I've been looking at online reviews and comments about some gear i'm thinking about getting for my studio rig. I'll admit that i've been pretty shocked and confused by most of what i've read. On sites like Gearslutz, people are really giving some gear a bashing and pour praise on other gear, often with nothing to back it up other than 'i really like it and wouldn't use anything else' kind of comments.
I probably have quite a different background to most of the people who post on these sites. Like a lot of people into making music in the late 80s and early 90s, i started with a cassette-based 4-Track recorder. I added a compressor, a reverb unit and some other effects before i made a massive leap. In 1990 i started working at a top London recording studio. I was using an SSL E-Series, an SSL G-Series and all the usual outboard popular at the time - 1176, LA2A, Pultec, GML and of course, the ubiquitous Lexicon reverbs and ever present Larc controller. These 'professional' tools were my everyday workhorses. They were a world away from the 4-Track studio i was used to, but they were also very similar, in that i had to learn how to get the best out of them. Back in those days, the SSL Bus compressor was often bypassed for something else... strange to think of it now, but we would often look for something 'better'. The SSL EQ was also was considered very harsh sounding by a lot of the older engineers who were used to vintage Neves or Trident consoles. Young engineers like myself loved the SSL as it sounded like the records made at the time. Having compressors and gates on every channel was still a treat (most studios didn't have dozens of compressors) and the recall, although very tedious and hit and miss, was a godsend for the record labels who could now send you back to tweak a mix without fear of never getting the same mix back. To be honest, the scribbled notes about the outboard settings meant that mixes always sounded a bit different, but they were closer than was possible before recall. Then there was automation...wow... that really changed mixing. Being able to do multiple passes, tweaking EQ and effects throughout the mix was a big deal.
I eventually went back to working in a smaller studio and spent 5 years working on 8-Track Reel-to-Reels, 16-Tracks and eventually digital tape systems before moving to PCs and then Macs.
Fast forward to 2017 and after spending the last 27 years slowing moving between in-the-box production and sticking to using real studios for recording drum sessions and sometimes final mix sessions on a trusty SSL E-Series, i think i'm in a good position to make some observations on the current trend for bashing anything which isn't an esoteric piece of expensive hardware.
First of all, there is a huge obsession with convertors. Some convertors have specs which far out-perform others, but that doesn't always translate into a better sound. I used an M-Audio PCI soundcard for years and did many mixes which were released and no one ever questioned the quality...and yes, i did record vocals into the card and mix within the box. Would an Apogee or Avid soundcard have made my mixes better? I don't think so. I have A/B'd several current soundcards and yes, some sound nicer than others, but i don't hear anything so awful that someone who really knows how to mix won't be able to work with it. It's less of an issue than a lot of people would have you believe. Still, the advice is, buy the best you can afford that has the features you need and just get on with making music.
What about fancy compressors like the UREI 1176? I love them... nothing sounds better on vocals in my opinion. But... some of the software versions sound so close (i would struggle to choose correctly in a blind test) that i think spending nearly two grand on a real one is crazy unless you really have that kind of spare cash lying around... in that case - why not? They will hold their value. Interestingly, i had a conversation about this exact subject the other day and me and the other engineer came to the same conclusion: The reason studios didn't and don't have more than a few 1176's in their racks is because you can't use them on everything! All those subtle distortion harmonics add together to create a really nasty mush which will ruin any mix. Use one on your lead vocal, maybe a guitar or two and possibly the drum overheads... but that's enough. So, bearing this in mind, maybe it's better to buy a real one rather than a plug-in if you can afford it? Food for thought....
I've been looking at buying a bus compressor. Having just mixed an album on an old SSL E-Series, i kind of fell in love all over again with the bus compressor. The software versions i have are not quite as good. I can make them sound very very close by inserting something like the NLS Bus in front of them and adjusting the input level and then inserting a stereo width expander and adding a tiny bit of widening to the signal.... it's definitely very close. But, i have been testing modern copies of the SSL Bus compressor and i've found a couple which i prefer. They aren't the same... none of the copies are... but they sound great in their own right, and that's what i'm looking for.
Finally, what would the engineers and producers i worked with back in 1990 make of mixing in the box with plug-ins and totally accurate automation and recall? They would drop their analogue consoles and run for the Macs and PCs without a doubt. Everyone conveniently forgets the noisy patchbays, the earth hums, the scratch pots and the sheer amount of hiss generated by all that analogue gear with the expensive racks of Dolby processors to try and deal with it....
Anyway, stop listening to studio snobbery and learn to mix. A great mix can be done on really basic plug-ins and it can absolutely be good enough to be released... don't let anyone tell you any different.