Hardware effects units require no license fees, or software upgrades to keep it working with your current operating system and offer some fabulous opportunities during mix down. So, if you have a multi-channel audio interface then you’re good to go with this DAW Integration guide..
In the example pictured we have the excellent Universal Audio Apollo audio interface which has 16 channels of analogue audio in and out, or eight stereo pairs. The outputs can be used to send audio out of your DAW to the external effects, and use the inputs to return the effected audio back into your DAW. Or, as I prefer to do, sum the outputs of all effects into a summing mixer along with the non effected outs from your DAW for final recording to an external master recorder. (As Shown)
By setting your DAW integration in this fashion, you will be utilising your audio interface far more than ever before. Now, you may well be thinking to yourself: “what about all the DA and AD conversion in this setup, doesn’t that affect the sound quality?” Short answer is yes, but with a quality interface like the Apollo, the impact on quality is very minimal, and far out weighed by the stelar advantages that such a setup can provide.
It will require some setup in your DAW to enable the effects send and return functions, in MOTU Digital Performer that I use, it is setup in Bundles, check with your DAW manual to configure your setup. When DAW Integration is complete, you will have one of the best setups you can, featuring both plugins and hardware based effects. No more arguments over which is best, both are great, both have their place.
The example in the diagram to the right, is a very complex setup compared to what you are able to afford in a home studio, but it shows the full capabilities that a multi-output audio interface is capable of doing.
Most of use have simpler setups, and an audio interface with far less ins and outs. Even the first 8 in/8 out Apollo makes for an excellent interface between your DAW and outboard effects. (See video below)
But by using an interface such as the Apollo 16 (or the equivalent Focusrite, MOTU, Presonus, RME etc) you can have a very capable studio that takes advantage of both the plugin and outboard hardware worlds.
The So-Called Limitation of DAW Integration
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that hardware reverbs suck because you can only have one instance of it for your mix, whereas with a plugin you can put the reverb on every channel as an insert. However, if you do wish to use more than one setting on a song, simply record the effects back into your DAW, change setting and run another pass…as many times as you wish.
The question is; “Why would you want to?” If you ‘need’ a different reverb setting for each and every track on your DAW, you have bigger problems. A single reverb instance is all you need in my opinion, and simply send from each channel to the outboard reverb. Have you ever seen a picture of a large studio with 24 x Lexicon 480L Reverbs? No!
Sure studios have a variety of reverbs at hand, but not necessarily so they can use them all at the same time. It is for variety, to be able to pick the correct tool for the job. This is how I use external reverbs with my DAW, I set each one up on its own send, and send a bit of vocal, a bit of guitar, perhaps some strings etc, in varying amounts to the reverb. At times, it is vocals to one reverb, guitars to another, it varies.
Give it a try as many of these older hardware reverbs sound fantastic, and can be had for as little as $200!