Analog vs. Digital Recording: Why You Need Both!

[Before we get into the meat of this month’s article, I’d like to start responding to readers’ questions.  Please email me your questions or topics to be discussed.  Recording, editing, mixing, production, management and even music publishing are all fair game.  Fire away! [email protected]]

It’s hard for me to believe that in 2016 we’re still having debates or even really thoughts about the value of analog and digital in the recording studio.  It seems like old news to me, but then, I’m one who has always embraced new technology while never forgetting the love of old technology. It is easy to imagine landing in either the early adopter camp or being a hold out Luddite.  The reality, however, is that neither hard line serves our purposes best. After all, our goal is art, not philosophy.

B.D. – BEFORE DIGITAL

I came of age in the music industry at just the time when digital was struggling to be taken seriously.  Yeah, I’m that old.  Behemoth SSL consoles with 80 channels connected to multiple 24-track 2” machines ruled the day.  [Fig 1] Not that I got to record much on any of those, but it was the model that I learned on. Tape definitely had a sound.  Of course, at the time, that sound wasn’t sought after; it was to be avoided.  The goal was sonic purity, and the tools available were imperfect, leaving their grubby fingerprints all over your carefully arranged audio. Moreover, these tools were hard to use!  Aligning a 24-track tape deck was a pain, let alone several.  Punching, splicing, flying between decks were complex gymnastics that were frequently called for all-day affairs.

Figure 1

Figure 1

When digital came in, so many of those things got so much easier!  Flying regions around, copying and pasting, non-destructive recording, oh my!  The only problem was the sound.  My god, it was terrible.  Several things had to happen in short order – young guys like me quickly understood that recording in the digital realm required a different way to do gain staging (red lights = bad).  More seasoned engineers, for some reason, had a lot of difficulty with this idea.  Additionally, better converters made a rapid emergence, allowing us to realize the benefit of digital.

THE DIGITAL EXPLOSION

In the end, the result was digital as we know it.  I think of it as a blank slate.  What you put in is what you get back.  That could be the good news, or bad.  It’s quite different from tape or really any analog process. Of course, that means if you want something to sound good, it’s got to sound good before the converter. So many studios, like mine, invested heavily in great “front end” gear, like mics and preamps.  [Fig 2] This caused a great shift in the design and use of mics and preamps.  Where before they were part of a larger signal chain that had plenty of room in it for small, tasty bits of added distortion, now they were the sole sources of these colors.  Studios started selecting for gear that helped make great records in digital. Gear with the right kind of “grubby fingerprints” became highly valued.

Figure 2

Figure 2

THE RISE OF THE MACHINES

Along the way, computers became powerful commodity items, and gave rise to the plug-in.  The first plugins were meh.  But they worked.  Soon plug-in makers were emulating analog gear.  Want a cheap LA-2A?  How about 24 of them? [Fig 3]  Did they sound good?  Did they sound like the real thing?  Not so much.  How much better are these plug-ins today?  Better, but they still don’t sound like a real analog device.  If you haven’t pitted a real box against a plugin, you really should.  It’s eye (ear) opening.

Figure 3

Figure 3

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

There was a point in my career when I had the opportunity to do that sort of real world analog vs. digital testing in my own studio environment.  It convinced me that the world couldn’t do without both types of gear. There are just some things you can’t really do in the analog world (look ahead processing, zero-phase distortion crossovers, pitch and time correction or alignment, mix-and-match synth modules).  Yet, digital has yet to match the beauty and lushness of the distortion that we love about analog. I suspect it never will.

The best of both worlds involves knowing and loving each world deeply and applying the best tool for the job.  If I want tape sound, I use my tape machine.  If I want to time align 24-tracks of backing vocals, I use Melodyne (a digital plug-in).  Each analog box in all the racks brings its own special sauce to the party (which is why I have each of them).  The SSL console lends its own feel and allows me to push levels and create a punchy distortion in a way that no digital device can handle. [Fig 4]

Figure 4

Figure 4

So, at the end of this whole debate, we come to realize there is no debate.  Analog is wonderful, digital is wonderful.  I can’t imagine why I’d want to use only one.

HOW TO SPEND YOUR MONEY 

A side note on spending money: I tell all of my interns not to buy gear.  In particular, don’t buy cheap gear or plug-ins as substitutes for gear.  In the end, money you spend is gone, and the crappy gear or not-quite-analog sounding plug-ins will leave you flat, broke, and with no re-sale value.  Save your shekels and buy the right piece of gear for your long-term career. Better yet, work in a real studio so you can pool your resources, learn from pros, and focus on music.  Maybe that’s another article…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston. Currently in the process of designing and building a new facility with renowned designer Fran Manzella, DBE will, once again, be the pre-eminent mix/overdub room in the region. The SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments helps Tishler meet the expectations of artists including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar. Contact Tishler about producing your next record, or mixing the one you’re working on now!  More info at www.digitalbear.com.

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