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Software vs Hardware, Laptop vs Oldskool

Now, here's my personal take on the laptop discussion everyone is having
these days in my typical, longwinded, engineering fashion.

A: Background - about the setups and my approach to playing
People who have followed equipment discussions in which I took part know
that my hardware setup is big, multi-instrumentalist and a little bit 
In more detail, that means:
Tune Gap 6 sixstring bass into V-Bass, Waldorf Q, Korg Wavestation KEX, 
MicroModular, Korg Kaoss ][, Roland MC-505, DL4, FCB1010, 6 expression
pedals and 3 footswitches, 8 HU L-style rack containing Behringer MX2642A,
Repeater, TC Electronics FireworX, D2, Triple C, Eventide Eclipse, Zoom
1201, Beyer headset mike, in-ear phones.

With my laptop setup, I try to do similar things. It is based on the theory
that at a possible performance place, I am able to borrow or rent an
electric guitar or electric bass (any one), a MIDI keyboard (any one) and a
two-level keyboard stand. With that in mind, my laptop setup is reduced to
laptop, Presonus Firebox, Behringer BCR2000, FCB1010, DI20, Beyer headset
mike and in-ear phones. It all fits into a nice, small rucksack.

B: Comparison of both setups

1. Portability and setup time:
No question - the latop setup wins by a huge margin. With the hardware
setup, I need a big limousine or a hatchback car. With the laptop setup, I
can ride on a train. While I got quite skilled in setting up my big 
setup, again the laptop one wins here - if we assume that the stands are
already setup, it's 5-10min. for the laptop, 20-30min. for the hardware.

2. Objective Sound Quality: noise figure et al.
With a theoretical approach, let's watch a signal running from a drum
machine through a filter to a looper, then back through a compressor and
with added effects to the mains and finally to a recorded for possible CD
release. In case of the hardware setup, this would include ways through ten
AD/DA converters and five channel strips of an analogue console. In case of
the laptop, it's zero AD/DAs and zero analogue channel strips. So the 
setup wins.

3. Subjective Sound Quality: how the respective "active" components sound
A very mixed analysis. With the Eclipse, the FireworX and the Q I have some
devices in the setup which none of my software thingies can equal (at least
not without taking up all of the computer ressources - see "Resource
Management"). Even the Repeater's pitch shifter wins over any acceptable
non-ressource-hungry laptop pitch shifter. On the other hand, there are 
VSTs and VSTis which I can't replicate with my hardware gear - same goes 
my subjective assesment of the amp modeling qualities.
I'd call this a win for the hardware setup based on my priorities - but 
by a slight margin.

4. Features:
A hard one. Both setups can do things the other setup can't. Some of it has
already been mentioned under "Subjective Sound Quality". Are you dependent
on two independent manuals for your keyboards? Sometimes, I am. Do you need
to define pitch envelopes for your loops in quasi-realtime? Sometimes I 
that, too. I'd call it a draw.

5. Useability:
With the hardware setup it's simple. The Repeater has its dedicated 
the VBass and the DL4 have their own foot controls, as well as
footswitchtes/exp pedals for Eclipse, FireworX, Q, Wavestation and MC505.
Everything else depends on the respective qualities of the devices. There
are things like the Q which wins big time over the laptop setup or things
with their own HMI personality like the Kaoss ][, then there are devices
which are not useable at all in a live setting (Wavestation being the
With the laptop, it's either clicking around on a screen (which I like to
keep to a minimum and limit it to painting drum patterns in Live) or using
the FCB1010 (which controls transport for Live, Mobius and Amplitube) and
the BCR2000 (which for controlling about any of Live's mixer functions and
all plugins uses 16 presets, each with 56 dials and 36 buttons).
So the direct useability comparison depends on what you look at. If I want
to change filter cutoff on the Q, I simply use the big red knob labelled
"Cutoff". If I want to change filter cutoff for SunRa, it's the second knob
from the right in the second row in preset 8 of the BCR2000. If I want to
change filter cutoff for the PPG, it's the second knob from the right in 
second row in preset 5 of the BCR2000. If I want to change filter cutoff 
the Wavestation, it's some hideous sub-menu I wouldn't even think of
accessing during a dense live performance.
In a summary, I'd again declare a win for the hardware setup, again by a
slight margin, if only caused by the fact that every control has a direct
connection with the device it controls and because I can visually see the
mixer settings, even from a distance.

6. Fail Safety:
For the laptop setup, it's a quite clear analysis: if the laptop fails,
everything is dead. I can't even play an unprocessed guitar or use my
microphone to tell the audience that I have to reboot or whatever (although
one could work around this with a different interface). And if the laptop
stays crashed, the concert is over.
With the hardware setup, I can work around any failure of a single device 
realtime, safe for a total failure of the console (power supply etc), and
can work round any failure of several devices with a short interruption of
the performance.
A clear win for the hardware setup.

7. Resource Management:
My current laptop setup would tax the CPU to about 380% if all plugins were
enabled at once. So I have to keep an eye on the CPU usage and remember to
disable unused plugins and can't use everything at once. Even by getting a
really big computer, this problem would remain (well, perhaps if I included
some things like a Creamware Scope etc.).
With the hardware setup, there is no such thing as resource management. Win
for the hardware setup.

8. Cost:
The laptop setup is cheaper. But I'll not include this in the summary, as I
already own the components.

C: The Alternative - A Hybrid Setup?
Like other users here (Krispen comes to mind), I've thought of a hybrid
setup, getting a best of both worlds. But here, I wouldn't know how to
structure it. Perhaps limit the laptop to what it's best at (like running
Mobius and some really cool VSTs and VSTis) and do everything else
outlaptop, e.g. by including a big digital console and a selection of some
cool outboards (Eclipse, FireworX, Finalizer) as well as a guitar amp
modeler and of course my trusty Q and MicroMod? This way, I could run
anything that would remain on the laptop without resource management (see
the respective paragraph). Or have a more limited set of devices outboard,
concentrating on things that either a) take up huge ressource loads, b)
can't be done on the laptop, c) optimize or do not degrade the signal
routing - like the Eclipse, FireworX and Finalizer and perhaps an amp
modeling floorboard? Another possibility would be to simply include a
minimum hardware setup in the laptop rig (like a Boss DD20 and OD2) to 
for some minimal fallback solution in case of laptop breakdown.
On thing is for sure, though: there is no best of both worlds here. I'd 
some of the integrated UI (at least to a certain extent) as well as
portability. But I got to think this through some more.

D: Summary - laptop or big rack?
If we just sum up the results from above, we get two clear and two slight
wins for the big rack vs. one big and one slight win for the laptop, which
would speak for the hardware setup.
On the other hand, for some applications (like Y2K6 on the other side of 
earth), portability is so important that this will make me use the laptop

So, in the final analysis, you again don't get a clear vote, but perhaps
some different views. If anybody would like to add to this analysis, please