This is a guest post from Nick Lewis, chief engineer and MD of online mastering studio Brighton Mastering. Find out more at www.brightonmastering.co.uk.
One of the most commonly asked questions I'm asked as a mastering engineer is whether analogue or digital equipment is better. There tends to be a latent assumption amongst musicians that analogue equipment is inherently nicer. This assumption often comes with enthusiastic fetishisation of unattainable vintage gear and its mythical ‘musical' quality.
It is true that a lot of analogue equipment can do magical things to sound that digital, with its cold, hard precision, can't replicate. However, as Paul White, editor-in-chief of Sound on Sound magazine points out in his recent leader column, obsession with this is often the result of rosey eyed nostalgia rather than empirical evidence. Vintage gear did funny things to sound because it was cobbled together out of whatever components were available. The technology has moved on a great deal since then, and what digital does is what the equipment was actually always supposed to do.
On a different, more technical note, digital processing degrades the signal far less. Most plug-ins operate at an internally higher bit rate than the source material, meaning the original signal is barely touched by the processing. Sending it out to analogue gear will degrade the audio every time, particularly if you're bringing it back to digital (which most modern studios will). Unless you have extremely good analogue to digital (and vice versa) converters, you're losing the integrity of your recording every time you do anything to it.
Moreover, due to the fethishisation of vintage equipment and the reality of their mythically ‘musical' results a great deal of digital technology is geared towards emulating otherwise unobtainable or impractical analogue technology, but with all the convenience that digital brings with it. The success of these emulations are getting ever better, particularly with impulse response technology like that used in Focusrite's excellent Liquid Mix, where the developers sampled the effects of sending audio through classic gear to digitally recreate the same effect on whatever you send through it.
This type of technology provides the best of both worlds – the analogue sound with the flexibility and signal integrity of digital. It's this same technology that is rendering the argument a moot point, and leaving racks of equipment unused in modern recording studios, left only to impress clients.
Perhaps most important of all, is that as long as you're happy with the sound, it really doesn't matter. And as I told a client recently, that's at least as much how you use it as what you use.
(P.S. To get access to the Vault for 10+ resources to help your music career, click here or the image below)
Ultimately I think the focus on “vintage” is not appropriate. The focus should be on analogue and a certain type of analogue, a cheap sound card has analogue components inside (small DIP8 operational amplifiers buffering the output from the D/A to the TRS jack outputs as a sole example). It stands to reason that vintage equipment will suffer the usual degradation of components and reliability issue. The real magic from analogue comes from the circuits that were designed during these investigative years. In modern equipment distortion has been designed out and this is the very attribute which is sought after and as such there is a lot of high end analogue audio equipment using the circuits of the past. Class A circuit topology, high current large geometry transistors, over specified power supplies, audio transformers and valves. This equipment is not as easy to mass produce and does not sell in vast quantities so it cost considerable money.
Degredation is also a focus but you omit the subjective enhancement that by far outweighs the degradation (which is virtually nil with superb DA and AD conversion). Do you think technically aware mastering engineers throughout decades would overlook this point, no because the fact remains is that it sounds better and the vast majority of quality mastering studios utilize high end analogue equipment. (and it need not affect their prices either)
We would all like to think Liquid Mix is the same, FACT: emulations do not cut the mustard. I can say this as a mastering engineer myself. I would love to use a low cost digital device if it had the capability of enhancing depth, adding width, if it was possible to overload gracefully, if it produced the same thickening enhancement as an audio transformer but it does not. This is why high end analogue mastering studios have the edge with the sonic sound palette before even reaching for the eq or compression controls.