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 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 an acoustic 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 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 levelling 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 to 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.

Analog Tape

There are people who love the “warm” sound of analog tape. I would say most of them belong to one of two categories: Older people who got started with tape or kids today who read too many issues of TapeOp Magazine 🙂.

There are also people who prefer the cleaner sound of modern analog to digital converters. Among them would be recording engineers who were active during the sixties and seventies when keeping noise and hiss to a minimum was one of the biggest challenges.

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 economies of scale no longer keep 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 these analog machines alive is another challenge.

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.

Digital Recording

The first digital recorders didn’t sound all that great. The reason for that was partly because digital storage was expensive, as was processing power, which led to the use of low bit rates and sample rates, (to use less data) and partly because the AD-converters and filters that comes (or would come) with them 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 combined with people’s love for the large artworks that come along with it. And I hardly even have to mention the fact that you can’t upload, download, sell, or share analog music through the internet.


So to some it up, 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 when producing a record, where some analog tape magic could be just the the thing to look for – as an effect or a tool to achieve a certain sound. So there are cases where, if one has access to a nicely kept tape machine, that it will make sense to take a digital multitrack drum recording for example, 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 because keeping old tape machines in shape is difficult and expensive, there are has appeared new options to achieve a similar sound, with everything from plugins, to hardware tape emulators, or boxes that actually has a little bit of tape in them that you can process a signal with, just as if it was any analog piece of outboard gear, without having to actually record anything.

For the large majority of practical recording scenarios, DAW recording is definitely the way to go.