As I promised last week, this week’s Fiver Friday is a bit different. We took a closer look at the Manley VOXBOX. We are lucky enough to have both versions, the original outboard and the UAD version. Oli and I have been always massive fans and it was literally the first output gear we ever purchased. I also know that Harry is a big fan and credits a big portion of his awesome sound to this legendary piece of gear.
So what’s better: Hardware or plugin? That’s a thing which is often questioned nowadays and you can’t really give a simple answer. There are many aspects which make a plugin or hardware valuable to each person. But one big thing you can’t avoid while talking about this topic clearly is THE PRICE! I wanted to know how much sound you get for the price of the plugin compared to the hardware, what is the Pros and Cons for each and what would be my advice if asked…
Last week UAD released their emulation of the Manley VOXBOX for $299. If you compare it to the price of original hardware version ($4,200), you can buy a MAC, a DAW, an ok monitoring system and the plugin itself. For the plugin speaks that you can open multiple in one session with different settings, it comes with presets and its far cheaper. But the main reason you get a piece of gear like that is: You want that specific sound!
To get the test running, I set up an hardware insert, telling the signal where to leave and enter my interface. So I used the hardware as an insert with all available modules, including the preamp, compressor, deesser and eq. Same with the plugin, which was used as an insert, too.
To make sure the devices were fed by the same input level, I used a test tone to level them. Then I set up two different processing settings. The first setting was a medium one, which would be used for recording vocals or VO. The second one was a rougher setting: I wanted to know how both devices react, while being pushed at higher settings and levels. I adopted the settings from the hardware to the software, which was not that easy, as the knobs are not screened. I send VO (Neil Wilson) and Vocals through the devices and printed the results. I already can tell you, that the levels coming back from the devices were kinda different, even though the settings were really close to be the same. So I normalized them to the same levels to put out any misinterpretation of the results. Why the levels were different I dont know, can only be that no emulation is or can be the exact same as the original.
Hardware, VO, medium settings:
Plugin, VO, medium settings:
Hardware, Vocals, medium settings:
Hardware, VO, hard settings:
Plugin, VO, hard settings:
Hardware, Vocals, hard settings:
Plugin, Vocals, hard settings:
After a close listen, I think it’s pretty hard to hear a difference between hardware and software. The small difference which is present, seems to be more audible on harder settings. It’s hard to find the right words, but listen closely to the bottom and highs. The high frequencies are more compact and tighter when using the hardware. And the body, the low frequencies, is rounder and less clean, which is good at this point. I would say, that you can hear, that the plugin is a digital device and sounds more surgical than the hardware.
You can make this visible when having a look to the spectrum analyzer while playing back a sine wave. One essential, magic ingredient of the hardware witchcraft is the noise which is produced by the hardware’s components. This noise is responsible for some way, that we attribute hardware with “warmth”, which lacks digital devices.
Universal Audio is advertising with the fact that their stuff is latency free. Let’s have a look at this really quick.
Here’s a screenshot of the recorded files: Original, Hardware, Plugin. The session was set up with 512 samples.
As you can see, the plugin (lower file) adds virtually no latency. Due to the fact that the signal has to pass the AD/DA converter two times, the hardware adds even more latency, though. But don’t worry, this is a pretty large zoom and if you are using Voxbox as a preamp to record, the latency will get less, as there is only one way to pass through the converters.
All in all I would say that the difference in sound between Hardware and the Plugin version of VOXBOX is just marginal (there are differences in output levels while having the same settings). In general this difference just gets audible when having a real close listen in combination with a good pair of monitoring system or headphones. So in a real life applications, the difference in sound might get redundant, especially if you are using .mp3. The UAD guys did an amazing job by emulating this plugin. It’s a great product and you won’t do something wrong if you go for the software version of the Manley VOXBOX.
At the other hand, I could imagine that the difference might stack up, if you are using the plugin as a preamp and add rough processing afterwards. So if you are after the last 10% of quality which lacks the plugin to meet the hardware, the hardware might be your choice. As always its very different whether you are using your mouse to adapt settings, or your fingers: The hardware reacts more smoothly and it’s easier to set up precise settings.
In general: both choices are great choices, if you are after the Manley VOXBOX sound.