Can I Get the Analog Sound with My Digital Recorder?

By Jeff Strong

An interesting trend in digital home recording is the quest for analog sound. In the marketplace, you find new pieces of gear being marketed as having warmth or a vintage sound. What exactly is this sound?

This sound is … wait for it … distortion. Yep, good ol’ noise and distortion. Why would someone want to duplicate that now?

When the mild distortion that’s inherent in good analog recordings was eliminated in digital recordings, it was missed (sigh). In analog recording, you find a technique that’s used to add something wonderful and beautifully pleasing to a recording: tape saturation. This is caused by recording the sound onto a tape recorder at a high enough level that the tape becomes saturated, and certain aspects of the sound change.

For the most part, tape saturation adds even harmonics to the sound. Not to get too technical, but these are the tones present in the music but, for the most part, hidden behind the main tone. Tape saturation brings out those tones just a little, and people find them pleasing to listen to. Tape saturation also mellows out the high frequencies by smearing them together a little.

Without this sound, many listeners (certainly not all) find digital recordings somewhat harsh or cold. In case you didn’t know, these are highly technical terms meaning, “I don’t hear that thing I’m used to hearing in an analog recording.”

Digital recording can’t duplicate this sound exactly. If you try to use the tape saturation technique with a digital recorder (by overriding the input levels), all you get is more harshness and a horrible clipping sound. (The sound is clipped off by the digital converters, and you hear crackles and clicks.)