Of the endless topics that pop up in discussions between dance music producers, analog vs. digital seems to be among the most frequently brought up. Some cling to the purist “analog or bust” mentality while some prefer the new school digital revolution. Both have their pro’s and cons, let’s examine some key points.
A Time and Place
While the exact steps for production can fluctuate from track to track, we can essentially group the process of making electronic music into three phases: Writing & Production, Mixing and of course Mastering. Both analog and digital have their place among these three steps. At some times, analog is king, at others digital comes out as the primary tool. Let’s take a look at where these two solutions shine and where they falter.
Writing and production
Okay, I’ll be honest. I am guilty of letting a few of my brilliant analog synths sit and collect dust. Yes, I LOVE getting my hands on my Juno106 tweaking sliders, finding the filters sweet spot and jamming on keys with instant gratification. However, when inspiration strikes, the last thing I want to do wait for the hardware to warm up, tune the synth and program the sound. When I’m just jamming, yeah it’s fun, but when I have that perfect idea and I need to get it down NOW, I usually grab my favorite plugin and use one of the hundreds of presets I have designed and saved. I can usually find something fast that will get the job done and then I can tweak it out later. On that same point, sometimes it’s great to write on a VSTi and run the midi through a hardware synth later.
Now lets talk about sound. Analog modeling synths are starting to sound pretty great. You can get fantastic sounding recreations of Moog’s and Vintage Roland’s but they are lacking in one very important area. Imperfection. That’s one of the beautiful things about analog gear. Vintage synthesizers have pitch fluctuations, crackles, weird nuances in the electronics. The little mistakes are what give them character. That’s not to say VST instruments can’t sound good, hey, they can sound AMAZING, but sometimes they can be a bit too pure. Sometimes, you need a little grit to make your music sound more “real.” On the flip side, analog synths just don’t work for some genres. While that Juno might sound great for deep house, it’s probably not the best choice for dubstep or grimy glitch-hop. Sometimes you need a bit more crunch.
When it comes to my workflow, I love the flexibility of soft synths. If I feel like I just need that warmth, I will either recreate the sound on hardware or more often, run it through the Empirical Labs Fatso or a tape sim. So for me, digital wins the majority of the time.
Which brings me to the next phase of building a track.
Analog becomes a new animal when mixing. When using outboard gear, you must consider your conversion, latency, and recall among other things. This interruption to workflow might be a deal breaker for some.
That said, I must admit, running a mix through a real mixing console adds a very special flavor to a mix. Even just running an in the box mix through a big boy console with everything set flat can glue the whole thing together. Sure, there aren’t any spectral EQ’s and you might only get a handful of compressors, but the mixing phase is where analog really starts to pull away from digital.
I have yet to find a console that can notch things out like Pro-Q. And while hardware units do sound amazing, some recreations are very, very close. Best of all, you have unlimited versions of software, while you may be lucky if you can afford to put a single hardware compressor in your rack.
So, in the mixing stage, analog and digital effects seem to be neck and neck which is why I prefer a hybrid mixing setup. Depending on what a song may need, I can either run it through my console, using each channel, taking advantage of the EQs and gain staging while still using in the box effects when needed; OR I mix in my DAW and then send 8 stems through my summing boxes to get some of that voltage magic going while slapping a compressor on the output before going back into the digital realm.
If I want to scale things down even further, I can mix entirely digitally and if something really needs some love, I can put some outboard goodness on just the one channel. This is particularly useful on vocals. Occasionally a track actually needs to sound somewhat cold, especially really loud dubstep and electro. All those crunchy synths can get mushy really fast if you over warm them. Consider it melting the track. A little warmth is good in these cases but too much will turn the whole thing to mush. Whenever this is the case, I opt to mix in the digital domain only.
So really, analog is not always the best choice for mixing, but when it is, what an amazing difference it can make! I call mixing a tie between analog and digital workflows.
This is where your music gets that final gloss, that edge. When it comes to analog or digital, the answer is both, but with a very different approach. In this stage, you need not worry about “melting” your sounds. Everything is getting glued together here and the level of sonic accuracy in the hardware being used is the highest possible. Not all EQ’s and compressors were created equal and this is where that shows the most. While I love transparent digital effects like FabFilter and Oxford and use them when mastering dance music, at this point they take a back seat. Performing utility functions such as high and low cuts and final true peak limiting, they are certainly not the star of the mastering show, that would be the top level hardware.
Really nice analog EQ’s bring a special character to the sound. They introduce pleasant phase shifts and subtle harmonic distortion. A good tube EQ sometimes doesn’t even need to be adjusted, running the source through flat can give some classy subtleties to an otherwise cold sounding mix. Electronic dance music is notorious for being cold and loud. Good analog EQ can help smooth things out, warm up the mix and add a pinch of loudness that would otherwise sound harsh with a shoddy digital plug-in.
Compression, like equalization, is typically an analog affair in the mastering game. Unlike mixing, mastering is about the track as a single sound, the right stereo compressor is like a glue that holds everything together. Remember earlier when I said that some mixes need to feel sort of cold? There is a difference between “cold” and “harsh.” Bringing really smooth sounding hardware in at this point can take some of that brittle stiffness out of the track and replace it with silky smooth audio pleasure. You can still have a relatively cold sounding mix with all of the digital crunch you need while still having something that is pleasing to the ear and sounds good on everything; alternately, when you need something warm and fuzzy that wraps around you like a blanket of sound, the analog hardware world has something for you.
So for mastering, analog is still on top. Digital of course, has it’s place and will continue to get better and better.
It’s clear today that both the analog and digital domains have their place in the electronic dance music world. When you need a fast, creative workflow, digital is unbeatable. When you need the silky, rich, classy big label sound, analog truly gives you the edge.
When your audio nerd thoughts inevitably turn to the analog vs digital war, perhaps consider that every track has different needs and while some require all the fatness, some ask only for a kiss from the analog world in post-production. In fact, analog and digital aren’t at war, they are happily working together to help us create amazing music every day!
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