There has always been the underlying sentiment that going analog always is and will always be better than digital when it comes recording and making music. There are different sides to the analog versus digital debate. Some feel strongly that the instruments of the past had a vibe that can’t be reproduced, while others feel today’s digital instruments have done that, perfected it, and pushed the vibe even further. One might find that even though they have access to that “real” analog piece of equipment they champion, they might be better off still using the digital version if it’s available. Also, those deeply entrenched in this new digital age might be missing out on some great vintage sounds of the past.
The Difference Between Analog & Digital Signals
For those who don’t know, lets describe the basic difference between analog and digital signals. In the analog domain, information is translated into electric pulses of varying amplitude.
For digital, information is translated into binary format: ones and zeroes. Each bit is representative of two distinct amplitudes.
Analog technology records electrical waveforms as they are, while in digital technology, the analog waveforms are sampled into a limited set of numbers and recorded. Vinyl and tape are common analog mediums for recording music. The sounds are recorded as physical grooves or magnetic impulses.
Digital recording converts the analog wave into a stream of numbers that are stored on a hard drive. The conversion is done by an analog to digital converter (ADC). When the music is played back, it goes through a digital to analog converter (DAC) where the wave is then amplified and produces the sound that you hear.
While listeners say that analog recordings are warmer and more natural sounding, the recording can also be quieter. Another disadvantage is that analog recordings degrade every time they are played resulting in high frequency loss. In the case of vinyl, a crackling and popping noise is also produced. Vinyl records, especially transported in bulk, are more difficult to move around.
Some advantages of digital recordings are that they have better durability, higher volume, lower noise, lower cost, easier duplication and immediate access to different parts of the recording. Some of the disadvantages include the possibility of latency, data corruption, archiving and storage of full data and computer systems crashing leading to loss of data.
Can Digital Sound Better Than Analog?
Can a digital instrument sound as good as an analog instrument? Well, it depends on how you define good. A digital synth can sound thin or it can sound far more interesting than an analog synth, depending on what type of sound you’re pursuing. They both have pros and cons and can be manipulated. Unlike recording mediums, deciding on the sonic differences between virtual and real analog equipment is based strictly on what the user subjectively hears and generally changes from listener-to-listener.
The question is whether you prefer a more or a less stable tuning, and a more or less consistent reaction to your otherwise consistent performance from your hardware. Ask yourself: What type of space do I have in my studio? How much automation do I do? How fast do I want instant recall of my parameters? If I am going to be constantly updating and changing a particular track that I am working on, finding that sound again on the analog keyboard and making sure its exactly recall ready may be tedious. Even if it’s full recall, automation of any parameters on that keyboard may be even more difficult to do. Do I want to be constantly checking and re-assigning any sound changes on my analog keyboard, or do I just want to get right to my session without a long setup time?
One undesirable feature for a digital instrument is that the sound it creates may get converted into an analog signal by the D/A converter from a computer’s sound card or external audio interface. This might not be a disadvantage for one or two sounds, but consider when 10-12 different sounds come from 6-8 different plug-ins or software, and they all go through the exact same host application and the same hardware’s D/A conversion they might become a bit processed. They become homogenized, which gives the sound a certain crisp quality. If you keep them “in the box”—meaning the sounds never leaving your DAW—or if you have a very high quality interface with highly transparent D/A converters, you will end up with no added character in any of your sounds.
This might be exactly what you want though.
Analog & Digital Myths
This is not to say that the advantage of an analog signal is that it’s warmer, less sterile or in any way better than the digital signal. In fact, in some cases, it’s less “clean” and less dynamic. But, the analog signal is usually a bit more exciting, as its character isn’t as consistent as the digital signal’s more “always perfect” character. Letting favorable accidents (like analog distortion or signal degradation) happen can lead to unexpected (good or bad) character in your sound—and now we are talking about a creative element of sound shaping, as opposed to just sonic quality.
In most modern studios, some type of hybrid of analog and digital equipment is used. A computer is usually used to host a program for recording audio. A chain of analog devices may be going into that program, but the sounds still end up on a digital medium. If you have a budget for a real tape machine, then you can go analog all the way. In my experience, you still can’t tell it was “analog all the way” unless you listen to the song on vinyl. Then the warmth kicks in.
When people describe the appeal of vinyl records, hardware synths covered in knobs and switches, patch cables and modulars and other devices labeled as analog, what they’re really saying is that they like the physical qualities of these things. There’s no reason digital technology can’t be involved. We need to have very meaningful debates about design, sound, music and art. Ultimately, it relies on the taste of the music’s creator.
Dirt Monkey, Jake One, Daddy Kev, Josh One and Chris Thompson provide a few examples of the different hybrid options they use to create their own balance of analog and digital.
Jake One, Josh One, Daddy Kev & Dirt Monkey On Analog Vs. Digital
Amp Live: What’s the main piece of equipment you use most?
Dirt Monkey: I use a Mac Mini or Macbook Pro, RME Babyface (audio interface), MPK49 midi keyboard, DAW is Live 9, and I mainly use Massive, Serum, and Nexus synths.
Jake One: ASR 10 and Pro Tools.
Daddy Kev: I use a variety of equipment for different purposes, but for making beats I do it all in Pro Tools.
Josh One: MPC2000XL, Fender Rhodes, Juno 60, Moog Phatty.
Amp Live: Do you mix through an analog board of some type or in a computer?
Dirt Monkey: I do all my mixes on the computer in Live.
Chris Thompson: Computer and Pro Tools.
Jake One: I mix my tracks off of the ASR before I dunPs them into pro tools
Daddy Kev: I mix hybrid with an SSL XL-Desk analog console and Pro Tools.
Josh One: I used to have an MCI-JH618 which had a great sound, but I scaled down recently.
Amp Live: Is your music mastered analog or digitally or a combination of both?
Dirt Monkey: I’ve always mastered my stuff on the computer, but recently I’ve been getting my music mastered on analog equipment. It gives the music more substance, and is especially noticeable on big sound systems
Chris Thompson: Digitally.
Jake One: I rarely go to mastering these days but I’m pretty sure it’s a combo of both.
Daddy Kev: For mastering, I use a hybrid analog/digital setup.
Josh One: A lot of my older records have been mastered with a lot of outboard analog gear with D2 Mastering in Atwater Village where my studio used to be. Recently, I have been mastering digitally via Violet Lantern Mastering.
Amp Live: If you had a choice would you go all analog? If so, why?
Dirt Monkey: I wouldn’t simply because I’m so used to using digital plugins to get everything done.
Chris Thompson: No.
Jake One: Analog just sounds better from the start to me. The digital stuff takes me more effort to get it right. I think for me it’s just part of my creative process. I’ve put 20 years into using the ASR 10 so it would be hard to get as proficient on anything else. I think you have to use the new technology to improve on whatever you are doing while keeping your core sound.
Daddy Kev: If I could go all-analog for EQ and compression, I would. For recording media, it’s hard to imagine not using a computer at this point. Furthermore, I’m so used to using Pro Tools for volume automation and editing that it would just be almost impossible to work efficiently all-analog.
Josh One: I would like to say yes, but probably not since I wasn’t schooled in splicing tape. I like the balance of the two I have.
Amp Live: If you had a choice would you go all digital? If so, why?
Dirt Monkey: I wouldn’t just because I think there are certain things that can be done with analog gear that can’t be done with the digital version, like messing around with a moog synth. You can get some unique, one of a kind sounds.
Chris Thompson: No.
Jake One: It’s definitely way more convenient. I’m able to at least start ideas on Pro Tools when I’m away from my studio.
Daddy Kev: No way. I much prefer the workflow of using faders and hardware processors versus mousing it. Plus, it takes me way longer to get an EQ plug-in to sound right. With an analog EQ it literally takes a few seconds. I also prefer the sound of premium analog summing versus in-the-box.
Josh One: This would be no. I wouldn’t be able to give up the outboard stuff. It’s just too fun and I love the way it sounds.
Amp Live: Do you believe there’s a sonic difference between mixing/mastering all analog or all digital?
Dirt Monkey: I definitely believe there’s a difference. When I get my stuff mastered on my friend’s SSL board and analog hardware, it provides a warmth and punchiness that cannot be created digitally. I can’t really explain why that is, but its just the way it is. For mastering, I say Analog is greater than Digital for sure.
Chris Thompson: Yes.
Daddy Kev: To my ears, all-digital doesn’t sound nearly as good as all-analog. Not even close. I like music to sound warm and round, not angular and thin. Do you want a woman with curves, or a skinny little stick? That’s what I imagine visually when I think of the analog versus digital argument.
Josh One: I believe it sounds better and warmer running through analog gear, depending on the style of music.
Amp Live is one half of the Bay Area’s Zion I crew. For the past 15 years, the producer-slash-deejay has performed all over the world as part of Zion I as well as a solo artist. Follow him on Twitter @AmpLive.