Digital vs Analog Sound – What’s the Buzz All About?

By | January 17, 2015

Analog sounding mixes are highly sought after in the era of in-the-box music creation. Tape recorders and expensive analog gear are a luxury for few. Virtually everyone is now working in the digital realm, which is great, but the interesting fact is that people crave analog. What are the advantages of digital then? This is a look into digital vs analog sound. Dig in!

It’s all digital

Photo Credit: Paulo Colacino via Compfight cc

Digital. Photo Credit: Paulo Colacino via Compfight cc

I’m just going to throw it out there – digital is awesome. The possibilities we have today as computer musicians are endless, because the limits of analog gear are nonexistent.

Think about plug-ins. You can insert any amount of a plug-in on multiple channels in your DAW’s mixer, as in the analog world you probably only owned one hardware unit, such as a compressor or EQ, which you could set up on one channel at a time. Have you ever thought of this?

Another good example is recording. You don’t need to waste valuable tape to capture a take of guitar or vocals. All you need to do is set a track to record and you can do it over and over again, without wasting anything else but time. It’s so easy and effortless too!

As you can see, the advantages of working in the digital realm are real. But what about the sound?

The digital sound

Okay, the workflow of digital environments is great, but how does it sound? I’ve heard a lot of people describe digital as “clinical”, “too clean” or “lifeless”. In a sense, this is true.

The digital sound is very clean indeed, and it is exactly what the recording engineers of the 50s-70s could’ve only dreamed of. Now all we want to do is go back to analog, sound-wise. Ironic, right?

What made analog gear so special, is the fact that they do not consist of zeroes and ones. Real tubes and transistors exist inside the gear, that physically affect the sound. The distortions and the non-linear nature of the gear also seem to “warm” the sound up.

I think recording digitally is great, because you always get a clean signal, which can be degraded later if wanted. The clean digital signal demands some work to truly replicate the characteristics of analog. The good thing is, it is quite easy to do (as well as overdo) with the right plug-ins and skill.

Is digital too clean? Photo Credit: Alexander Rentsch via Compfight cc

Is digital too clean? Photo Credit: Alexander Rentsch via Compfight cc

I need my analog fix!

Analog is generally preferred because adjectives such as “warm”, “authentic” and “musical” are widely used to describe its sound – and who wouldn’t like to have those attributes in their own music?

In the past, engineers used tape instead of a hard drive. Nowadays you just need a virtual tape plug-in to emulate the effects of real tape. There are a bunch on the market, which is great. And they do a pretty great job.

Photo Credit: matthewvenn via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: matthewvenn via Compfight cc

Top mixers use their expensive mixing desks to get “that” sound which the desk itself provides. Now, you need to use a plug-in emulating the characteristics of classic mixing desks. This is a very desirable sound, which is also an attraction for top mixing studios who have the actual desks.

The classic compressors and EQs in the rack in the back of a mixer’s room are also available as plug-ins. Great!

Plug-ins for the rescue!

Some of my favorite analog-modeling plug-ins have certainly taken my digital recordings to another realms in sound. Here are a few:

decapitatorSoundToys Decapitator is hands down my favorite analog saturation modeler or tape machine. I love how this thing beefs up anything I put through it. It’s very easy to go overboard with it though, but sometimes that’s the point.

Another great one from SoundToys is EchoBoy, an analog delay modeler. The delays in EchoBoy are so authentic and sound great, which is why I think it is the only delay that I would ever need. Not only is it easy to use, it’s a bundle of fun.

vccWhen mixing, just like top mixing engineers, I want the sound of classic mixing consoles in my music. Slate Digital’s Virtual Console Collection offers exactly that. A variety of classic desks are modeled in it, such as my personal favorite – the SSL 4000 –series desk.

What the plug-in does is, it takes out the “harsh” digital edges of audio in a very subtle and elegant way, and adds some sweet movement and “grab”. This is easily one of my favorite plug-ins.

nobleqThe sound of classic equalizers and compressors is a big one also. While digital EQs are perfectly good for any application, the midrange you can get out of a classic Pultec emulation such as PSP Audioware’s NobleQ is something sweet indeed.

The rock’n’roll vibe you can pull out of a Waves CLA-2A compessor is something you need to hear to appreciate. Once again, any compressor will do the job, but the mark of the sonic characteristics of this classic compressor is something special.cla-2a-compressor-limiter

Now, it might be a good time to mention, none of these plug-ins are actually needed to make good music. Music is always in the melody, harmony, songwriting and arrangement. I’m just talking about the sound, which also is down to the personal taste of the creator.

Enough Analog?

Alright, is it enough to have all the analog tools available to us in digital format in our search for an authentic sound, you might wonder. The answer is yes and no.

It is beyond awesome to be able to have these options today to make our music sound more analog-like. But the real question we should ask is are they at the same level as the true analog gear. I think they are pretty darn close.

Does it matter if they don’t replicate the original sound one with hundred percent accuracy? Not if you accept them as they are and value the fact that we have them in our toolboxes.

True analog might have a slight advantage in the “warmth” –department, but we shouldn’t forget that digital actually sounds great too. In fact, digital doesn’t sound bad at all – that’s the thing! All we do is create an illusion for ourselves that “analog is better”.

In the end, it is a matter of taste. Shouldn’t we just accept digital as digital and not try to force it become analog?

Analog warmth? Photo Credit: nuztorad via Compfight cc

Analog warmth? Photo Credit: nuztorad via Compfight cc

Ending thoughts

I love being able to work digitally because it’s convenient and efficient, and I adore my plug-ins that are modeled after analog gear. They inspire me.

I think if we would just embrace digital working environments and use analog-modeling plug-ins with great taste, good things will happen.

When it comes to analog emulation, who knows when it will actually reach the same level as the hardware. A few years? Ten years? Never?

To be honest, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you work in the box, do your best to love it. Don’t go into war against your best friend – the digital audio workstation, because it wants to help you.

We need to be thankful of all the beautiful software we have today, which ultimately enables us to make better music.

I hope this has opened your eyes about the digital versus analog debate.

Please do and leave comments, feedback and questions, I’ll be more than happy to get back to you!


4 thoughts on “Digital vs Analog Sound – What’s the Buzz All About?

  1. Stu

    Great article JP and very thoughtful.
    We have become pretty spoiled in this day and age with all that we have access to. Sometimes when I really stop to think about it .. it’s pretty amazing. Lately I have been researching different musical concepts that could be applied to my site. It’s really awe inspiring how much goes into something that is seemingly so simple. I definitely take for granted a lot of these things that happen in a matter of seconds, but take many things happening correctly at once to achieve a desired result. An example would be something like bit depth and sample rate, which really goes by the wayside when we are researching interfaces or comparing prices.
    Anyways, before this gets too long winded, I will just say keep up the great work and i look forward to hearing from you more

    1. JP Post author

      Hey Stu, quite spoiled we are indeed – hopefully it doesn’t rise up in our heads. Thanks for the input.

  2. Pierre

    Great article JP! For me one of the biggest advantages with Digital is recording. The fact you can copy and paste takes saves you so much time. Looking back at my 4track Fostex multi track days we are spoiled my friend…..


    1. JP Post author

      Hey Pierre, I’m with ya! Talk about comping your takes to one perfect take… Now that’s some advantage. Cool! Just 4 tracks will definitely make you squeeze all you can get from it. Perhaps it would only be healthy to apply some of these “limits” to digital as well, because too many options is, well, too many! Thanks for the input Pierre.


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