Learn your DAW (and it's stock instruments and plug-ins) inside and out before you spend any more money. Once you've learned your DAW thoroughly, you'll know what gaps and shortcomings it has and be able to spend more effectively, to plug those gaps.
Remember that ultimately, the music is what's important. It's better to have musical ideas and a simple studio setup, than have all the gear and no idea!
Does the notion of future-proofing and compatibility worry you? If so, take a page out of my book and secure yourself a synth or two that aren't reliant on computer operating systems and software to function, freeing yourself from the burden of treading water in a sea of software-update incompatibilities. And remember, it doesn't need to be a super-expensive, state of the art thing! I know producers who release great music which has been made using odd, unusual and random synths they've picked up off eBay for a relatively small fee. There are many hidden gems of synthesisers from the late 80s to early 2000s that could add some fascinating spice and individuality to your work, for a relatively low cost.
Final Thought On Individuality
This article has mostly looked at things from a creative work-flow and financial logistics point of view, however one talking point that I've not mentioned is that of creative individuality and uniqueness.
It's by no means essential, but something to consider is that if you're using stock DAW instruments/effects and/or inexpensive/free/commonly-used third party software, there's a strong chance many others are too. This comes with a risk of things sometimes sounding familiar and/or similar to what other people are producing (which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but...).
If you desire increasing the distinctiveness and/or uniqueness of your sound, it's worth considering things away from the beaten track. I feel that hardware and an outside the box methodology is more likely to meet this brief in this instance (but of course, there will be interesting software options to also explore).
Consider browsing eBay, checking out local independent music instrument shops and pawn-shops for odd, weird and unusual equipment that you might be able to make use of. Cross reference your finds with internet searches and Vintage Synth Explorer reviews. Alternatively, if you're willing to make a sizeable investment, invest in something a little different from what might be the typical instruments used in your musical field of choice. Incorporating such unusual and/or quirky things into your work, alongside tried and tested tropes of your genre/style might just give you an edge and help you stand out from the crowd.
Ultimately though, whether you're inside the box, outside the box, or a bit of both; whether you're using stock DAW software or have lots of third party plug-ins; whether you're using tried and tested things or have an assortment of wacky and unique instruments and equipment; what matters most is that your music is a reflection of you and your creative voice/vision.
I hope this article has been helpful, whatever your production process and work-flow is (or will be in the future), and that whatever you decide to do with your hardware or software in the future, I hope you enjoy the ride. Happy music production.
Steve (OSC) :-)