I know, many will call this blasphemy. Many may even argue until the cows come home (and then some) about how this is impossible, how there’s no way digital will ever rival the sound of analog, especially digital representations of vintage analog gear that may actually sound more authentic than their analog vintage gear counterparts. And, some might claim I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is exactly the reason I’ve included examples from some of the best ears in the industry.
I’m also from the analog side of the tracks; i didn’t want to move away from film in my camera, but realized it didn’t change the way I took photos; it only made it easier to get the photos i saw in my mind into tangible form, and it was no different than when I finally gave in an bought a Pro Tools system Listening test after objective listening test, I’m afraid there’s now no return for me other than the occasional melancholy and sentimentality over not having all those real-life analog knobs to tweak.
So, we have the means and the technology to precisely measure, at every frequency (especially in the narrow range of human hearing) in the audio spectrum, how any analog piece of gear affects a sound signal that is applied to it. And what these measurements have revealed, is that the any analog audio device affects the signal in a way that is mathematical, making it replicable and repeatable, regardless of the frequency of the signal that is being applied to it, and regardless of the complexity of the signal.
Even when people hear this, I think they don’t fully comprehend what this means for sound. This means that no analog piece of processing equipment today is out of the reach of anyone anymore. All of the fancy studio with more money than they knew what to do with, could buy up all the vintage boxes to impress their clients, to fatten up sounds, and offer a unique sound on records that only these elite studios could provide.
But now, digital can accurately predict the future through precise algorithms that exactly match the characteristics of some of the most beloved analog gear of all time, reliably, without endless service calls or capacitor replacement, and with far more flexibility and options, including the ability to have an LA-2A on every track of your mix if you wish.
To explain more clearly, let’s take one of the most famous, as well as the simplest piece of vintage studio gear that is found in numerous top studios around the world; the LA-2A compressor. It has 2 knobs on it; an INPUT and an OUTPUT. The higher the input knob, the most compression that gets applied to the incoming signal, and the OUTPUT…well, it controls the output level of that signal.
Simple, right? So, Teletronix (UA) took the very best-tuned, highest performing units they could find, and tweaked them to be exactly at factory specs, and also took a few extra “street” models as well for comparison. It turns out that no matter signal was applied, a mathematically replicable result at the output occurred every single time. And, what they also found out, was that matching the output characteristics so precisely was far easier and far more predictable than anyone had ever imagined.
Shortly after this discovery, a workable plug-in was developed and then some highly critical and respected ears were played a wide range of audio material through the authentic analog LA-2A, and it’s digital counterpart.
Sadly for many, in as much as we want to believe that there are “essences” or “nuances” or “high harmonics” or that the analog gear gives this “overstuffed couches lined with silvery clouds” sound that digital could never match, or a “certain something that’s difficult to explain.” Well, none of the critical ears placed in front of the authentic analog piece and the digital version could tell the difference. The percentage of correctly choosing the analog LA-2A was exactly 50%, which amounts to; you guessed it; nothing more than guessing.
So, let’s take this many steps further and see what Waves Engineers started to do when they hooked up with SSL. To faithfully recreate the extraordinary SSL sound, Waves engineers spent more than a year analyzing and modeling the distinctive sonic characteristics of SL 4000 factory reference consoles and components provided by Solid State Logic themselves. They created extensive modeling algorithms that, just like every other piece of analog gear tested, showed repeatable, predictable, and programmable changes that the SSL was making to the sound, regardless of input source.
Then followed up with extensive testing, it was found that the Waves SSL 4000 plug-ins sounded virtually identical to their hardware counterparts, and when the best ears in the business were called in to find the fake, none were able to do so with more than 50% accuracy again.
This has been proven over and over again, and the technology is so “commonplace” now that almost any plug-in or equipment manufacturer has access to this technology and can apply it to their products. I keep telling people that the future is now, and if this doesn’t convince anyone it is, I don’t know what will.
The biggest battle for me is getting over the psychological barrier to this new way of thinking about recording. I made so many records I adore on my Amek “big”, from the Flaming Lips to Mercury Rev to HUM and many others, and now that we made the very difficult aesthetic decision to replace it with a far superior Matrix console from SSL, it took a long time to feel like it was a proper studio, since the aesthetic of that giant, room-filling console was no longer there. And I know it’s the same with bands that come in: Rather than going “Wow!” when they enter the Control Room, they look at the Matrix and wonder if they’re in the right place.
It then takes some explaining as to how this console is vastly more powerful, sounds vastly superior, and is so much more of a tool to make the sounds in all our heads into a tangible reality than anything else I’ve ever worked with. It not only seamlessly ties together my favorite analog bits of my studio (like my Shadow Hills QUAD GAMA preamps), but it routes and automates everything down to plug-ins that can now be intuitively controlled by knobs again, and even keeps track sheets of each project in a simple, easily accessible place as well.
It’s No Longer About the Gear
When tracks come out sounding digital: I hate to say it, but it’s not because of the technology, it’s because of the humans using the technology. I’ve proven this time and time again in my recording sessions as well as my mastering sessions. When the psychological component of staring at giant knobs being turned on a big silver box with VU’s on it is removed from the equation, no one yet, has been able to reliably tell the difference between an entire live take recorded onto my JH-24, and that same take simultaneously recorded onto my Pro Tools HD3 Accel system, with my McDSP analog channel applied either on every individual channel, or on the Master Fader of the stereo output.
This, to me, is beyond incredible. My JH-24, which was such a revered part of my studio, and has so many great alternative bands’ music passing through it is now just a giant effects box that rarely gets used. Even when we do use it, because even though our ears tell us differently, our hearts want to record onto analog, we track the main take on it, and then transfer it to Pro Tools.
Which leads me to something that I always adore about all of this technology. For a while, only those who could afford fancy studios with collections of vintage gear and finely-tuned gear could get that ‘sound’; that elusive black magic something that will make good records sound great, acting as the “glue” that holds it all together.
But, technology has come full circle, and since this kind of sound is now available to everyone, engineers and producers have to rely on their vision, their imagination, and their ears to guide them to great sounding records again. Digital does not make records sound digital anymore, and keeping entire sessions in the digital realm can often make digital recordings sound even more analog than analog recordings, especially since every piece of vintage gear in my plug-in collection will never need tubes replaced, it will never need new capacitors, it will never add strange intermittent noises, and so on. Yes, those things may add to the “character” of those pieces of vintage gear, but I now have the option to add that bias noise virtually, or to run my virtual tape machine at +4, or +6, or +9 long after the fact, without any degradation to the original sound, and infinite tweak ability to my heart’s content.
Plug-ins will never turn dirt to gold, but properly applied in creative and musical ways, they can be tools more powerful than I imagined possible, extending my palette of sounds and colors way beyond my stack of analog compressors, old keyboards, vintage reverbs, and all that other stuff I couldn’t, just a few years ago, ever imagine living without.