I’d like to welcome myself back to the blogging world after a long hiatus. I’ve been working on my studio a lot this past month and have acquired some fun new toys to play with- all analogue outboard gear, mostly EQ’s. I’ve spent weeks doing numerous tests with the analog vs digital argument. I thought I’d let you in on some thoughts I had.
I was reading an article in Tape Op recently about producers doing blind listening tests with analog eq’s vs their digital counterparts. This may hurt a little bit, but I need to inform you that the results were a wash. When comparing analog vs digital eq’s blindly, about half preferred the plugins, and half preferred the physical units. I can feel the tension in the room already… When this study was posted on Gearslutz.com it initiated a whirlwind of comments, arguments, name calling etc. But it also sparked an interesting discussion about why each person felt that one was better than the other. One commenter caught my attention as he claimed that the analog world allows you to have so much more freedom, and encouraged creativity more than the digital domain. This caught my attention, because I’ve never heard that angle before; the argument is always that the analog world sounds better, even if you sacrifice a bit of freedom you get in the digital domain. He went on to say that working in the analog world does wonders for his time management. And this is what inspired some testing on my part.
Quick disclaimer: I realize that this is not a TRUE analog test, since my computer is still the center point of the experiment. Most of the time when people make the analog v digital argument, they are talking about computers vs tape. That’s not what we are talking about here. Read on.
His theory was that most people working solely digitally, first record a clean signal into their computer, then they muck around with sounds using plugins etc. for hours and hours. You get your “sound” through plugins, and continuously tinker with those sounds endlessly as you continue to track, and mix the song- often times getting diminishing returns. As a compulsive “tinkerer”, I knew exactly what he meant (I can’t tell you how many times I mixed, and remixed the Sucré album…). So, I opened up a song that had been mixed and mastered with plugins, and removed ALL plugins from the song. Then I gave myself 10 minutes to completely remix and remaster the song using only outboard gear (yes really!). I won’t go into the details of how this works, but you just need to know that I was sending each individual track out of the computer and into different pieces of hardware. Once all tracks had been processed through the outboard gear, I sent the master buss through a few stereo EQ’s and compressors. Then I exported the stereo file to a new project, and lined up my new master with the old (digital) master.
The two masters sounded very different, but it’s difficult to say that one was “better” than the other. There was an ease to the new analog master- it sounded simple and effortless. The digital version sounded louder and more processed- and by processed I suppose I mean it sounded very thought out, and more manipulated. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, just an observation. To be honest, it was a little humbling to find out that all of my hours of toiling with this mix may have been unnecessary. Positive results could have been achieved in just a fraction of the time had I been willing to just commit to sounds achieved through my analog pieces.
As a producer who can be very proud of my ability to shape sounds in the digital world, it feels very scary to abandon the precision and detail of that world. But from a work-flow perspective, I could see how a switch to working with analog gear could save time- lots of time… Working with analog equipment requires a bold and decisive attitude. It’s tough to say that one allows you to be more creative than the other, because this really depends on your perspective. But I will say that it did feel a little more exciting using the analog pieces to get the sounds; or perhaps the word is risky.
I know people get really worked up about this stuff. Don’t. The main objective of this test was to see if a quick mix with analog gear could stack up to a day of work using plugins. In this one instance, it did. My process will probably forever be a hybrid of the two, as are most studios today.
Thanks for reading,
PS, this test was done on unreleased material. Perhaps once this song is released, I’ll post the two versions on here.