My thoughts on the Digital vs. Analog debate
I would like to venture a theory about the analog versus digital recording debate that continues to swirl around our avid (no pun intended) audio community like a piece of garbage that never seems to be picked up.
Here are the arguments I repeatedly here:
“It just sounds warmer.”
“It sounds smoother.”
“It sounds so big and fat."
Bullshit. I’ve heard shitty records on analog tape, and I’ve heard great records recorded digitally. And vice versa, of course. How many people are listening through proper monitors? That’s the first step in making of judgment on sound quality. (Good headphones don’t count.) Then you have to do a really proper A/B of a sync’d switch between an analog and digitally converted source. I don’t think many people have done that...and I think many would be surprised at the extremely subtle differences in sound.
I love working on tape. Not for sonic reasons. I love working on tape because it changes the process. You have to make critical decisions quickly and with intent. You have a limited number of tracks which must be used wisely. Is that really your best performance? Because once it’s erased, it’s gone. None of this, "let's just record 8 takes and comp it together tomorrow morning after my joint and coffee." The musicians automatically perform better, because it has a deeper sense of permanence as they play. It adds a certain amount of productive pressure to both the band and the engineer, which yields faster and better results. Everyone is more alert. The tape machine is whirring in reversed high pitched rhythmic melodies as you rewind to record another pass. . . It’s romantic. I think listeners respond the same way to putting vinyl on the turntable.
Tape sounds great. It’s true. A well maintained and properly calibrated tape machine sounds clear, and big, and warm, and beautiful. I can mostly hear it when the channel input gets aggressive and the compression thing starts to happen…that’s a tape sound. Other than that, I have a hard time differentiating between tape and digital, once I mix everything through my arsenal of plugins. I’m sure there are people out there that can tell you what formula of tape was used, on what machine, calibrated to what specifications…but I’m not one of them. I've A/B'd digitally summed stereo mixes versus an SSL analog summing buss, and there most certainly IS a difference there.
I long for the project, budget, and team of musicians that allow me to record a fully analog record, never being converted to digital. Then I might truly know what I’m talking about.
The advantages of digital are clear, although obviously abused. I like what Dave Grohl said in Sound City: “[it should be used] as a tool, not a crutch.” Autotuning a pair of tits to sell merchandise is disgraceful.
And so I believe when people are romanticizing their love of “analog,” what they really mean is the old recordings they love have a lasting sense of realness and relevance. I propose it is a reaction to the performance and musicianship from the individuals that have dedicated thousands of hours to their craft; a technician, engineer, and mixer who had great skill and artistic knowledge in how to make recorded music come alive on the speakers. And artists that come from who knows where.
I know good music is still being made out there…but I also know that the revenue streams for recorded music are all but extinct. I hope somehow we can figure out how to restore music’s cultural and artistic role in humanity.
I’m re-evaluating my relationship with music right now, and part of my therapy is to write these things down. What do you think??