Using Hardware Effects in a Digital Studio
What if you own some great hardware and you'd like to use it with your computer-based DAW? It's not uncommon to have some great hardware reverbs and EQs, especially with the current vintage craze in audio effects. Working with hardware inside of a DAW is pretty simple. Here's what you have to do:
Send the output of the track your want to process out of your DAW on a specific hardware output on your interface—let's say you'll use output 3.
Connect a cable from output 3 to the input of your hardware effect.
Connect a cable from the output on your hardware effect to an unused input on your audio interface—maybe you'll use input 5.
Create a new track in your DAW and set its input to the same channel you plugged into in step 3.
Record enable the track you've just created and initiate recording.
Your DAW will start playing, sending the track out of your interface, into the hardware effect you want to use, and back to an empty track. The new track will be printed onto the track you've just created.
The last step is to mute the old unprocessed track in your DAW so you hear only the effected track. Be aware that latency comes into play here. Every track you send from your DAW, out and back in again, will incur some latency because it takes time for that audio to convert from digital to analog and back again. Some systems provide plug-ins that compensate for this delay automatically, but you may simply have to adjust the track by hand. Thankfully, you have the original track (the unprocessed one) to use as a guide. If your DAW tells you, you can determine the exact round trip latency in milliseconds and simply move that track back by that number. Apple's Logic Pro comes with a plug-in called “I/O helper” that makes this routing an absolute snap! Other DAWs are starting to follow suit, adding plug-ins to help with external processing.
Don't worry if this process sounds intimidating; most new DAW users feel the same way. Patching in and out of mixers, into hardware, and back into tape machines used to be simply part of the job description of recording audio. In today's DAW, all of that routing and patching is done for you.
Now that you know what the effects do, let's actually get to the nitty-gritty of how and when to use them. Effects can be added to your system in various ways. The common ways to add effects are through inserts, auxiliary channels, and patch-throughs.
An insert sends your entire signal to the processor and mixes all of the signal back. Insert effects work well with dynamic effects (compressing, limiting, and gating), which take your entire signal and affect the total volume of that signal. With dynamic effects, there is no need for mixing how much effect you use, so inserts work perfectly with these effects. But because you have no control over mixing when you use inserts, they aren't appropriate for all effects. Effects like reverb and chorus, for example, would be overpowering because you couldn't control how much of the reverb or chorus is mixed with your signal.
On a mixing board, EQ is a good example of a “hard-wired” insert effect. All of your signal passes through the EQ and then gets mixed out to the stereo pair.
In software programs, insert effects are usually listed above the virtual mixer's fader for each individual channel. This varies from program to program, so check your manual to be sure.
Use auxiliary effects when you want to use a mixture of processed and unprocessed signal. This makes auxiliary channels perfect for reverb and other processors that you want to assign to more than one track. On most DAW systems, you use bus or auxiliary tracks to send signal from one track to another track, which holds the auxiliary effect. The send acts as a virtual patch cable, connecting the two tracks together. Sends allow you to control how much of the signal to send to the auxiliary effect, usually through a volume knob. The track that holds the auxiliary effect has its volume control for setting how loud the effect should be mixed into the track. This is the standard way to use reverb, for example. You should use one reverb plug-in on an auxiliary track and send your individual tracks to it through sends (which are sometimes called buses). Do this rather than placing individual reverbs on each individual channel.
Usually, you want to record instruments without any effects on them. This allows you much greater control later on when you mix. If you record with effects, the effects are “printed” to the track; you can't get rid of them. But there are some circumstances when this is okay. Guitar players, for instance, tend to use reverbs, delays, and choruses to make up their signature tone. It would be hard to replicate their exact sound later, so it might be best to allow them to record with their normal effected sounds. Keyboard players also do this on their synthesizers—adding effects into their patches. In these cases, it's okay to let the players “patch-through” their effects.