Vintage Hardware vs. Software Emulations – Pros and Cons
Software developers are doing an amazing job recreating vintage gear. With today’s plugins, you can economically get the sound of pricey, rare vintage equipment, but with the ease and convenience of modern digital downloads.
But it’s not always so cut-and-dried. There’s a reason why vintage gear can be pricey: musicians are still clamoring for it. It remains the Holy Grail for a lot of artists, and many of them would never even consider using software to do the job.
And thus the debate rages on. Proponents on both sides point to a number of significant advantages. So which is better for you? Let’s break down the major issues point-by-point.
Reliability and Stability
A 40-year-old piece of gear probably isn’t going to be the most reliable item in your studio. It’s likely to have been dropped, spilled on, and stored in less than ideal conditions at times. And even if it’s been pampered for most of its life, tubes still fry out, wires get brittle, and circuits corrode. Contrast that with a plugin, which has sanitized digital stability. Yeah, software still locks up, crashes, and does crazy random stuff from time to time. Nonetheless, those maladies aren’t all that common with well-made plugins that are used with compatible systems. So, this round of the competition goes in favor of software — there’s just not really much to ‘break’ on it.
Dragging out a piece of equipment, plugging in wires, and fiddling with settings is a joy for many people. But one person’s joy is another person’s pain in the rear. Those who favor fast-paced convenience and preset-based efficiency will do best with software — with just a few mouse clicks you can be making great sounds.
When developers create software emulations of vintage gear, they often take the opportunity to add a few extra features that weren’t on the original. This can be as minor as a few workflow tweaks, or as extensive as additional circuitry that brings you a whole new range of sounds. Hardware, by contrast, is only what it used to be, which is why a lot of vintage-gear users find themselves saying, “I love it, but I wish it had …”
This one is generally no contest. There are a lot of very good vintage gear software emulations that are totally free. And even when they’re not, they’re still almost always cheaper than original hardware — that’s one of the big reasons why developers recreate classic gear in plugin form to begin with. So unless you score a crazy-lucky deal at a garage sale, you’re probably going to be shelling out more money for hardware than software.
This one falls in favor of plugins, but not to as big of a degree as you might think. To upgrade hardware and get new features usually means opening up the case, breaking out the soldering gun, delicately modifying parts, then reassembling, testing, and hoping you got it right. For some people that’s fun. But a lot of musicians consider that to be a nuisance at best, and they prefer software.
That said, there isn’t always an upgrade available for the plugin you have. By contrast, a vintage guitar amp, for example allows a choice of different speakers and tubes. And a lot of vintage gear has a wide range of mods that users have developed and perfected over the years. With software emulations, you might just be stuck with what comes in the next version.
Despite the extremely high quality of many software emulations today, a lot of musicians are adamant that original hardware still sounds richer and more musical. But, at the same time, there are plenty of other artists who say the difference is negligible, and not worth the drawbacks. This one is largely a matter of your own taste, music style, and working methods.
Okay, this one is a no-brainer. You just can’t beat the visual appeal of actual vintage gear in a studio. A strong argument in favor of hardware can be made on this point alone. And it’s not just collectability and aesthetics that are at stake. The right vibe in a studio can really affect the way you play. For this reason, getting some vintage gear could be just the décor accent you need to nail the right mood.
If you’re trying to recreate the exact sound of a particular musical era, there’s nothing better than working with the actual gear used to make those songs. But if you pay attention to the nuances of the genre, you can probably nail it pretty accurately with software too.
That said, software and software and hardware typically nudge you to work in different ways. Relying on plugins instead of real gear may prompt you to approach the song differently than artists would have done back in the day.
It’s worth noting that a lot of musicians use vintage gear and modern plugins equally. Some continue to use the old equipment they love but then add plugins to their setup as they adapt and evolve their working methods. Other artists go the other way, starting out working entirely in-the-box using plugins, then they gradually phase vintage hardware into their setup as their budget increases.
And then there’s the additional option of buying new reissues of vintage gear. These remakes offer the advantages of original equipment, but often with upgraded features and parts. More and more manufacturers are doing such reissues of their vintage gear. Although they tend to be rather pricey, these can provide classic hardware appeal, but with modern reliability.
No matter which way you choose, don’t be swayed by the zealots on either side of the question. It’s your music. Play with the stuff that makes you happy.