Taking the shine off perfection
Before the rise of the mighty DAW, studios relied on the medium of perishable tape alongside various boxes filled with valves and transformers. All of which essentially coloured the sound being recorded by adding harmonic distortion (and non-harmonic distortion), tape machine wow and flutter and tape saturation, however marginally it might have been. Tape, valves, transformers, they all had a sound, a subtle effect stamped on the recording. As multitracking became more popular in the 70’s, the sound of these elements became more obvious. With each pass of tape when overdubbing new parts or bouncing down, the more obvious the effect of tape saturation, wow and flutter and all these other elements became.
With digital audio technology finally matured into what we have today, the majority of people are recording and mixing “In the Box”. This approach alleviates the build up of saturation, bypasses the need to overdub onto a perishable format. It doesn’t matter how many times you listen back to a recording in your DAW, it doesn’t change or deteriorate, you no longer have to bounce tracks down constantly in order to record a few more tracks, losing audio fidelity as you do so.
However, the analogue’ warmth’ discussion goes on and on and doesn’t look like stopping and many musicians, producers, audio engineers and listeners argue that something is missing, that everything sounds too perfect. The character is missing, a sterility has imposed itself and the audio is free of any alien artefacts or colouration. What you hear was what you get, maybe this hi-fidelity digital audio reality can be a little too…. well, real?
It can be said that some of the romance has been lost along the way, and we now fondly listen back to old recordings and embrace the sonic imperfections as qualities we long for and try to emulate. The retro sound has become a huge market and during my time in music retail the most common question I was asked was how to add warmth and get an ‘analogue’ sound.
We have been finding ways to soften this razor sharp sound ever since the dawn of digital audio. From valves to bit-crushers, tape-saturation emulators to vintage EQ and dynamics there are a lot of options out there now to help inject a little romance back into your life.
There are all kinds of hardware choices out there to help colour your perfect digital sound, however subtle or in-your face you like. Companies like Thermionic Culture, Universal Audio, Neve and API are the major players making Mic-Pre’s, Compressors, Limiters, EQ and Summing Boxes, which can all help add real character to your music. The Thermionic Culture Distressor is a very popular choice for adding compression and harmonic distortion to clean and harsh digital signals and can really change a sound drastically or add just a touch of magic.
Plug-in wise there are a lot of options out there of varying styles and quality. Some of the better options include the Universal Audio UAD DSP based plug-ins with a wide choice of classic tape emulation, compression, EQ and limiting. Soundtoys make some very interesting plug-ins with lots of character; Decapitator is a very good choice for adding a bit of grit to any signal. Other notable manufacturers include URS, PSP, Waves, Tritone, Sonnox and McDSP.
Choosing the right mic and preamp are of paramount importance too with too many of us drastically overlooking the importance of the preamp in bringing out the best in your mic. Too many of us will blow our entire budget on a mic and then proceed to record it through a cheap audio interface mic preamp. Professional audio engineers have always recommended taking care to choose a preamp that will compliment and get the best out of your mic of choice. You may find by investing in a better preamp that you can forget that mic upgrade you’ve been saving up for.
A lot of people go straight for a valve preamp when wanting to ‘warm’ up their vocal sound. There is a logic to this but a cheap preamp is still just a cheap preamp, probably no better than what you already have in your audio interface, even if it does have a valve in it, it’s probably not doing anything. If you are looking to upgrade your preamp from your audio interface then the UAD, 610/710, Focusrite ISA range are good entry level choices, the choice beyond that is endless with many other options, Neve 1073 style preamps a re very popular and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (and prices), the API 500 series are another very popular option with many manufacturers now making compatible preamps, dynamics and EQ’s etc.
But it’s not all about looking back to the past, many musicians, producers, composers and audio engineers etc have fully embraced the perfect, clinical side of digital audio and use it as a major part of their sound, creating razor sharp production and artificially adding sonic degradation, glitches and extreme digital waveform editing in a creative way. From hugely successful and influential bands such as Radiohead through to modern composers such as Max Richter the creative use of digital audio editing and processing is really starting to become more apparent in contemporary music.
The beauty of the digital format is the fact that you can stretch it, shrink it, reverse, shop it up into a million pieces, grab a pencil and redraw parts of the waveform, merge it with other parts/takes, change it beyond recognition of it’s original form completely non-destructively without degrading the sound (unless you want to of course) and then simply revert it to it’s original form if you change your mind at any point.
Digital Audio has also revolutionized the music industry and bands have a lot more control over recording their music than ever before. Everybody has a home studio with a huge amount of power available. A band can go into a studio and record for a day and then take the session home to edit, change the arrangement and add other parts too. Nothing will ever change the fact that a traditional rock band with acoustic drums, electric guitars and bass will need to physically record somewhere that can facilitate a loud noise and has suitable acoustics – the tracking studio, but a lot of work is now done by the bands in their own time which has led to a great deal of freedom to explore a creativity only previously allowed to bands on huge record company recording budgets allowed to spend 6 months in the studio on an album.
At the other end of this once the band/artist has finished the creative process and are ready to move on to the audio mixing and mastering stage, digital audio allows them to remotely send their material to a professional mix / mastering engineer who will have the environment, experience, expertise and collection of probably rather expensive equipment to compliment their artistic vision perfectly. They can then upload the music to various websites for distribution and marketing and regain a great deal of control over the whole process, all at a fraction of the price of what it would have cost even a few years ago.
This is essentially a big part of the reason for mixing Audio Pros, to facilitate these procedures, to introduce bands and artists to talented audio engineers and freelance audio professionals and vice-versa and embrace the changing technology and evolution of the music industry.