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Do I need outboard gear to make music?

Do I need outboard gear to make music?

‘Do I need to use outboard gear to make music’, you ask; no.

There; that wraps that up with the minimum of fuss. Do you need to use outboard equipment to make music? You do not.

Of course, that answer doesn’t allow me to waffle on for several paragraphs more than is strictly necessary.

So I’ll elaborate.

Do I need outboard gear to make music

Whoa there, what is outboard gear?

Chances are you have a few bits and pieces that are involved in your music making. Maybe a mic, your monitor speakers, a synth or two etc…, but what we’re talking about here are the things that your DAW and plugins now handle. When we talk about ‘outboard gear’ we’re referring to compressors, equalisers, reverbs, mixing desk and all of those things you can do ‘in-the-box’ these days.

Back before the instantly accessible world of computer-based recording, if you wanted to eq your lead vocal and compress your bass guitar, you’d need to plug in a hardware equaliser and compressor to your mixing desk.

Want to compress the lead vocal as well? No problem. Simply bounce down the bass onto another track (you remembered to keep one free, right?) and repatch your compressor into your vocal channel.

Or buy another compressor.

Now we all have plenty of computing power, and even the entry-level DAWs include more plugins than you can shake all that’s shakin’ in a Nicki Minaj video at, the thought of having to buy a several hardware compressors just to compress several tracks seems a bit strange. With a plugin, just drop in instance after instance until that mix is squashed into shape or you run out of processing power.

The DAW has certainly made recording much more financially accessible, but can you make great-sounding tunes without racks and racks of esoteric outboard gear lit up like a Christmas tree?

Absolutely, and it’s a pretty safe bet to say some of the music you’ve bought recently has been made either completely – or mostly – ‘in the box’.

Now, I have a few pieces of outboard and find it very inspiring to bring that in to the process, but my blog buddy Guy works exclusively – and award-winningly – in the box, so let’s take a quick look at the two approaches.

Mixing with outboard gear

Making music in the box

Working entirely in the box offers a lot of advantages. The first and foremost for most people is probably cost. Once you’ve bought your computer and DAW software, chances are you’ve got everything you need to make incredible music.

Included DAW plugins are really very good these days and, should you decide you want more flexibility with 3rd party plugins, you can even add a whole load of UAD-powered plugins for much less than the cost of buying sometimes just one piece of the outboard gear it emulates…

And don’t forget about all those extra analogue outputs, inputs, patchbays and cables you’re going to need…

The next important one is recall. Unless you’re much more disciplined than I am, you’ve probably got more than one project on the go at any given time. In the high-teens perhaps? In that case – particularly if you’re mixing as you go – the convenience of opening the project and having all those levels, pans, sends and effects parameters exactly where you left them for that session is a huge time-saver.

It certainly beats copying down all those gear settings onto a stack of recall sheets…

What about trying out new ‘gear’. Think you want a new ‘character’ compressor, but want to get a feel for it first? Just download a demo version of the plugin and give it a go for a week or two in the comfort of your own studio working on a real project. Easy.

SSL X-Desk at Red Dog Music

Bringing the outboard in

All that said though, I love my outboard gear. I certainly don’t have enough to make me want to mix exclusively outside the box, and nor would I want to, I love the flexibility that mixing in the DAW offers, I certainly couldn’t live without all that parameter automation; so why do I keep it around?

There is still the argument that super high-end outboard gear sounds better than plugins and can be what gives mixes the final % or two that just pushes a mix over the edge from great into spectacular territory, but what about those old and bruised pieces of gear that turn up on eBay or in your local pawn shop? Are they likely to be painstakingly modelled for a plugin version? Sometimes those things can give you just the sound you’ve been searching for…

For me as well, with my myriad ongoing projects, using hardware can force me to finally call a mix finished, for just the reason described above – recall. As soon as you bring more than a couple of bits of gear into the mix, resetting all those parameters can start to take serious session time; while it may seem that you’re just ‘settling’ for calling a mix finished, sometimes a mix just needs time-calling on it…

Another reason I like working outside the box is that it takes more time. For some people – such as me – working in the box is so quick, efficient and easy to do, that you find yourself mixing as you go and hitting ‘render’. Sending it outside the box to play with forces me to spend more time on a mix and perhaps listen to things in a slightly different way.

Another benefit of the lack of recall is the wonder that one can find when you ‘zero the desk’. With 95% of the mix done ‘in the box’ it can be fun to send it outside, set up a mix, print it back into the session, go away, set everything back to zero and mix it again.

Listening back to three or so slightly different versions of the mix sometimes reveals one mix that just works that little bit better.

Do I need outboard gear to make music?

As with most things, the best process is in the fingers and the ears of the beholder. Some people will love the speed and immediate recall of working in the box, while some might get better results tweaking hardware knobs and patching in cables.

A bit of external gear hither and thither can also just make your studio feel a bit more like a studio. If you’re a singer/songwriter or you’re recording your band, chances are the room is full of mics, stands and cables, but what if you’re making electronic music? Maybe you have some external synths, but perhaps your entire studio is a laptop, interface and headphones.

If you’ve got a spare output and input, or a few more, on your interface, why not grab something – from the cheapest, crunchiest eBay bargain to a well-stocked 500-series lunchbox, and give your binary sounds some analogue imprecision.

No, you don’t need outboard to make music, but it can be fun to try. And of course, let’s face it, so much of it just looks so dang cool…

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Red Dog Music is the UK’s friendliest musical instrument and pro-audio dealer. Between our 5000 square foot Edinburgh shop filled with an incredible range of products, and our London showroom in Clapham specialising in high-end instruments, dj and pro-audio, Red Dog Music has you covered from north to south and from performance to playback.


About The Author

Red Dog Music

Dawsons Music is delighted to announce that the Red Dog Music brand is now part of the Dawsons family. This is an exciting opportunity to bring both communities together and create a stronger, wider network of people passionate about music gear. We both share a common heritage to support musicians throughout the UK and Dawsons want to support Red Dog Music customers in their continued musical journey.

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