Digital vs. Analog – Recording
When it comes to the recording process, analog gear will stay with us for a very long time. Even USB microphones have diaphragms and analog circuitry inside them, and there are a lot of beautiful sounding analog pieces of equipment, especially preamps, compressors and equalizers, that affect the signals traveling through them in interesting and beautiful ways.
In my own studio, I mostly record vocals, and in rarer cases, acoustic or electric guitar and bass, and so I equipped it mainly to be great at recording one or two sources at a time. I own a few nice microphones and a really good channel-strip, the Portico 5015 from Rupert Neve Designs which takes care of 90% of what I do. I also have an affordable 8 channel preamp with 2 DI inputs for instruments, so theoretically, I could do a simpler recording of a drum set, but that has yet to happen.
At times I attend large recording sessions at outside studios however, and I love to use all the great microphones, preamps, compressors and EQ’s that are part of most large studios’ collections of vintage boutique gear. Picking the right microphones and preamplifiers for each instrument, as well as placing them in the right locations, are among the most significant influences on what the final product will sound like. I usually don’t go too crazy with compressors and EQ’s though, restricting myself mainly to minor dynamic leveling and frequency cuts, as I prefer to leave more options for the final mix. It’s easy to slap on one more compressor during the mix but not so easy to try and save an over-compressed track.
Everything I discussed above is about the input signal chain though, and if you can afford it, I think that is definitely the best place to spend money on analog gear. When it comes to the actual recording medium however, it’s another story.
There are people who love the warm sound of analog tape. I would say most of them belong to one of two categories: People who grew up professionally working with tape and young kids who read a lot of issues of TapeOp Magazine 🙂 And there are others who prefer the cleaner sound of modern analog to digital converters.
I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter as I never got to spend much time with a high quality analog multichannel recorder and thus only have significant experience with the sound of digital recording. What I do know though, is that good multichannel analog tape machines are very expensive. Especially the ones that can handle 24 tracks or more. Additionally, the tape medium itself is getting more and more expensive, since, as demand has gone down, the economy of scale no longer keeps the prices down. Many manufacturers have gone out of business and the few that remain basically serve a niche market and charge accordingly. Maintaining and keeping an analog machine alive is another serious issue.
Today, even people that totally prefer the sound of analog tape might use it only to record selected elements, such as a drum kit, and when it has been recorded, they usually transfer it straight over to digital as they listen back. Why would they do that? Well, that brings us to digital recording technology.
The first digital recorders didn’t sound very good. The reason for that was partly because digital storage was expensive, as was processing power, which led to the use of low bit and sample rates, (to use less data) and partly because the AD-converters were new and hadn’t yet matured as a technology.
Today, these problems are completely solved. Both processing power and storage has gotten many orders of magnitude cheaper, and the AD converters have gotten much, much better. I would say, to the point of being a non-issue. Add to that the convenience factor. Digital copies don’t degrade the way analog copies do. They can be edited and processed in ways that are completely impossible with analog. Imagine cutting real tape in order to move an early snare drum hit to where it belongs on the grid, never mind pitch and time stretching technology such as Celemony’s Melodyne software that allows a producer to create new harmonies from a lead vocal, change the phrasing, fix the pitch etc, with no noticeable artifacts (as long as it’s done correctly by someone who knows what they’re doing).
And to seal the deal, digital recording technology is so much cheaper than the analog equivalents , that it rarely ever makes any economic sense to record analog anymore. Lastly, almost everything that gets recorded (weather to analog tape, a computer hard drive, or with a digital tape machine) will ultimately be released in a digital form, so there really is no escaping it. Sure, there’s a bit of a resurgence in vinyl, but that’s largely a result of a backlash against the industry loudness wars – the way that label executives have been forcing mix and mastering engineers to over-compress the dynamic range of CD’s in order to make them louder than the other guys’ tracks. And I shouldn’t even have to mention the fact that you can’t upload, download, sell, or share analog music over the Internet.
So to some it up, I will say that there will always be a place for analog recording in some studios for the same reasons that there will always be space in some peoples’ garages for loud gas guzzling automobiles from the 1050’s.
Having said that, riding in one of those cars can be an experience, and there are certainly times while producing a record, where some analog tape magic is just the the thing to look for – as an effect and a tools to achieve a certain sound. So there are cases where, if one has access to a nicely kept 16 track analog recorder, that it will make sense to take a digital multitrack drum recording, send it out of separate channels, print it to tape, and then record it right back into the computer, just for the sound.
In fact, because there is a demand for this kind of thing, and keeping old recorders in shape is difficult and expensive, there are also plenty of new options to achieve a similar sound, with everything from plugins, to hardware tape emulator, or boxes that actually has a little bit of tape in them that you can process a signal with but not really record to.
But for any practical recording scenario, DAW recording is definitely the way to go 99,9% of the time for most people.