How About Some Hardware Helper?

Is your CPU melting from pushing it too hard? Can’t load all the plug-ins you want? Then offload some of your computer’s workload to these useful hardware helpers. (All prices are MSRP.)

Is your CPU melting from pushing it too hard? Can’t load all the plug-ins you want? Then offload some of your computer’s workload to these useful hardware helpers. (All prices are MSRP.)

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So you want more processing power: These companies are happy to oblige with hardware DSP, either on a card that goes into your motherboard or laptop, as a separate FireWire box that lives outside your computer, or both.

But which is best for you? Although you can’t download demo hardware, you can narrow down your options until you find the right fit. And, the company websites will help explain the oft-confusing collection of bundles, upgrades, specials, and third-party support.


A card eliminates FireWire fickleness, and also gives somewhat better performance—but FireWire is easily transportable among machines. If FireWire is a requirement, then it’s TC or SSL. With a laptop, Universal Audio’s ExpressCard is the most efficient choice (FireWire is still in the running, but a separate box and power supply works against the laptop’s portable nature). All handle VST, AU, and RTAS except TC PowerCore, which is VST/AU only.

What comes with the package.

Duende provides a very nice SSL channel strip with EQ, dynamics, and sidechaining, and up to 16 mono instances. PowerCore’s Compact FireWire model includes 12 plug-ins; the “standard” versions come with 14, and there are more expensive versions that include more plugs. UA’s cards have their “Mix Essential” plug-ins—a great deal (1176SE Compressor/Limiter, Pultec EQP-1A EQ, RealVerb Pro Room Modeler, and CS-1 Channel Strip).

Hardware expansion options.

All systems can be expanded via either hardware, software, or both. Expanding Duende Mini to 32 mono (16 stereo) instances runs $399; more plug-ins are optional at extra cost. To expand the number of devices you can run on the UAD-2, you can add more cards, or buy a more powerful card initially— choices are 1, 2, or 4 DSP chips ($649, $1,149, and $1,899 respectively). With PowerCore, the hardware upgrade path is buying another c.

Software expansion options.

TC Electronic has the broadest range of optional-at-extra-cost plug-ins, including virtual instruments, amp sims, third-party options, and their own range of plugs. UA also has a wide variety of plug-ins, including significant third-party support. Duende is the new kid on the block; SSL offers five additional plug-ins, but there’s no thirdparty support yet. For all three, costs vary considerably among plug-ins— check the web. Typically, they’re considerably less than what you would pay for the hardware equivalent.

Sound and character.

This is of course subjective—generalizations are risky, and as the old saying goes, “comparisons are odious.” However, having worked with and used all three extensively, I feel there are some differentiating characteristics.

TC PowerCore has a precise, clean sound: It’s what I reach for when I want to process a signal with as much transparency as possible. Of course, there are exceptions; for example, you can use tube emulators to “dirtify” the sound. But even these have a certain precision.

UA’s specialty is really nailing the sound of vintage analog gear. I’m not sure how they do it, but if you got laid off from your job and had to put your classic compressors and EQs on eBay, the UAD-2 will take away the pain. I know some very picky engineers who also feel that UA has the analog thing down.

Duende makes no secret of the fact that it’s all about adding SSL’s special “character”—and if you like that character, then Duende is the ticket to getting it. This isn’t to say you can’t get some fairly neutral sounds, but that’s not what separates Duende from the pack.


You can’t go wrong with any of these, but making the right choice involves a complex combination of factors: whether a particular unit gives what you want out of the box or whether you need to expand it, what type of sound you seek, and what best complements your existing gear. With any of them, though, you’ll be able to push your computer a lot harder than if you tried to do everything “in the box.”