As we venture into an increasingly digital world, it’s important to reflect and consider the reasoning behind the processes we use to create, record and deliver our audio. You won’t need to look far to find another article with the headline ‘analog vs digital’ or something similar. First and foremost, it’s important that we remove the concept of the battle and think of the subjects as a team, rather than competitors.
Historically speaking, if we were to hop into a time-machine now, pack a laptop loaded with the latest DAW and a bunch of plugins and whiz back to 1965 to deliver it to a recording studio, I guarantee the engineer’s jaw would drop to the floor faster than you could sing ‘can’t buy me love’. They would then proceed to ask you how they can get one in their studio immediately, promptly open their wallet and ask that you kindly name your price! The reason for this is that studios have always been looking for ways to innovate, make their work more efficient and provide the latest tools and technology to create new sounds. The supersonic train that is the modern digital world has been moving so fast it has caused many people to pause and say, “hold on a minute, I might just go back to the old way of doing things because it’s not only easier but I think it sounds better”. But does it?
Which brings us to the question, how does analog benefit your audio in 2017? A good starting point, would be the individual recording itself. Let’s take an electric guitar that you intend to record digitally. Let’s say that you have a $100 guitar, plugged into an entry-level audio interface with a clean signal into a basic DAW with a distortion/amp simulator. You record and it sounds artificial, tinny and somewhat displeasing. To that exact set up, you then proceed to plug the guitar into an analog tube pre-amp of reasonable quality. You have then instantly added an entirely different variable to the recording and potentially a completely different characteristic to the sound. This is where analog begins to highlight its weight in gold. It’s how we layer the sound and the tools that we use to layer it. We have not even begun to talk about A/D conversion, but that can be another topic. For now, just stick with the concept of capturing sound with layers.
To highlight another example, I recently worked with a client that was recording their own vocal tracks in their home studio using 100% digital equipment. They were somewhat underwhelmed with the resultant recording and hoped that during the mixing stage, the vocal tracks would sound noticeably better. The mix was a significant improvement, but there were some parts of the audio that simply could not be made any better without compromising or damaging the audio. This was no doubt due to the quality of microphone, an untreated room during recording and quite possibly less than ideal settings in the DAW during recording. I suggested to the client that if it was in their budget, I highly recommend recording the vocal tracks in a professional studio that was in their location. As an alternative to purchasing unnecessary additional equipment that they initially will not know how to use and may not actually use ever again. They decided to give it a shot and the results were night and day. The new vocal tracks were pristine quality and required very little mixing to bring them to sparkling life. The client was very happy with the result and the rest of the project went off without a hitch. The client was also happy that they saved time and money, not to mention a lot of potential headaches and frustration. So why were the tracks better? Well, let’s get back to layering. The layers comprise of a high-quality microphone in a treated environment, plugged into a high-quality analog pre-amp, into a high-quality compressor, into high-quality digital converters into a DAW with correct gain/bit-sample rate/recording settings. Managed by an engineer that knew how to correctly operate the equipment. It’s that simple. By the same token, it is very important to note that it is entirely possible to achieve excellent recordings with a 100% digital approach. Take the time to consider the front-end of your recording chain and the better you can make it, the better the result will be. Even if the front end is ‘software based’, take the time to learn the equipment properly and your recordings will be better for it.
This brings me to the topic of analog summing. With a modern professional recording that is delivered for mixing or mastering, I personally argue that you would need a very good reason to send that pristine audio out of the digital domain, back into the analog domain, to then bring it back into digital. I am fortunate to have a hybrid setup in my studio that allows me to easily compare analog to digital and make that decision very early in the project. The down side of analog that is rarely spoken about, is that quite often you are adding noise, hiss and potentially other pops and clicks to the sound that may not have been there in the first place. Often it’s a trade off against the benefits and deciding whether using a particular piece of analog equipment is improving the sound so much that you can afford to have those additional artefacts to the recording. As always, use your ears and don’t just pick analog because you want to use that expensive compressor you purchased.
Hybrid studios (that feature a combination of analog and digital equipment) have become standard and offer maximum versatility for modern productions. The most sophisticated studios of this type are generally set up in a way that allows the engineer or producer to make fast comparisons between many different combinations of equipment. They are then able to select the best combination of processing for that recording.
In summary, analog is likely to always have a place in the world of music and audio. Whilst the way we manipulate sound is always evolving, the pure physics will never change and that’s something we do know. So I encourage you to embrace the harmony between analog and digital. I wish you all the best with your musical pursuits in 2017 and beyond!
Until next time,