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Question from an Audio Masterclass student: “A friend who also happens to be a recording engineer once advised me not to ever substitute external compressors and other signal processors for those that are software-based. He said while most softwares offer a much more detailed graphical view of your work as opposed to hardware, hardware-based equipment still come way ahead of any software-based compressors. While I am keeping my external compressors and preamps I still find it much more convenient to work with plug-ins as opposed to my hardware-based equipment. As a self-taught home-recording artist/musician, I find no difference in sound quality between the two (hardware vs. software). What's your take?”
A skilled engineer can produce a recording that would satisfy anyone solely with plug-in processors and effects, no hardware processors or effects involved. But that doesn't mean that the engineer himself or herself is satisfied. Often it is more 'involving' to work with equipment that has real knobs and buttons than software emulations. And hardware controllers for plug-ins don't have the same 'feel' and tactile feedback.
An engineer who is happy with his tools is a better engineer than one who is mechanically going through a sequence of tasks. So although a plug-in might produce a perfectly good sound, if the engineer prefers plugging in hardware and controlling the sound much more directly, then he will strive that little bit harder for perfection.
That is one argument. Another is that plug-ins are often designed to emulate hardware.
Emulations can often be quite good. But software engineers start by emulating the overall sound of a hardware unit, then they refine their model to incorporate some of the subtleties, then they stop. At some point they will decide their model is good enough. But it won't quite sound like the real thing. So in this sense, hardware will always be better.
There is nothing about using plug-ins that will limit your ability to produce great music and great recordings. But there is a place for hardware in the studio that is never likely to disappear.