How to Get the Analog Sound from Your Digital Recorder
Home recordists want that analog sound! So, you find that you gotta have that analog sound, too, but you don’t want to (or can’t) deal with the expense of a complete analog system. Well, you’re in luck! You, too, can add some of the warmth to your digital recordings if you’re willing to shell out the green.
Seriously, you can buy analog extras to help you add a little of that analog distortion to your music. Many of these products are great and have a place in a home studio. Just don’t get so hooked by the need to have warmth in your recordings that you go out and buy everything that you can to add mild distortion. This warmth is just distortion, after all.
Most of the time, people use tube gear on their instruments to get them to sound warmer. In sound recording, tube gear refers to components that still use the ancient technology of vacuum tubes to get them up and running — and up and running with all that distortion that some listeners describe as warm.
Tube microphones, preamps, compressors, and equalizers are only a few of the types of products available to add some semblance of the much-sought-after analog sound.
If you want to go tubeless, look for special tape-saturation emulators on the market to give you that analog edge.
The tube stuff
Vacuum-tube microphones, preamps, compressors, and equalizers have been around for decades. In fact, before solid-state (transistor) technology was developed, everything electronic had vacuum tubes in it — both good-quality and bad-quality audio gear.
Vacuum-tube equipment definitely had a sound to it, and tube technology definitely had its limitations — the main one being the coloration that was added to the music. This coloration is now highly sought after in today’s world of digital recording, so the tube stuff has become increasingly popular.
To get the pleasing analog distortion that’s so popular today, you don’t need to buy gear with vacuum-tube circuitry. Some top-quality solid-state gear can get you the same sound as the vintage tube stuff.
In fact, some of the most sought-after vintage preamps, equalizers, and compressors — particularly those bearing the “Neve” name — are solid state, and they still have a beautifully colored (distorted) sound. So, when you go in search of the tube sound for your studio, remember that you can get the sound you’re after without having to buy actual vacuum-tube gear.
Not all “tube” gear produces a pleasing sound. Sometimes the distortion that a piece of gear adds to your music creates more noise and mud (lack of clarity in the sound) than it adds warmth. Be sure to listen to the equipment that you’re interested in before you buy it.
Make your purchase decision based on whether you like the way the equipment sounds for your particular music. Do your homework before adding any tube gear — or any new equipment that you spend your hard-earned money on. Read reviews and specifications, talk to people, and above all, listen to the equipment before you buy.
Many audio-recording retailers allow you a certain amount of time after you buy a piece of equipment to return it if you don’t like it. Of course, you have to pay for it before you leave the store, but you usually have a timeframe in which you can return it. Ask your music retailer to be sure of its return policy before you buy.
Tape saturation emulators
The new great thing in audio recording is the tape saturation emulator, also known as the analog tape emulator. These units are designed to add the characteristics that you get from recording high levels onto tape, such as the mild distortion that analog aficionados love.
You can find both stand-alone tape saturation emulators and plug-ins for your computer-based system. These can be expensive (over $2,000 in some cases), but many pros swear by them. Currently, this technology is in its infancy, so expect the prices to drop dramatically and the choices to expand exponentially over the next few years.
A really decent tape-saturation plug-in for computer-based systems is the Vintage Warmer. This plug-in can add pleasing distortion to your tracks for about $150. If you use it, be careful not to overdo it. Using too much saturation is easy and can ruin an otherwise good track.
Do you need any tube or analog emulator gear in your studio? The short answer is: No, you don’t. You can make great recordings without any of this stuff. All you need is an instrument, a microphone, a mixer, a recorder, and some monitors — oh, and some good, solid engineering skills.
What really counts is your music. People who listen to music don’t care whether you use (insert gotta-have gear here) to record your masterpiece. All they care about is whether they like the music. So don’t make yourself nuts (or go broke) over any of this stuff.