It wasn't long ago that we didn't even know what a plug-in was, let alone use one.
But in the last 20 years plug-ins have become a core part of the music and post production chain, for many replacing some if not all of their old hardware.
Some people like me still own hardware, in fact I started buying it all again by acquiring things like a 1970s dbx compressor, the UAD 1176 and an SSL channel.
Can You Hear The Difference?
There was a time in the early days of plug-ins when you could spot the software version a mile off, but plug-in development has moved on considerably. Some people claim to be able to be able to hear the difference but it's nigh on impossible to spot the difference in a blind test. We've run enough if them on Pro Tools Expert, in this test most preferred the plug-in when comparing a dbx160 hardware unit with the plug-in version.
I happen to own the hardware unit used in that test.
Was I bothered by the result, did I think of selling it? Not at all.
Why I Own Some Hardware
So in a world of amazing plug-ins why would people like me own hardware? Speaking for myself I do like the way I can reach for a physical control and move it 'blind' until I get the sound I like. Granted you can do this with some control surfaces but for me the ability to hear the sound as I change it without looking at a screen or a control surface is kind of satisfying. I like the physicality of hardware and being able to grab something, perhaps that's the caveman inside me, or a mid-life crisis playing out?
Zero latency tracking. There's only one real zero latency tracking with effects and that's by using good old fashioned hardware. I recall this advice Vance Powell gave to aspiring producers in an interview with Exponential Audio:
"I tell the kids, you need to slave away in your bedroom, you need to buy a rig. You need to buy a little console, and a little interface, some things that allow you to make records easy. If you buy a console and a cool interface, like an Apollo, then you're going to have an interface that will work with any system you want, whether it's Pro Tools, Cubase or Logic whatever, you can do whatever the f*ck you want and if you have a little console then you're going to have monitoring--zero latency monitoring. You'll be able to buss some things together and make some decisions."
Yes using hardware means making some decisions, well there's no harm in doing that.
Why I Own The Plug-ins
That's simple to answer, I own the plug-ins because I don't have the money to own 5 1176 compressors or SSL channel strips.
I also own them because I can easily recall settings on a mix later. On the whole I use the hardware on the way in to get a great vocal sound or comp the bass guitar, or to get some drums under control. In many ways things like my vocal hardware is in set an forget mode and I just make some tweaks now and again before I track.
Of course some people can't afford or don't have the space for the hardware. I've got some great news for you, your modern quality plug-ins will do just fine. If you want to spend your money on hardware then get yourself some nice mics and preamps, they will make a huge difference.
So Is Hardware Better Than Plugins?
It's different. Both have their merits as outlined in this article, there's no better or worse.
If, like me, you like owning hardware then enjoy it, if you are 100% plug-ins then you're all set to make some great sounding tracks.