Analog sound in a digital world

Posted: 21st March 2011 by Mezzanine Floor Studios in Audiophile

I love digital audio recording. We’re at the point in technological history where a tiny flash recorder with built in mics can capture sound with portability and accuracy that folks only dreamed about back in the “golden age.”

Just about any person with a decent laptop, software, and good ears can make a decent recording, breaking the chains that once held many artists back from having their music produced and distributed to the world. The gap in quality between what an indie artist can do in a buddy’s garage and what the music industry pumps out at a harried pace has been growing narrower and narrower, and I think that is awesome.

Yet I can’t help feeling that this revolution has come at a cost. We heard it when digital first broke into the mainstream. The harsh highs and brittle tones of the first ADAT-recorded albums were a stark contrast to the warmth and depth of analog tape. We hear it to this day in many home recording projects. Music that should bloom with all the vibrance and warmth of spring feels somehow sterile, cold, and stark- a bit more like winter than we first expected. I found myself years ago realizing that my idea of a successful digital recording was one where I had sucked the least amount of tone, soul, and heart out of the performance by recording it.

This revelation birthed in me the desire to reach beyond this limitation and find whatever combination of hardware, plugins, and knowledge I needed to get it right. Now when I approach a project I work hard to find the right balance of digital clarity with analog warmth and tone- to get the “season” right, if you will. An acoustic guitar isn’t meant to sound thin and brittle at it’s core: It’s meant to sound full and warm, vibrant and alive! Each instrument has an element that it brings to the mix, each song a feeling it brings to an album, and each album a feeling of hope or desperation, life or death, beauty or pain. To me it is important to get it right each step of the way when crafting an album, bringing each instrument, song, and album to the place where it feels like it was meant to be.

This starts with the performance, the instrument, the sound of the room. The soul of this performance must then be captured with a microphone and preamp that make me forget I’m listening to a recording. Once captured into digital, I then spend a lot of time focused on what each element needs to be- what brings it to life most clearly and completely within the context of the mix. This may be as simple as adding an EQ without touching a preset or button, just because the character of that EQ makes the instrument sound more alive. It may be deciding whether or not to add tape emulation or tube warmth to a track- deciding whether the inherent cleanliness of digital helps me hear the soul of the sound more clearly, or whether adding warmth, edge, or even crunchiness to the sound will make it dance. Or it may be compressing the living daylights out of the drum kit because that makes the drums dance in a way that drives the song forward.

I remember hearing once that being an excellent front of house engineer meant being invisible to the audience- not having any mistakes for people to notice. While I still find some truth in this I can’t help but feeling that there is cowardice and insecurity in this way of thinking: my job as an engineer or producer is not to play it safe and simply capture the artistry around me. Rather, I must recognize the artistry inherent in the work I do, in the hopes that the artistry I capture and the artistry I bring might result in something greater than the sum of the parts.

At the end of a mix I don’t want anything left on the table- not a trace of heart or soul or life. Every ounce of these should reside deep in the elements of the song, bringing the color and emotion and perspective of the song to the listener with nothing held back. That is the philosophy behind the work that Jonas and I do at Mezzanine Floor Studios. It’s about recognizing the heart and soul and season of an instrument or song or album and bringing that to light.

- Joshua

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