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What is an Outboard Gear? – Get Answers Here!

Sound engineers and music producers talk about them all the time, but what exactly are they? Do you know the purpose that they serve and how they are incorporated into various audio productions? If you are serious about working in the audio industry professionally, then you must ask this vital question first – What is an Outboard Gear?

This will be a rather short article, as I only plan to provide you guys (my awesome readers) with a general and brief explanation about outboard gear. But don’t worry, as we will cover enough major topics, so as to give you a decent understanding of today’s subject. Alright, let’s not waste any more time and dive into it!

Outboard Gear – Say What?

Also widely known as “outboard equipment” or simply “gear”, an outboard gear modifies the sound of musical instruments. Most outboards are essentially external effects units that can be incorporated into a live sound system or in the recording studio. These units are different from the ones built into mixing consoles or plugins used in editing software.

Rack Effects

Photo by Sonic Potions / CC BY-SA 2.0

The term “outboard gear” can sometimes be associated with digital signal processing (DSP) boxes, that are commonly used in recording studios. Let’s take a look at the various types of outboard gear available in the industry:

  • Analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters (ADC / DAC)
  • Musical instrument digital interfaces (MIDIs)
  • Microphone preamplifiers (“microphone preamp”, “mic preamps” or “preamps”)
  • Equalizers (“EQs”)
  • Compressors/limiters, noise gates (Dynamic effects)
  • Reverb, flanging, delay, echo, chorus etc. (Time-based effects)

Various Devices

Originally, any piece of audio equipment that existed outside of a studio or venue’s main analog mixing console, is called an “outboard gear”. But nowadays, analog effects units are also considered to be “outboard gear” when used together with computer-based digital recording systems, that are free of mixing consoles.

Eventide Multi-Effects

Eventide multi-effects unit / Photo by Nalzatron / CC BY-SA 3.0

Well known examples of professional outboard gear include UREI’s analog dynamic range compressors (such as the LA-2A and 1176), early multi-effects units (such as the ones made by Eventide), and physical or digital reverb processors invented by EMT and Lexicon.

Digital Units

Electronic keyboards that are “MIDI” compatible, drastically changes the way musical instrument sounds are produced on stage or in recording studios. These keyboards produce digital signals when their keys are depressed. The signals are then processed by outboard synthesizers to reproduce original digitally sampled instrument sounds, such as pianos, strings and wind instruments. This way, users of such devices can reproduce the sound of virtually any instrument.

MIDI Controller

MIDI keyboard with various outboard units / Photo by Oscar / CC BY-SA 3.0

There you go, a very simple and basic overview on outboard gear. Not a very hard subject to understand isn’t it? Well, I hope you guys will now be more confident when dealing with various audio devices!

Do leave comments or questions below, and share this article with your friends!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

8 Comments

  1. Outboard gear helps to make music sound much more professional. Without the use of different sound processors, the music we enjoy would mostly sound very dry and boring. But’s that’s not to say that a simple drum beat and horn section and acoustic guitar wouldn’t be enough to make enjoyable music.

    I happen to fancy software outboard gear as opposed to physical units because it’s more cost effective. But let me tell you, if I could afford some real outboard gear, I would be all for it!

    • Hey Christian!

      Yeah, veteran producers and audio engineers make use of many different types of outboard gear, in order to produce professional sounding mixes. However, nothing beats listening to a group of competent and talented musicians perform live, with their overall sound generally left unaltered.

      Just like you, I’m also relying heavily on the plugin counterparts for analog effects units and processors. I guess we can’t all have what we want. Well, at least not at the moment!

      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. OMG How Cool. I actually have an Electric Keyboard and I had no idea of this. Maybe because I just liked to play it and not understand the techy stuff behind it. Well that is awesome. I love the website. So insightful Thank you and keep up the great work.

    • Hi Aiden!

      Glad you enjoyed the article and the website as well. Feel free to spend more time around here. Thanks a lot!

      Cheers =)

  3. Hey Farhan,

    I am a musician and read through your post. It has some great information about outbound gear. Back in the day, I had a tone generator for my keyboards and the sound that came out of it were pro. I especially loved the Hammond B3 sound that I got from it.

    What’s great about this technology is the modularness of it. Plus, it can be fitted to the likes of the musician.

    Thanks for posting,
    Jim

    • Hey Jim!

      Outboard gear can really be a lot of fun to use, especially when they have become an integral part of your music. They are all kinds of effects, synthesizers, and sound modules out there that musicians can use creatively. Outboard gear are not exclusive to audio engineers only!

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Hey Farhan,

    That was a cool blog. I know a little about what you’re saying but a very very little. I’ve done music and have some sound Cloud posts. A lot of my family does. Me being more of an artists need to learn more about your skills. When I get my system back together, I’ll have to look you up for some good technical advice. I’ve use some of the equipment that you’re talking about but never knew much about it. Maybe I can lean from you.

    Great site, Loved it!

    • Hi Forrest!

      It’s always awesome to know that people who are truly passionate about music and audio, have found my website educational. You’ll always be welcomed here, so don’t hesitate to come back again soon!

      Thanks a bunch!

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