Thinking Analog

Even if you don’t own any high-price vintage gear, it’s still important to think analog - to create sounds in your studio that aren’t just like everyone else’s.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on June 24, 2009 by

Anyone who started out in home recording using a clunky cassette-tape or reel-to-reel multitracker and managed to remain a musician deserves some credit. Not only were those relics off-putting and temperamental, they weren’t even supposed to sound all that great in the first place. Back then, a demo was, well, a demo, an approximation of what a song might sound like in a pro studio in the unlikely event that a record exec decided to proffer a recording contract. In other words, few of us went into the basement with the idea that we could emerge with something that might actually pass for a finished master - we just didn’t have the means.

Of course all that’s changed, and today anyone with a halfway decent digital recorder has the wherewithal to turn out a semi-pro level product in a matter of hours. It’s no longer a miracle to hear something fantastic-sounding coming back at you through the monitors; it’s supposed to sound good. In fact, it’s unlikely that younger musicians just starting out in recording can fully grasp how blessed they are compared to their counterparts from yesteryear.

Nor does anyone question why everything sounds so good these days. Like anything automated, a digital workstation doesn’t really explain how it does what it does - it just does it. And what’s wrong with that? It’s just another computerized piece of machinery; it’s not like we sit around wondering how our PCs handle the myriad functions they do on a daily basis. So why should we have to understand how a DAW routes signals, copies, moves, pastes, edits, or replicates the sound of a Marshall at the push of a button?

It’s my position that anyone who has the wherewithal to plug in a microphone, hit “record” and make human-generated noises should be required to know how Point A gets to Point Z. By learning the fundamental who-what-where-when-why-how’s of modern recording, you’re aligning yourself with the great forerunners of studio sound, whose inventiveness and creativity helped make it possible for you to sound as good as you do on hard disc today. In the process we can gain greater insight into the functions of our digital gear, which, after all, is merely an updated version of yesterday’s units.

This is where analog comes in. As one might expect, the best way for you to gain some old-school recording insight is to arm yourself with some old-school recording tools such as a physical mixer, a few vintage microphones, and so forth. But analog isn’t just about using equipment that was made when Ronald Reagan was president (or governor, or actor); it’s also about using your head, being creative, injecting your music with a bit of ingenuity and individuality. In short, it’s equally important to think analog or, more to the point, to create sounds in your studio that aren’t just like everyone else’s.

Over the past few years even big-time music merchants like Musician’s Friend or Guitar Center have jumped on the old-school bandwagon. Browse the monthly catalogs and you’re sure to find phrases like “analog” and “vintage” liberally sprinkled throughout, usually in combination with that overused adjective, “warmth.” But what does “warmth” mean anyway? For lack of a better term, it describes both the machinery and the methods used to produce analog sound, which, unlike digital, involves physical processes. When recording with analog equipment or employing analog methods, the sound is subject to various imperfections and limitations - mistakes are made along the way. It is because of these inefficiencies that we have what is commonly referred to as analog “warmth,” or, to put it another way, when we hear something that we perceive as sounding “warm,” in reality it is because it sounds “human.”

But wasn’t digital created in part to override the shortcomings of analog? That’s right. In fact, the founders of digital sound did such a good job fixing the flaws that they forgot one thing: that some of the best-sounding records contain any number of accidental recording irregularities-while many others were the result of intentionally messing with the system.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Before rock and roll, most studios had strict rules governing things like input levels, mic placement and the like. Why, for years artists weren’t even allowed inside a control room, much less permitted to play with the faders. But then along came The Beatles, The Stones and all the others, and before you knew it, the hoodlums had their fingers all over the console, asking questions like, “What happens if we put the needle all the way into the red?” “What about cranking the limiter level all the way up?” “Why can’t we stick a microphone inside the bass drum?” And one by one, the rules of recording were broken in the name of blessed experimentation. The result? Albums like the Beatles’ Revolver, Buffalo Springfield’s Again or Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, to name just a few, would not have existed in quite the same way had they been recorded under “normal” circumstances.

But many other elements helped give those records their unique sound. Most classic recordings employed hand-made studio devices, such as echo chambers, tape loops and the like, all of which had various anomalies and never worked the same way twice-and yet became the backbone of this amazing period of music. Still, researchers took it upon themselves to improve upon these “flawed” devices, and in time all became digitized or automated. Not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with any of these innovations; most recording engineers today would probably agree that each represented a significant technological improvement over its predecessor. However, even hardcore proponents of leading-edge technology have admitted there is something at the heart of those analog gizmos that still can’t be replicated through digital means.

Let me make one thing clear: I am an ardent fan of digital technology. Though the four-track cassette machines of the 1980s had some merits (in a masochistic sort of way), the arrival of home digital during the 1990s proved how futile it was to pin your creative output on a thin reel of chromium oxide. And while 44.1kHz is hardly without its flaws, the built-in signal processing, virtual tracking, and boundless storage capabilities of digital media have helped transform the potentially frustrating business of multi-tracking into a whole lot of fun.

At the same time, I’m also an ardent fan of music history, and I’ve always had a fascination for relics, whether human (some of my best friends are at least twice my age) or machine. Through my line of work, I’ve gained considerable insight into how some of the milestone pop-music recordings were assembled, and as a result, a portion of my musical psyche will always be rooted in the past. My appreciation for traditional recording technique reached an all-time high several years ago while doing research for my book Studio Stories: How the Great New York Records Were Made. Many of the engineers I interviewed talked about the phenomenon of hearing a song on the radio and knowing immediately which studio it had been recorded at - which was mainly due to the “homemade” aspect of the old studios and the recording techniques of the time. Back then, most of the really fine studios had their own hand-made echo chambers and recording consoles, or the rooms were constructed in a unique manner, and so forth. Each studio had a dedicated engineer; some even had their own research department that built equipment in-house. Others had a house band that supplied the backing tracks for most of the hits recorded in that particular studio. All of these elements combined to give a studio its signature sound, which you can still hear on the radio today.

This concept obviously struck a nerve, for not long after I’d completed the book, I went and built a live echo chamber right in my basement studio. Pretty extreme, I admit, and of course I had to endure all sorts of stupid questions and cruel jokes before the project was complete. It took me some time to get it right, but today the chamber echo sounds much better than any of my digital reverbs, bar none. That’s because it’s a mechanical process, the result of a few signals being fed into a 15-foot-long room made of plaster and reflective paint, outfitted with a cheap Radio Shack speaker and a single microphone, all haphazardly wired together. It’s a totally random piece of architecture, and if I had to build another one in the exact same spot, that chamber would probably come out completely different. But the main thing is that it has a sound that’s unique to this studio - and there’s something very cool about that.

Only in an analog world can this kind of distinction exist. Unfortunately, such brick-and-mortar methods are no longer standard practice in the average studio. While digital certainly has its positive attributes, it also made it possible to sample most classic effects and package them in a nice tidy little box. Today, for the most part, everyone uses the same basic equipment, the same processing, plug-ins, etc. Crude homemade consoles and weird sounds and idiosyncrasies are no longer part of the recording landscape. In short, it’s like having a hamburger from McDonald’s, versus a hamburger from the local diner.

“Many studios today have become, as is known in economics, an undifferentiated product,” says Walter Sear, owner of Sear Sound, still the oldest operating studio in Manhattan. “One sack of rice is the same as the next.”

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from our engineering ancestors is how much great-sounding music was created with so little help from external aids.

“Now you can get things like automatic double-tracking, reverb and flanging, just by pressing a button,” says Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn. “But by doing so, you’re also avoiding the whole process of invention. At the end of the day, you just can’t beat the sound of Jerry Allison in a bathroom, thumping the beat behind Buddy Holly, or Elvis singing in a hallway, or any of the great sounds the Beatles and their crew concocted from scratch.”

Sure, if it’s after midnight and you have a device that lets you sound like a Marshall stack without all the racket of a Marshall stack, you’d be a fool not to use it. But how much ingenuity did it take to get you there? None. And if the plug-in is really that great, right now there are probably thousands of other home-studio types just like you who are applying the same sound to their own tracks. And you thought your stuff was going to be different.

The next time you record, resist the temptation to manipulate everything artificially. Want a nice live-sounding vocal track? Put up two microphones, one just a few inches away, another several feet in front of you. Record your vocal, then blend both tracks together, boosting the “distant” mic to taste. Rather than adding digital delay, reverb or flange, manually double-track your vocals, using a small speaker for a playback monitor (instead of headphones) and allowing some of the first vocal track to bleed into the vocal mic when recording the second pass. Looking for a different kind of guitar sound? Take a small amp, put it inside a galvanized garbage can, toss in a Shure SM57 mic, close the lid, then crank the volume. Or place one mic in front of the speaker, another at least 10 feet away, maybe even a third mic directly behind the amp. Mess around with the amp settings, experiment with different types of microphones, record it in a stairwell, in a bathroom-the possibilities are endless.

Analog is also about purposely seeking in an uncontrolled environment, where the unexpected is more likely to happen. For instance, I recently cut some live tracks in a very small rehearsal room with two electric guitars, bass and drums for backing, using nothing but very directional microphones on the amps and drum kit (mainly Shure SM57s) in order to prevent excessive leakage. I recorded the vocal live as well, using a Shure SM58 patched through a small Presonus compressor/limiter, while at the same time running the vocals through a small speaker in the room that served as a monitor. The proximity of the vocal mic to the drums and amps, combined with the limiter and the sound from the monitor, produced a surprisingly vital live sound. Of course, on another day (or with a slightly louder band), the same set-up may have ended in failure-but this time around we happened to get lucky.

But that’s the way of the analog world: things occur randomly, often with unpredictable results. Want to play it safe? Then do it all digitally, carefully controlling and manipulating each track. You’ll get the sounds you want, when you want it, without all the mucky-muck or the mystery, and you’ll be finished that much faster. So what if you don’t have as much fun?

SOURCESongwriter 101 TAGS Career Advice


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