Analog vs. Digital and Why You Shouldn’t Care Anymore

Roland Space EchoBy Jason Kreloff

The last thing we need is one more white cisgendered male in the music recording industry giving heated opinions on why your digital plug-ins sound like trash— all the while flaunting complicated pieces of analog equipment that would destroy your bank account.

Chances are, if you heard a song on the radio, it has been recorded, engineered,  mixed, and mastered by a man. Historically, through privilege and generational wealth, white men have used positions of power to monopolize the making of music. This results in the boxing out of those with no access to resources.

Even worse, analog studio equipment is really expensive these days, which makes establishing a professional audio career all the more daunting. However, analog gear ultimately means nothing for the future of music.

In this article, I will argue that in terms of performance, analog and digital recording tech share a lot more in common than the average analog junkie living in his mom’s basement would lead you to believe.

This is an instrument rack. Audio comes in on one end clean, and out the other end soaked in effects. There are analog instrument racks, digital instrument racks, and analog-digital hybrids. This paper will contain some very broad analysis about famous compressors and reverbs. Knowing exactly what they do is insignificant to the argument.

Chris Lord-Alge is an American mixing engineer who is highly regarded for some reason. I guess it’ll be interesting to some folks that he mixed, mastered and engineered Green Day’s American Idiot (not an album I love, but whatever).

In early 2010 the audio plug-in company Waves contracted him for digital recreations of some of his favorite analog instrument racks. With Waves’ help, Lord-Alge was able to create pinpoint-accurate digital recreations of some of the rarest and best sounding compressors of all time, including the Teletronix LA-2A and the Universal Audio 1176LN. This allowed for sale of classic products at a fraction of the price — instead of paying for hours of studio time or the $10,000 LA-2A, you could spend roughly $60 to $100 for a Waves CLA recreation and achieve carbon copy results without breaking the bank.

Since the early 2010’s, people in the realm of audio have been uploading data taken from instrument racks. For example, the company Lexicon has been making analog and digital reverb units for decades, carving out their own niche, “the Lexicon sound.” The Lexicon 224XL was one of these — essentially a huge computer with hundreds of presets. However, once people figured out that they could analyze the data coming from these echo machines and perfectly copy their thousands of effects, the internet soon became flooded with free versions of these multi-thousand dollar units.

Unfortunately, accessing these free reverbs is all but easy and requires a little bit of math. However, I’d rather do a little math (and I hate math) if it meant I wouldn’t have to spend a whopping $3,200 on the actual unit.

Clearly, analog recording tools are being run into the ground… right? Why hasn’t Lexicon been run out of business if all their stuff is just out there for free download? People might be drawn to the imperfections and charm of a vintage unit — maybe there’s more white noise — or continue to think that they literally sound better than their digital clones. Maybe they just enjoy the tactile element. Moreover, if a unit’s data was uploaded for free, you can bet that it was legendary or at least highly sought after in some way.

My advice when thinking about all of this is to simply do what works, and what you like. Because of the rarity of analog gear, it’s unlikely that your average up-and-coming producer is going to use a $10,000 compressor his first 5 years working in the field. So, if you learn to use a digital recreation first, when the time comes, you’ll be ready. Similarly I doubt that the average music listener can hear the difference between digital plug-ins or a cheaper analog copy.

The Klark Teknik KT-2A and the Warm Audio WA-2A are analog modules created with the purpose of emulating the Teletronix LA-2A.  Hearing the subtleties between these three would be almost impossible — even for the most experienced audio veteran. If you introduce the digital Waves CLA-2A plug-in into this test, it would perform so similarly to the others that differences would be imperceptible.  And that’s exactly why none of this matters.

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange was entirely mixed and engineered by Jeff Ellis using only the most basic Waves plugins. If that proves anything, it’s that the quality of the art you are making has the greatest impact on the music— not some random $200 gap between this unit and that one.

Finally, at the end of this paper, I’m exactly where I started: analog stuff is great, but too expensive and rare — so you’ll still find me using standard Waves plugins. Average listeners tuning in will have no idea if I’m sending vocals through a $900 analog compressor or not, and, just like me, won’t even care. In the world of audio, there are an infinite number of paths that lead to the same destination, so don’t stress on it too much and make sure you stick to your strengths!

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