Plugins VS Hardware
Can you achieve the same level of mastering with plugins as you can when mastering with Hardware? Is there a difference? Is it just preference? Engineers often ponder these question and they often wonder if they should invest in expensive hardware gear or spend less money on mastering grade digital plugins. Most mastering engineers will tell you that it's not the gear that you use but it's how you use that gear, and often today, mastering engineers will use a combination of plugins and hardware gear, some even using only plugins referred to as mastering ITB(In The Box). Often times the bottleneck or fault will come down to the engineer them self, their experience, the listening environment. It's all about what you can hear and what you can't hear. If you can't hear what's going on in the mix you cant correct it, but you can't correctly correct anything if you don't know what to do. So with that line of thought you can come to the conclusion that it doesn't matter whether you're mastering with plugins or mastering with Hardware, you can achieve the exact same results.
Differences between plugins and hardware
Hardware is a physical piece of equipment and actually ages as you use it. It's a mechanical piece of machine and requires maintenance, therefore it can sound a little bit different from hardware to hardware. For example two of the same Manley Massive Passive eq's may develop slight differences over time as some items need to be calibrated overt time. This "mechanical wear and tear" is sometimes said to give the music a life that plugins cant recreate. Another thing with hardware is they have actual tactile feel by having to turn actual knobs. Plugins do not change overt time, a plugins state is always exactly the same as whatever it is pre-programmed to be. This can guarantee a sound that you may be looking for if you are very familiar with the sound of that particular plugin. Plugins also do not have tactile feel or do they. Using the mouse and keyboard can actually distract you from what your hearing making you focus on what your seeing. (we'll talk about "sight VS hearing" in another blog). However there is a new plugin that utilizes an outboard hardware controller to control the plugin and its called "Console 1". As an owner of the Console 1 I highly recommend it for mixing or mastering, it speeds up workflow and gives you that tactile feel that analog hardware users love.
An inexperienced engineer may use Hardware gear and it may not turn out as good as an experienced engineer using only plugins. A mastering engineer knows more than just the gear and tools they use. They know their room, monitoring set up, and techniques these three things allow them to know what to do and when to do it and with what tool. The whole point of getting music mastered is so can you have an unbiased ear hear the music from a fresh perspective. And when you have that fresh perspective only then are you able to make a unbiased judgement call. So the debate whether plug-ins vs. Hardware in mastering is kind of in an irrelevant debate because the only thing that matters is the engineers experience with the tools they are using and their experience within their listening environment and their ability to properly translate a mix onto a a wide variety of playback systems... Whats your thoughts?