On his Continuing Adventures In Software, Rich Tozzoli finds the soft path helps when he later treads the hard road.
Recently, when I found myself working in a ‘traditional’ studio (amazing that I even have to say that), I noticed how much better I knew all of the outboard gear. The funny thing is, when thinking about it, I realized that’s because I use so many of the software versions. That was quite a revelation!
For example, I use the Universal Audio’s Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso Jr. plug-in on every session. It’s my go-to tool to make snare drums jump. But when I worked in studios, I wouldn’t turn to it that much—simply because I didn’t know it as well as I do now. I’ve spent so much time sitting with it and tweaking how the Input and Output relate to each other, as well as the Spank mode of compression, that I know it intimately. I also understand how to use the Warmth feature to pull down some of the hi-hat that inevitably gets grabbed when pushing the snare.
For that matter, I also turn to the Waves Abbey Road TG12345 and use the Presence knob to pull down some of the 10 kHz after the EL7. Now, I will certainly tell you I never sat at that console at Abbey Road and used this channel strip. But if I did, I would have a very good idea of how to use it.
Learning software emulations of outboard gear like Universal Audio’s take on the Manley Massive Passive stereo Eq, can help users master the original hardware versions—and vice-versa. Another piece of gear I now use every session is some form of 1176 compression. Again, when working in studios, I would use it, but not nearly as well as I do now, having spent countless hours with it onscreen in front of me. There are some really fine adjustments that can be made with how the Input, Output and Release all relate to each other. Since I turn to it for room microphones, I now fully understand if you push up the Input above 12 o’clock (depending on the version), you can really get aggressive with the hi-hats and cymbals by pushing the Release all the way up. But if you pull the Release back a bit, it softens up the ‘grab’ on the high frequencies. So now when I’m tracking in a good room with some 1176 hardware, I know exactly what to do in order to get what I want out of it. I can even hear the different grit and distortion characteristics of the various versions, be they Rev A, AE, or Rev E. This all came from spending time with the software versions of each model on literally hundreds of tracks.
The interesting thing I also noticed about the software is that it sounds the same every time. With hardware, it literally can change depending on the day, the temperature, if it’s warmed up or not, or of course, if it’s in good working condition. Sometimes, there is nothing like turning that Input knob and hearing the pots crackle with age. This is especially true with sensitive hardware like EP-34 Echoplex or AMS or Lexicon reverbs. I have to say I didn’t use the hardware that much because for the most part, those weren’t working that well in the studios. But now, I use them all constantly. And for that matter, I’m using multiple versions of them with different settings in the same session. Also, some of the software has features (such as tempo sync and/or low cut filters) that the original hardware doesn’t have— making them even more useful.
I’m not actually saying one or the other sounds better; software can sound different from its hardware inspiration, even as the hardware can vary sonically from unit to unit. I have Manley Massive Passive onscreen right now, and the hardware version off to my right in the rack. They each have their thing that makes mid-range sing (how I prefer to use it). Honestly, I tend to turn to the software more often simply because it’s easier. Does the software please the clients as much to hear and turn knobs on? Probably not. But luckily, I get to output most of my work without clients (yea!), so who cares, as long as it rocks?
Another thing I noticed is that when tweaking software, you are primarily sitting in the sweet spot when you do it. It tends to be onscreen right in front of you, helping you make proper decisions easily. With hardware, it may be off in a rack to your side, behind you or who knows where. I noticed that last time tweaking 1176 settings on a hardware version. I got up out of the chair, knelt down and started to turn knobs. I was looking out the window with one ear facing the speakers. Probably not the best way to get the optimal sound. It’s a small, maybe irrelevant detail, but it definitely took me out of the flow of what I was doing. I had to get my ears set back to the mix spot, listen, then go make more adjustments.
Hopefully, you’re all in the same position as me. The software helps you learn the hardware, and the hardware helps you learn the software. No matter what, they should all work together effortlessly with one primary goal—to help you deliver the best product possible.