If you want that rich, warm analogue sound, you don't necessarily have to go out and buy a truckload of vintage gear… Chris Lyth explains all
The notion that analogue is a thing of the past is not one that holds much water with most sound engineers. Indeed, if you look at the vast catalogue of plug-ins that are currently available, you’ll notice many are attempting to recreate vintage analogue hardware from the likes of API, Neve, SSL, EMI/Abbey Road, Trident et al.
It’s easy to get nostalgic about the lush, rich sound of a vintage analogue recording set-up. However, ask any engineer of that era about how difficult, expensive and time-consuming it was to cut a record and you may have second thoughts! Luckily today we have the best of both worlds: the ability to generate the sound of analogue with the convenience of digital audio.
To be able to add a convincing vintage flavour to our recording it helps to have a basic understanding of the principal components that are involved in bringing forth that much admired analogue warmth. If we look at a classic analogue signal path, what becomes apparent is that there is no one thing that gives warmth: it's an accumulation of many different pieces of equipment and processes…
Input Signal > 1. Valve Microphone or Analogue Synth > 2. Pre Amp (Valve or Solid State) > 3. Mixing Desk (Valve or Solid State) > 4. Dynamics Processing (Valve or Transformer).
Output Signal > 5. FX - Plate Reverbs or Tape Delays > 6. Multitrack Tape Machine > 7. Mixing Desk > 8. Master Tape.
As you can see there are many items of equipment that add warmth and colour. Much of this colour comes from different types of distortion. From the first to the last stage, subtle distortion and harmonics are being added at every step along the signal path, as well as other warming artefacts such as high frequency loss and gentle compression.
The kit is only part of the story
Limitation is the mother of all invention. The equipment before digital was, while superbly engineered and designed, pretty basic by today’s standards. An edit that would take 30 seconds to do now could take hours or simply be impossible. Necessity forged a culture of great musicianship and engineering talent, ensuring the sound and the performance had to be right at the source.
Spending time getting a great sound before it’s committed to your DAW is still the best way to approach things. A bad sound recorded through a prohibitively expensive valve signal chain will still sound bad when it comes out of the other end. Focus on the source, follow it all the way up the signal chain and repeat for every part.
Spare us the cutter
When we think about any artistic project such as a film, a photograph or a song, the enjoyment comes from the vision of the artist. We take in the feel, mood and atmosphere that’s created. We rarely think about surgical precision and laser accuracy.
Analogue mixing was never a particularly surgical discipline, it was more about broad strokes and musicality: even the best desks only had three sweepable EQ bands per channel. In the digital age, on the other hand, we think nothing of grabbing a 10-band EQ and cutting deeply into every sound so it fits perfectly. Over EQing, however, can take away much of the warmth from a recording, especially in the low-midrange, and leave mixes sounding thin and brittle as a result.
Try to use an EQ plug-in that’s more colourful, like an API or Neve, rather than something linear to help keep your EQ choice punchy and musical.
Tapes and transients
When pondering the nature of analogue warmth, it’s not long before thoughts turn to tape machines. Tape dominated the sound of all recorded music right up until the mid-90s, so it’s no wonder that we miss its presence in the modern recording environment.
Tape does a number of things to your sound that lend warmth to the tone: A. Rolling off high frequencies; B. Gentle bass boost; C. Subtle saturation; D. An addition of background noise; E. A softening of transients. These artefacts would then be magnified further by bouncing down a number of channels: for example, the entire drum group back onto two tracks of the tape. This would be done routinely to free up space on the multitrack tape and as a result, all of these subtle artefacts would gradually build up.
So how do we go about replicating these artefacts in our DAW?
1. The way that analogue shapes the transients of a sound is very important. It sands off the sharp edges in a subtle but musical way: cymbals sound more polished and less edgy, synths and vocals less strident and smoother. So it’s useful to pay careful attention to the ADSR envelopes of our percussion and other sounds with sharp attack. Dial back the attack to soften the sound a touch, particularly in the high frequency range. Alternatively, a transient designer could be used to create a similar effect.
2. Add some subtle saturation, but on many parts. Plug-in tape emulators such as Waves Kramer Master Tape or Softube’s Tape Machine are great for this, but don’t just blast one over your master channel and expect to sound like Stevie Wonder. A good way to use these is either on groups or putting a few different tape plug-ins on Aux sends. What we are looking for is a subtle and gentle accumulation of saturation, compression and high frequency smoothing to thicken our sound. To recreate the multitrack bouncing technique, try printing off various groups with your tape emulation on and reprint them a few times in order to build up the richness.
3. When using tape simulators, bear in mind that the lower the speed of the tape (7.5 ips) the more of a classic 'tape' sound will be heard; the higher the speed (30 ips) the clearer and more hi-fi the sound. It’s good to spend time experimenting with the different tape speeds as they can be incredibly useful and be used to fill out kicks, bass and snares without resorting to EQ. Let your own taste guide you, push it hard if you want obvious grit – but pick your battles, because if you do this on lots of channels you'll end up with a muddy, ill-defined mess.
Vibes, vibes and thrice vibes!
Mixing is all about vibe and feeling and the interaction between the mixer and the track. When printing the final mix to tape it was not uncommon for there to be three or four engineers all performing the mix, moving faders, sending channels to FX, changing EQs etc. In the modern DAW, it’s more common to write in automation with a mouse, which can in some cases lack the human touch. A good control surface with faders and rotary encoders would be a way of adding more feel into your mixes while still retaining the precision when needed.
Make it easy
If you're regularly recording microphones, acoustic instruments, drum machines and synths it may pay to look into getting a good mic pre-amp. A good mic pre can do a lot to the tone and shape of your source as you record it in. This is one of the most cost effective ways to subtly build up warmth and quality throughout your mix.
The science behind this subject is both fascinating and complex, but what I’ve tried to do here is outline the primary components involved in achieving analogue sound. We now have the best of both worlds, colour and precision: it’s our job as artists and producers to find our own personal sweet spot between these two worlds.
Words and pics: Chris Lyth