Embracing Analog in a Digital World

Achieving “analog sound” isn’t just about the gear you use—it could be as simple as ignoring a bass flub, allowing a vocal to distort ever so briefly, or anything else that injects some “humanness” into the recording

Posted in The Weekly on April 29, 2024 by

Despite the convenience that digital recording affords, many of us remain intrigued by the concept of analog “warmth,” as well as the machinery capable of providing that vibe. In addition to tape decks, cassette multitrackers and the like, the market is teeming with quality plug-ins and other emulators that in some instances are confoundingly good at mimicking their dusty old forbears.

But achieving “analog sound” isn’t just about the gear you use—it could be as simple as allowing a vocal to distort ever so briefly, ignoring an instrumental mistake, placing a mic down the hall to capture some ambient energy, or just about anything else that lets some “humanness” into the recording. In many instances, the effect is so subtle that listeners aren’t even aware that these sounds are actually having a positive effect. Here are a few examples.

Let there be air. In-the-box platforms like DAWs are great at getting remarkably authentic instrument tones without incurring the wrath of nearby inhabitants. Though efficient and effective, going direct can sometimes result in demos that lack punch—often because you’re not capturing enough moving air. To remedy this, try to balance your mixes with at least some miked instrumentation, whether it’s drums, guitar, even live handclaps or percussion added on top—anything to inject some sense of space into the surroundings.

The live vibe. For the ultimate analog experience, try recording a foundation track live with a roomful of musicians, rather than going it alone layer by layer. While some advance planning is necessary to prevent excessive leakage between instruments, the results are often well worth the effort. “When you have excellent players all working together at once, there is usually some friendly competition, people tend to perform to the best of their abilities,” notes Matt Wallace, producer for Maroon 5, Michael Franti and others. “That interaction sparks additional excitement, thereby creating a much livelier track. It plays a large part in the overall warmth and spirit of the recording.”

A few flubs are okay. Digital editing has made it a snap to isolate and correct any random “mistakes” along the way, whether it’s a singer clearing her throat or a guitarist unintentionally emitting feedback. But when the process involved magnetic tape and only a handful of tracks, such miscues were more common—take the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” for instance, in which Paul McCartney’s bass is clearly a half-step sharp at the top of the song’s coda. Did it matter? Of course not—the single still went to Number One, and if anything, such unretouched errors proved that our heroes were really mortals after all. Therefore, when preening a track, go ahead and clean up obvious issues like between-take buzzing and the like, but maybe leave that little piece of vocal-mic banter in place, just to see if anyone notices.

Homemade flavor. Among the elements that give old records their unique charm are such handmade devices as echo chambers and tape delays, which, due to their physical irregularities, never really worked the same way twice. Even so, our ears tend to respond positively to these analog processes, simply because they sound “human.” You don’t need to buy or build anything to try this at home—all it takes is some extra time and a willingness to experiment. For instance, any accessible space with a bit of liveliness can serve as an instant echo-maker, whether it’s an open stairwell, a tiled bathroom, or even an empty storage unit. You could apply the same homemade approach when creating loops for click tracks—rather than use a synthesized drum sample, I’ll sometimes take a recording of a mixed drum kit from a previous project and cut that into loops of 8 or 16 bars for a new song. That way I have a reliable click track and the sound of a real person providing the beat.

Thinking analog. As songwriters, the main objective is to capture our ideas as efficiently as possible, before whatever spark of inspiration vanishes. While the idea of procuring an old tape deck or mix console may seem romantic to some, there’s a good chance you’ll ultimately spend more time repairing than recording. But as we’ve noted, in many ways analog is more about the practices that you employ before you get to the recorder, rather than the type of machinery you’re actually using.

SOURCEThe Weekly TAGS Advice


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