Whether or not to record “in the box” – the process of keeping audio in the computer and using software processing and mixing rather than hardware – is one of the biggest discussions in the audio industry at present. Although some “old school” engineers and studios are steadfastly sticking to the side of the argument that says hardware is better (and one might say that they have a vested interest), there are merits of adopting “in the box” recording techniques, and here’s why:
Sound Quality: software or hardware
Were not necessarily arguing that software sounds better than hardware (there is indisputably some very fine-sounding hardware available), rather that the best software – and we’ve been very choosy about our plug-ins – sounds equally as good. Reviewers and other “golden-eared” types have often arranged blind tests to directly compare classic pieces of hardware with software equivalents, and have frequently been unable to reliably identify which was which: even if the software doesn’t sound absolutely identical, it doesn’t sound any worse.
Whilst software is becoming the standard for home recording, you will still find the best recording studios freighted with banks of cabinets and sound hardware. The future convergence of hardware and software and the advancement in technology in the studio, software may eventually win the day.
Functionality: plugins are the here and now?
Although we agree that a piece of hardware covered in knobs can add something more ‘immediate’ to the recording process, control surfaces now give a lot of that feeling back, and what is undeniable is that plug-ins are now capable of a huge range of processes which simply cannot be replicated by analogue electronics; plus of course they have the benefit of automation of all their parameters and preset recall.
Modern converters such as Apogees are excellent, but as the completely distortion-free convertor is not yet with us, every stage of analogue to digital and digital to analogue conversion adds a little distortion, and working ‘outside the box’ will typically involve several conversion stages, often in chains which are significantly more detrimental to the signal.
Summing: getting in on the mix
Nowhere does the “in the box” argument rage more than on the subject of “summing” (mixing signals together). Some are so convinced of the merits of analogue summing that high-end outboard devices have come to the market purely to perform this function. However, no less an authority than Bob Katz refers to these as “snake-oil”; there is actually no easier job for a digital system to perform – it simply involves adding (doesn’t sound as sexy as “summing” though, eh?).
Whilst it can be argued that analogue summing sounds better (as opposed to being more accurate), this is only a result of subjectively pleasing distortion being added to the signal – the same effect can just as well be achieved by sending the whole stereo mix through your favourite analogue device, or easier still, through your favourite “analogue warmth” plug-in!