Few topics create as much debate as the discussion of analog vs digital recording. Without digital technology, the world would be a very different place – you wouldn’t have a computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone. Even the music you love to listen to, record and mix wouldn’t sound the same.
Analog vs Digital Recording: What's the Difference?
In simple terms, an analog recording is created when a physical recording medium – tape, for example – is fluctuated by air pressure changes (sound waves) caused by the original source of the sound. This fluctuation at the sound source creates waves which cause a transducer or microphone diaphragm to vibrate. These vibrations are converted to an electric current, causing an electromagnet to imprint a magnetic field on the tape, creating an “image” of the original sound.
The first stage of creating a digital recording is identical to that of an analog recording. But from that point onward, things change. The fluctuating current is transformed into strings of zeroes and ones – a binary representation of off and on -- by an ADC (analog-to-digital converter). At a 44.1 kHz sample rate, 44,100 samples per second are recorded.
For that binary code to become audible, it must be transformed by a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) into a fluctuating voltage. When that voltage is passed through an amp, and out of another transducer (your speakers) it is heard.
What Do You Need to Create a Digital Audio Recording?
The complexity – relative to that of analog – involved in digital recording might make one believe that a great deal of equipment is required. However, all you need is a DAW (digital audio workstation) - which includes the following:
• A sufficiently powerful computer
• Microphone preamps and microphones
• an audio interface
• Audio recording software - such as Pro Tools HD (which I use and favor)
To make the most of your digital recordings; focus on quality, not quantity. Create a core selection of well-made, carefully chosen pieces of equipment, and build on that.
Analog vs Digital: Which is better?
Let’s set aside for a moment the dry, technical discussion of gear, and of how analog and digital signals differ. It’s time to move onto the more subjective, sometimes contentious, aspect of this conversation: is analog better than digital, or vice versa?
Digital is better. There, I said it – and before all you analog guys jump down my throat, allow me to elaborate. Analog recording has existed for longer than its digital counterpart. Our ears are attuned to analog’s warm, sonically-pleasing, oftentimes subtle, yet noticeable harmonic distortion. These musically-related harmonics that imbue a recording with certain musical qualities one might refer to as “thickness”, “color”, “density”, or "warmth".
That’s what’s great about recording with analog gear. Here’s what’s not so great: Enormous consoles, expensive 2” tape that’s prone to degradation, and a slower workflow.
On the other hand, recording digitally is quicker, more reliable, cost-effective, and reduces or eliminates a number of difficult to control variables associated with recording to tape, including hiss, unpredictable sound coloration, and deterioration. Analog has a potentially destructive effect on the transients necessary for percussive instruments to cut through the mix.
Digital recording – sometimes criticized for sounding “cold”, “lifeless”, or “harsh” – is thusly described precisely because it is clean, lacking in ear-pleasing harmonic distortion.
But wait – can’t you just record digitally, and then add those pleasing harmonics with a plug-in? Not so fast. If you want the best of both worlds, you have to use the right tool: a digital-analog hybrid recording system.
An analog summing matrix, when combined with high-quality microphone preamps and converters, is the most elegant way to integrate the speed, convenience and pristine sound of digital with the unmistakable warmth of analog, creating what I like to call “the mixing board of the future”.
Here’s an example: Combine instruments of like design, drums, guitars, bass, keyboards, vocals, background vocals, and effects, and bus them to 16 outputs of your DAW. Connect those outputs to the 16 inputs of the analog summing matrix. This matrix will feed 2 identical stereo outputs that are the summed result of the inputs. Come again? Look at this way: a mixing board has a number of channels, all of which are sent to the primary left and right outputs, allowing an audience to hear you at a gig. But there are other stereo outputs of that same signal. The headphone output is one example.
Analog summing operates on the same principle. All of the inputs are routed to a stereo output (of which there are two). Since an identical signal comes out of both stereo outputs, one can be sent directly to your monitoring system for a reference.
The other – and this is where it gets exciting – can be sent to your analog gear, allowing you to fatten up the sound with delicious harmonic distortion and other effects, all the while keeping an ear on how it interacts with and affects your mix. Bear in mind that your reference signal will also be slightly affected by the analog summing process – see the diagram below:
The Tricky Part
Here’s where things get a bit more complicated, but bear with me. To get the analog signal back into your DAW, choose an AUX input and an audio input, and route the analog stereo signal path back into your digital audio workstation with the AUX bussed to the audio channel. My setup consists of Pro Tools HD, the Dangerous Music 2 Bus LT (the summing matrix), and the Dangerous Music Monitor ST (a monitor controller).
One of the two stereo signals goes from the 2 Bus LT directly into the Music Monitor ST, providing the reference. The second stereo signal gets routed from the 2 Bus LT to my analog gear, including stereo pairs of the Rupert Neve 542 (a transformer-based, voltage-responsive tape saturation emulator, superior to software emulations), 543 (a warm-sounding compressor-limiter) and 551 (a musical- sounding 3-band EQ).
The analog signal is routed back into Pro Tools, to an AUX track. The reason that I use an Aux track is simple: with that stereo return instantiated, it is possible to add plug-ins to the chain. If an audio track is used, you cannot. The AUX track then gets bussed to an audio track, and printed or recorded as the master.
But Wait, There’s more!
Using Pro Tools, it’s possible to hardwire analog gear to an interface, and use the outboard gear as a plug-in – and it’s already delay-compensated, eliminating latency issues. In the I/O setup of Pro Tools you can route this on the insert page. Just imagine: analog equipment as a plug-in! You could use an outboard sub harmonic EQ on a bass line or your favorite compressor on a vocal track, and still use a software plug-in instantiated after it for further processing. How awesome is that?
Value is Subjective
Outboard gear is wonderful – and often expensive. A high-end analog mixing board and 16 track, 2” tape machine can be had, but for a king’s ransom – and that’s before the inevitable maintenance costs. For example, a Rupert Neve 5088 16 channel large format console would run you in excess of $71,000. A fully restored and aligned Mara Machines 16 track, 2” tape machine would set you back another $10,000. We’re talking over $80,000 for two pieces of gear, and that gives you only 16 channels.
By comparison, here’s my setup:
• Pro Tools HD
• Three interfaces 40 input channels total. (2 HD I/O’s and 1 HD Omni)
• Three Audient ASP 800 Preamps - 24 channels total.
• Six Rupert Neve analog 500 modules (stereo pairs of the 542, 543 and 55) • Four Elysia 500 modules
• Dangerous Music summing matrix and monitor controller
The above costs less than 1/4 of a 16 channel analog mixing console and 2” tape machine.
Is the warm sound of an all-analog recording system (with its idiosyncratic yet unpredictable behavior), worth over four times the cost of an analog-digital hybrid system? Perhaps – to the patient, deep- pocketed traditionalist. As for me, well, I’ll let my hybrid system speak for itself. I hope you’ve reached the same conclusion I have: that there’s nothing “wrong” with digital recording, and that its flexibility makes it possible to incorporate the warm, magical qualities of a tape-based analog system, but with far more reliability, repeatability – and at a fraction of the price.
The future is here. Stay tuned for more. Happy mixing!
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