Updated: Mar 11, 2020
One of my previous Facebook posts stirred a decent amount of curiosity. Readers noticed the Black Box HG-2 in my desk, and immediately began asking of how the Brainworx HG-2 plugin sold by Plugin Alliance compared with the hardware. Brainworx is known for their clever and transparent mastering plugins, but they may have outdone themselves in simulating tubes and transformers of the HG-2.
I didn't really afford much time to fully vet the similarities and differences between the plugin and the hardware, but I did manage to staple together a collection of A/B tests. They're not perfect, but I did my best in short time to level the loudness for best comparisons and to allow the listener to hear what's intended.
Now, before I make this totally unfair, my HG-2 saturation 12AT7EH tubes were swapped out for a matched pair of Amperex Holland 12AT7's, one a Bugle Boy, both with about 95% measured life. Afterward, I re-calibrated the levels of the HG-2 to within 1/100th of a db. While this audible difference may be heard you can still judge, not only how well the plugin stacks up to the hardware HG-2, but how it also stacks up to a venerable set of Amperex Holland tubes. Considering how incredibly difficult it would be to perfectly provide you with an A/B test, what I've done is provided the extreme settings in each scenario. In each test, the knob is maxed out. It actually doesn't sound bad! The theory is, you can easily understand and hear the differences of each and you can assume any reduced settings would be more subtle.
Before I introduce the sound files, I want to state that this isn't an attempt to simply show hardware superiority. This was an exercise, even for myself to hear just how they stand up side-by-side. That said, there are results where my ears determine one or the other to excel. What's intriguing enough to me is how well the Brainworx plugin sounds! To be fair in terms of usability of either, I do employ both the hardware and the plugin frequently, albeit not normally at the same time. The plugin is readily used on many masters that are 100% in the box. It's really that good!
To listen, go here. My own thoughts are not surprising, but perhaps I can attempt to articulate.
SPOILER ALERT! My general opinion of tube gear is, I've still never heard a single plugin that can absolutely and fully replicate every ounce of detail a vacuum tube can exhibit. This doesn't mean software measurements can't simulate tubes, but it's rather difficult to realize exactly how tubes affect audio that touches our eardrums. I still think this is one area that still isn't really there in software. But that's my opinion.
What I found is the plugin sounded a touch brighter in most comparisons. With the extreme settings in every test it can even be perhaps, brittle and grainy. The hardware was more buttery, but required a bit more pressure to be considered "warm". While I felt the the plugin was easier to saturate and fuzzy up the musical notes the hardware seemed to offer a deeper topography.
There is a color term used in the audiophile community that's frequently attached to speakers and amplifiers. Black. It refers to the deepest, darkest quiet 'stop' that music can produce and how speakers and amplifiers deal with an extremely low noise-floor. The hardware unit seems to suit that blackness rather well, which may have some to do with the Amperex Bugle Boy tube. Unfortunately, there was not enough room in the playlist to include samples of the other ALT tube, a Holland Amperex 12AT7 that's driven harder than the Bugle Boy, but you can glean quite a bit from the audio files I did include.
What I'd listen to is the dynamic range, clarity and blackness of the hardware vs. plugin, but even how brilliant the plugin can be without breaking apart, even at these extreme settings! I can honestly say, it was a real pleasure to put this sloppy test together. It's very interesting to hear the differences. One thing my ears loves about the hardware is how the clarinet notes bloom on the hardware slightly more on every test, but the plugin didn't come close to disappointing me. It's probably safe to say my opinion is that tube hardware is still limited in how well it can be modeled, but the truth is, modeling techniques are definitely good! This plugin is so worth the price!
Music by: Jubile Deo by Tomás Jonsson