Analog vs. Digital Recording – Analog Recording Studio Superior?

The Analog Eras?

It has been debated for decades. Is the analog recording studio superior when it comes to analog vs. digital recording?

Yep, you read that correctly… eras. Over the past several years, analog has been making a comeback, thus reviving the debate over analog vs. digital recording. Hopefully this will help usher in a whole new music scene, where there is once again focus on musicianship and the human quality of recordings. With the arrival of Pro Tools also came an increased focus on perfection and sterility. This is wear the analog vs. digital recording mentality weighs heavily in favor for digital. Mistakes in recordings are long gone. Subtle nuances that add life to a recording have been replaced with drum replacement, quantization, and auto-tune. Now all snare drum beats can be identical, all drum hits can be perfectly aligned to every measure, and singers can always be pitch-perfect. And of course, this is exactly how music sounds live. Wait, no, backup. I meant the exact opposite. No band will ever perform flawlessly, regardless of how accomplished the members are at their instruments. The human elements and imperfections are what makes musical performances special. So why do people not want to capture that anymore? Well, apparently there is a whole new generation of upcoming musicians and analog recording studio lovers who do, and that gives me much hope. Vinyl sales are back on the rise after nearly twenty years in the underground. I think people are starting to realize that the sonic perfection of Disturbed is just not necessary. It is lifeless. It is not art, and most importantly, it is not appealing, to me anyway. I do not really know what is causing the change, but I am not going to question it. Well that’s not completely true. I do have some questions regarding analog vs. digital recording, so continue reading below.

Is the analog vs. digital recording argument still valid?

Audio Reel Image on Analog vs. Digital Recording Page - Analog Recording Studio

Photo by wongpear / CC0 1.0

I have still been pondering the issue. Very recently, bands are once again choosing the analog recording studio. This sometimes means sticking strictly to the analog for the entire process… that is right, entire. Now I am all for the idea of tape saturation and the warmth that it creates. I have experienced digital recording with such a high fidelity that it was not pleasing… no warmth at all. This is why I know that tape saturation is a real thing. I have heard the alternative. Remember the 1980’s? If so, then you have also experienced the sound I am referring to. But we are not in the 1980’s anymore. Analog to digital converters have come a long way. So have microphone preamps, mixing consoles, amp emulation, and pretty much everything else that is available in the recording studio. There are also these things that you may have heard of called VST plugins. Oh yes, the world of plugins. They changed my life when I discovered them more than a decade ago. And they too have come a long way. Everything in the digital realm has continued to become more audibly pleasing and that now, it is not always evident when a recording is entirely analog or entirely digital. So that leads me back to my analog vs. digital recording dilemma. Why do people choose to undergo the entire process in an analog recording studio setup, as Foo Fighters did back in 2010 for their album “Wasting Light?” I am not completely sure, but I think the analog vs. digital recording issue has now become primarily a mental thing. I really do. Some folks chose to do the entire recording project from the recording stage, through the mixing stage, up until the mastering stage, all analog. Does it sound great? Sure. Does it sound better than it would have had it been dumped into the computer and mixed in a DAW. I was not there, so I cannot say. But, I feel that the idea of an all analog recording studio setup these days might just be that, an idea. It is an idea that represents another time when things were more exciting. And when people insist on going back to the analog realm, it is possible that this has to do more with recapturing an essence and spirit of music than it does the actual sonic debate of analog vs. digital recording. So now, when somebody is told a recording was recorded entirely in analog, they are automatically thrust into the listening process with that thought in mind. So when it sounds great, of course it is going to be due to the warmth of tape saturation. Had the person been told the same recording was all digital, the listening process would have been hampered from the beginning. I do believe this is what is currently going on… maybe not all the time, but definitely much of the time. People are starting to prefer analog again because it represents a change, and it is a change that is accepted positively because along with it, music seems to be reverting to a more exciting form where human characteristics and sonic imperfections are once again appreciated.

So that is my take on the current status of the analog vs. digital recording debate. I am guilty too of getting caught up in the analog infatuation. A few years back, I discovered that in 1985, Tascam produced an 8-track, ¼” reel-to-reel Portastudio called the Tascam 388. I was immediately intrigued. The thing is beautiful. Do I want it? Yes! Why? It is awesome. But why is it awesome? The only real exclamation I can give is that I really do not know. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that my very first recording device was a Tascam Porta-07 multitrack cassette Portastudio, so there is a special place in my heart for tape. But would a used ¼” reel-to-reel multitrack recorder capture a better sound than what I can achieve with my Tascam US-800 USB interface, my laptop, and a handful of quality microphones? Honestly, it probably would not. But I think there is a real attraction to the whole reel-to-reel tape process that probably has more to do with the mental subconscious than the actual sound quality itself. And even after all this rational analyzing of the analog vs. digital recording issue, and with a firm conclusion that the analog love affair may be a bit silly, do I still want to get my hands on a Tascam 388. You betcha!

For more info pertaining to analog goodness, check out the links below.
Tascam 388 – and Other Standalone Multitrackers
Magnetic Tapes – Reel-to-Reel, ADAT… HI-FI VHS?
M-Audio – Analog to Digital Converters For Less