Guitar rigs – Computer-based vs. hardware-based

Guitar rigs – Computer-based vs. hardware-based

One of the most often asked questions I hear from guitarists is “why would I use VSTs (plugins) and a computer for my rig?”

They typically argue that computers are

  • Why would I use VST plugins and a computer for my rig?Expensive
  • Prone to crash
  • Ruined by spilling beer on them
  • Too complicated to use
  • Etc.

Interestingly, I noticed that most of them don’t actually stop to compare the sound quality nor view that as high-priority – rather strange for guitarists. In my book – sound is the king. I don’t care if I have to run 5 laptops underwater if it will get me a better sound.

Let’s address some of these concerns.

  • Expense – Sure, you can certainly spend more on a computer-based setup, but it will generally be orders of magnitude better sounding and much more versatile. On the other hand you can certainly get a decent computer, audio interface, a MIDI pedal controller + software at a lower cost than some of the more expensive “hardware” solutions.
  • Guitarist, guitar player, close upCrashing – Well, I’ve been using a computer-based setup for more than 3 years – not a single crash on stage or rehearsal for that matter. Any hardware can crash, but a stage-optimized computer will typically crash only if its hardware fails. Hardware in any pedal can fail exactly the same way a computer can fail.
  • Ruined by spilling stuff on it or banging on it … sure. I’m not going to dignify that one with further comments.
  • It’s too complicated – Actually, I would argue the opposite. It’s often very complicated to navigate the hardware world – especially when you use one of these “all in one” kind of solutions. And often you need a computer anyway to create the configurations. And if you need to do a quick adjustment, you’re out of luck.

Many people will opt for a “hardware” solution which is not really a hardware solution after all. It consists of an internal computer, an audio interface and some software running inside an enclosure (click here to see examples). No different than a computer and typically less expensive because its quality is not at par with a good quality audio interface and great plugins. These solutions are prone to everything to which any computer setup is prone, and often to a higher degree.

There is also no reason why one could not get a rack mountable computer and mount everything together creating a custom “hardware” solution that’s extremely modular. In fact quite a few of our own users have done just that.

So what are some of the benefits of running a computer-based guitar setup?

  • It will typically sound better if properly configured
  • Sounds the same everywhere. Same sound and setup in rehearsal, studio, stage, tour.
  • Lightweight. Computer setups are typically easier to carry and setup.
  • Creating your own, signature sound, is very hard when using stock, hardware solutions. Sound shaping options are almost infinite with a software-based rig (click here to learn more about our Probabilistic Sound Designer).
  • Upgrades – computers and software evolve rapidly and upgrading your rig with a smaller, more powerful components is easy.
  • More reliable – “Wait what!?”, most of you would say, but yes, hardware gets hot and breaks. Be it a computer or an amp or anything else. Wires get unsoldered, lamps burn out. Replacing a computer from a software backup is MUCH easier and often much less expensive.
  • Completely different setups for each song. This is almost impossible to do with a traditional hardware solution, but with software like Gig Performer® you can have a completely different setup per song and you don’t need an entire room filled with amps and 3 technicians behind the stage to do it.
  • The new “convolution” based simulations of sound shaping allow you to get that vintage cabinet or amp sound dialed in perfectly. This is something that solutions with less CPU power – like those “hardware” options will have trouble doing properly so your choice is either spend thousands on a huge vintage cabinets and amps, then carry those around or actually run a simulation of those characteristics in a computer based setup.
  • Playing multiple instruments? No problem. I typically play an acoustic-electric guitar, an electric guitar and an Eigenharp Pico off of the same gig file. My entire rig changes with one press on a pedal. Try doing that with a hardware solution.
  • Did I mention that it typically just sounds better?

Gig Performer running on a laptop

If you haven’t spent time to dial in your sound in a computer based setup – there is not much anyone can do to convince you otherwise, but please – don’t dismiss it before you try because I can almost guarantee you that in a blind test you are much more likely to choose a software based setup due to its sound.

Like everything else – one needs to learn about various options and try various audio plugins that are available, then tweak those so that they match what you want. Simply opening one plugin on a computer, plugging in your guitar and trying a few presets is not going to get you there.

Ten years ago, things were different, but it’s a whole new world now!

Today, with Gig Performer®, inexpensive Intel i5 and i7 computers (or older PCs), great guitar plugins and high quality audio interfaces you can get a setup that 10 or 20 years ago would have either been impossible or would have cost you tens of thousands of dollars.

Keep pushing your rig with the best that today’s technology can offer and you too can Own the Stage® and get noticed!


Related topics:
Why use a computer with Gig Performer rather than hardware
Gig Performer is the best companion for all your musical efforts and more
Gig Performer provides flexible approach to guitar and vocals live performers
Gig Performer provides flexible approach to keyboards and vocals live performers 

Scaling Curves

Scaling curves allow you to control the shape of the output of a widget or convert an incoming note velocity to a new velocity. Various predefined curves are available and they can be tweaked as necessary. You can also just draw your own curve as well to achieve the effect you require.


MIDI File Player Plugin

You can load up to 128 MIDI song files in a single plugin instance. Switch from one song to another, mute tracks and/or change their channel numbers. Tempo can be controlled by individual songs or you can use the global tempo and tap tempo to control the BPM interactively.


Favorites and Presets

Create a sound by placing and interconnecting your desired plugins, such as a synth, some effects and perhaps a mixer. Select them all and then save the selection as a named favorite. The favorite will subsequently show up in all plugin insert menus, making it easy for you to recreate that configuration whenever you need it again. This feature is also very powerful for creating your needed sounds on your studio computer and then transferring them to your touring laptop.


Probabilistic Sound Designer

Parameters you select in an open plugin are captured into the Probabilistic Sound Designer dialog window. When you click Randomize, you're only adjusting those selected parameters. Each entry in the PSD dialog has a curve but unlike widgets where the curve controls scaling, in the PSD the curves are used to define the probability of particular values being selected. Make sure the filter cutoff never gets too slow so as to block all sound. Perhaps adjust the max range of the VCA attack parameter so that the sound doesn't have too much delay. Constrain the octave ranges of the oscillators, perhaps ensuring that 1/3rd of the time we select 8' and 2/3rds of the time we select 4'. The possibilities are endless.


More Widgets

Numerous new widgets are included in Gig Performer - a new sustain pedal, plastic knobs, drum pads and more colored sliders. Shapes can be colored with different borders and fill colors and morphed from rectangular to circular. Your creativity is now the limit to creating fabulous front panels in Gig Performer.


MIDI Message Helper

Select MIDI devices by name. Choose the MIDI message type and adjust the appropriate parameters for the specific type



Layout management

Gig Performer supports arbitrary resizing. Layout your widgets the way you want - resize the main window and the widgets will grow or shrink as necessary to maintain the same interrelationships. No matter what size screen you have, your front panels will still be neat and usable.


Undo Support

If you move your widgets around and/or resize them, or even delete them by mistake, the Undo facility will correct your mistake. Minor moves to a widget by mistake will no longer spoil your design


Plugin Channel Count

Some plugins support a large number of outputs and they depend on the traditional channel strip to control how many ports should be available.   When you only need a stereo pair, it is convenient not to have a large horizontal block. In Gig Performer, the number of available ports  is controlled by the channel count override, which can be applied to individual plugins and will be remembered when the gigfile is reloaded or if the plugin is saved as a favorite.


Input muting and output fading

Rather than a single audio length tail, Gig Performer 4 gives you the ability to control input muting and output fading separately. Input muting controls how much time it takes for audio input to be silenced when you leave the rackspace. Output fading controls how much time will be taken for audio to fade out when you leave the rackspace.


Faster Plugin Finder

Instead of searching through menus of perhaps hundreds of plugins (you know who you are!), the Quick Plugin Finder makes it easy to find the plugin you need by simply typing partial strings. For example, as shown here, to find the Modartt Pianoteq 7 plugins, it's enough to type pia mod 7 (in any order, by the way)  to restrict the list of available plugins to those matching your query. The Quick Plugin Finder also knows about manufacturers, presets and favorites.



Touch Friendly Input

Any entry field can be changed by either dragging your mouse (or finger) up or down, or by using the large popup touchpad where you can just tap on the squares to enter a value. The large popup keypad also does validation so you can't enter an invalid value. You can also just tap the BPM field to pop up a larger view where you can quickly change tempo, tranpose, trigger Tap Tempo and enable Ableton Link, the last allowing you to synchronize Gig Performer with any other application that also supports Ableton Link.


New Tuner Display

The tuner view makes it easy for guitarists to quickly check and adjust their tuning. You can toggle into the tuner view from any other view and toggle right back as soon as you're done. All output will be silenced automatically while you're in tuning mode. You can adjust the concert reference pitch from its default of 440 Hz to suit your own needs. The tuner view fills the entire screen so you can easily see it from a distance.