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.