Mixing possibilities with the plugins of today are almost endless. Plenty of high quality plugins can be acquired for a very low price and sometimes even completely free. Still, many high end studios and producers often choose expensive hardware gear over plugins. Why is that?
Analog hardware contains nonlinear electronic components like transformers, transistors and vacuum tubes. These respond differently to varying electrical current especially with higher volume levels. This behavior creates subtle and sometimes not so subtle saturation and harmonic distortion that characterize the sound of the device. Nonlinearity is also the cause of the subtle sound differences between seemingly identical hardware devices that roll of the manufacturer’s conveyor belt.
Digital on the other hand is as linear as linear can be. Ones and zeros serve as switches that are either on or off. To emulate analog hardware, plugin developers have to create what is called an algorithm. An algorithm is a complex mathematical formula that describes the process of an electronic circuit and its characteristics.
Because nonlinear behavior gives an unlimited amount of variations in distortion and saturation it is impossible to emulate analog hardware one hundred percent accurate via an algorithm. If a plugin developer would do that you would probably be able to instantiate only one plugin on your powerful multi core Mac or PC before running out of processing power. Plugin developers therefore create an algorithm that calculates a sound that is as close as possible to that of the hardware. This algorithm needs to have a reasonable balance between the needed processing power and its sound quality.
There are several excellent plugins on the market today that do a very good job of emulating nonlinearity via clever algorithmic tricks. Their sound come very close to sounding and behaving like analog equipment. New and more powerful computers are released every year. So plugin makers get more opportunity to create great sounding algorithms. Today’s plugins are already very close to sounding truly analog. One very recent plugin that I was impressed with is the new synthesizer from Waves called Element. It has a sound and feel that comes very close to analog hardware. Others that come to mind are VCC and VTM from Slate Pro Audio that give you a great sounding mixing desks and analog tape emulation. With these kind of plugins coming onto the market you see more and more engineers and producers embrace the world of analog sounding plugins, leaving some of their hardware in a corner to catch dust. There will be a time where analog hardware just has too many disadvantages agaist using a plugin like their noisefloor, not being able to store your settings or easily use multiple instances on channels.
Digital has some great advantages over analog and one of them is the fact that the options in building virtual electronic circuitry are endless. That’s where I would like to see more innovation from plugin developers. Not just another hardware emulation but completely new ways of treating audio. Plugins with a unique functionality and sound. NAMM 2013 is only a few weeks away. Who knows what we will be treated on?!