Native vs. DSP-Powered Plugins: A Music Producer’s Guide

By in Audio Post, Music Creation, Pro Mixing

Plugins have revolutionized music production, enabling near-limitless creative possibilities—as long as your computer system is up to the task. More creative options means more decisions, including whether you’ll use native versus DSP plugins. The difference is simple: native plugins are processed by your computer’s CPU, while DSP plugins are processed on dedicated hardware.

But when should you go for native plugins, and when is DSP the best choice? To answer that, you have to start with what’s happening under each architecture’s hood.

Sharing the Load: Native vs. DSP Plugins

What Is a Native Plugin?

Native plugins are powered solely by your computer’s CPU. Some are coded specifically for the DAW you use, while others are developed to work with any number of applications. Many producers have go-to native plugins they couldn’t do without. Your DAW’s collection of native plugins can be used on the go without lugging around additional hardware, and it could include all the sounds you need, depending on your project’s scale.

However, with native plugins you may notice that the processing load starts to mount up, which can slow your system down and lead to high recording latency or processor overloads. Depending on your CPU power, you may hit the limit of how many native plugins you can run before your computer chokes up and stops playback or recording. You’ll then have to freeze or bounce tracks in place with the plugins rendered to audio, or you’ll need to reduce the number of plugins in your session.

What Is a DSP-Powered Plugin?

DSP stands for digital signal processor, so a DSP-powered plugin, as the name suggests, runs on a separate processor from your computer’s CPU: a separate, dedicated accelerator card or audio interface equipped with its own processing chips. These DSP chips are optimized to deal with audio signals and can enable much larger and more complex projects.

The obvious tradeoff with DSP plugins is that, to take advantage of what they have to offer, you’ll need to invest in some hardware—which brings us to DSP devices.

What Is a DSP Device?

DSP units come in several forms: accelerator cards that can be installed directly into a PCIe slot in a computer, PCIe cards mounted in external enclosures, DSP-only devices that typically connect to the computer via Thunderbolt, or DSP units within audio interfaces, which can serve as all-in-one solutions for inputs, outputs, and signal processing. DSP hardware devices come bundled with plugins that are designed to run using the processing chips in the devices.

Some DSP bundles feature a card and an interface to provide maximum flexibility and processing power for the largest professional projects. The purpose of a DSP, in any form, is to take on some of the plugin processing load and free up your CPU. You can easily transfer a DSP unit if you decide to upgrade your recording computer—just reinstall the card or plug the DSP interface into the new computer.

When Is DSP the Right Move?

Reducing Recording Latency

With DSP technology in your recording setup, you can record and monitor through complex DSP plugin chains with extremely low latency: down to 1 ms or less. The plugins that come with many DSP units also feature licensed emulations of classic hardware gear, providing extra creative tools to shape your recording and mixing. Generally, DAWs will allow you to choose between recording a dry signal and recording with the DSP plugin effects printed to the track in real time.

DSP technology lowers your recording latency if you’re recording through plugins. To achieve a similar result with native plugins, you usually have to use your DAW’s latency compensation feature, which bypasses any plugins that induce latency over a certain threshold so you don’t notice any delay between playing a note and hearing it. While this can work, it’s not the same as hearing the full effected signal during tracking, and it can restrict your ability to monitor plugin effects while you record.

The amount of latency affecting a recorded signal is directly tied to your CPU’s ability to run at the low buffer settings needed to keep latency to a minimum. If your CPU can’t keep up, you may hear clicks, pops, or distortion, and you’ll have to set the buffer higher until there are no audible artifacts. There’s always a trade-off between using the lowest buffer setting possible and giving your CPU enough time to process all the audio without glitches.

Newer, high-end computers with multicore processors and modern interfaces can often record at a buffer setting of 32 samples, with latency around a few milliseconds. However, for many independent or home studio-based producers and musicians, the latest and greatest recording computer isn’t always an option. DSP can provide a flexible and budget-friendly way to increase the resources available for plugin processing.

Streamlining the Mixing Process

DSP can be extremely useful for mixing too. For example, if you have a rock song session with lead vocals, three backing vocal tracks, two rhythm guitars double-tracked left and right, a lead guitar track, a bass track, and live drums—plus EQ and dynamics processing on every channel—the CPU demands can add up pretty quickly. If you then add software synth parts, drum sample enhancement, vocal tuning and effects, reverbs and delays, analog signal emulation (such as console modeling or tape effects), and mix processing plugins to the master bus, you might see your CPU meter max out, with no processing power left to spare.

You could stop and freeze tracks or bounce them in place, but instead of riding a creative wave in the recording or mixing zone, you’d be stopping to wrestle with technical issues. With a DSP card or interface, you can easily set up a project to offload all the EQ, dynamics processing, and analog emulation plugins for every track to the DSP unit. This should give you more processing headroom to add whatever else the track needs—more virtual instruments, more native effects, or extra bus processing.

You Don’t Have to Choose

Using DSP-powered plugins doesn’t mean you should completely abandon native plugins—they can be incredibly helpful during tracking and recording sessions, and you likely have several native plugins that you use in every project. The real power of DSP technology is that it lets you maximize the benefits of both native and DSP-powered plugins rather than relying on one or the other exclusively. Not only does it allow you to run additional plugins independent of your CPU, but it can also help you run more native plugins with the extra resources it frees up.

If you’re thinking of incorporating DSP into your workflow, an all-in-one unit that combines an audio interface with DSP is a great place to start. A unit like Pro Tools | Carbon even allows you to switch between native and DSP versions of the same plugins, making it easy to adapt to any recording or mixing situation. For instance, if you prefer leaning on DSP-powered plugins, but a new collaborator only has the native setup, you could simply switch to their plugin environment.

DSP versus native plugins aren’t an either/or proposition—DSP is a complementary workflow enhancement that boosts your overall music production capabilities. Native plugins are a massively important piece of any producer’s toolkit, but if you find yourself needing extra power under the hood, it’s time to take a look at DSP.

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A musician and graphic designer, James freelances from his home studio on a range of audio and creative projects.