So much of the debate about digital versus analog has do do with feel and vibe. At the expense of over simplifying the issues, analog supporters say the digital realm is lifeless, sterile, and lacking that “warmth” or punch that is inherent in consoles, tape machines, and outboard compressors. But in recent years many purely “digital” albums have been released that sound just as analog as the old stuff.
Digital Can Sound Analog, If You Do It Right
At the recent NAMM show, lead singer of Fitz and The Tantrums, Michael Fitzpatrick talked about their DIY home studio first album Pickin’ Up The Pieces (2011) and how they got it to sound so analog and vibey even though down all in-the-box:
When I first was a Pro Tools user I got heavy into the “tweakability” of the system. But the more I work with it, I’ve lessened [how much I tweak] letting the mistakes and imperfections of the performance show through. [I'm also] more sparing in my use of EQs and effects. - Michael Fitzpatrick, Singer/Songwriter
In his mind, Fitzpatrick has never seen digital recording and mixing as prohibiting him from achieving that warm, classic, “analog” sound. He’s just making it work. But there are two critical points he makes in the above quote that I want to highlight real briefly.
Leaving In The Imperfections
Fitz brings up a huge point about too much editing. DAWs are powerful platforms to work on music. The ability to edit and tweak everything is a life saver. It can also be your music’s worst enemy. Too much tweaking can steal the soul and the vibe out of your tracks. So much of what makes a track have energy and musicality are slight imperfections of humans playing instruments together. Take it all out (by quantizing or lining up everything perfectly) and you lose that “performance” element.
I think that is a huge part of the lack of “analog” vibe that people miss. We usually think of actual sonic characteristics, not performance. We’re looking for plugins to put the “vibe” back in our tracks. While there are some great plugins that can help, nothing can put real vibe back into a track if you edited it out. Moral of the day, leave in some imperfections on your next mix and see if it doesn’t help create an organic feel.
Sparing Use Of Plugins
I hear this a lot from mixers and engineers, but sometimes the best thing you can do for your tracks is to not do so much to them. I know my tendency is to put plugins on every track and get to work. But each plugin you instantiate is one more thing affecting the audio in your mix. The more affecting you do, the more you can potentially rob from your original recordings.
In theory, if you have pretty well recorded tracks (and it’s not that hard to do with the proper time and attention paid to the instrument, performance, and mic placement) then a little EQ and compression might be all your song needs to come to life in the mix. This comment in particular struck me as challenging. In fact I’m making a conscious effort on my own band’s latest EP to mix it with as few plugins as possible for this very reason. I want to let the tracks stay as natural and full as they were when I recorded them.
Who Says You Have To Choose?
If you’re a home studio guy or gal who has ever felt stuck, as if you must somehow choose between the power and affordability of digital OR the sound and vibe of analog, then I say that’s rubbish. Modern DAWs are beautiful tools that capture and process audio with wonderful transparency. They don’t make your tracks sound harsh or cold. And you don’t need anything to “warm” them up. Just capture great performances, leave in some of the human imperfections, and be a bit more sparing in your plugin use.