The age of digital audio is the age of perfect stability. Of flawless copies and non-destructive editing. After decades of analogue audio designed to be ultimately transparent, digital has finally delivered on that.
As such, enthusiasm amongst senior engineers is commonplace. You’d be hard pressed to find an audio engineer of a certain age who’s not incredulous at the vinyl resurgence. In theory, even the stock plug-ins that come with your DAW should be able to deliver perfect sounding audio.
So what’s with all the fuss around analogue emulation in plug-ins? Looking at the biggest sellers in digital pro audio you’d be forgiven for thinking the recording industry hasn’t moved on since about 1973. Surely with all the imperfections of analogue equipment, the binary perfection of digital should be a blessing, shouldn’t it? Why spend so much time and money on analogue emulations?
Familiarity of analogue
One argument’s that often trotted out is the simple familiarity of analogue equipment. Firstly amongst engineers who ‘grew up’ surrounded by 1176s, dbx 160s, Neve desks and so on, but also amongst listeners. They may not consciously recognise it, but even the least tech-savvy listener is familiar with the sound of analogue recording from all those Rolling Stones records in their mp3 collection.
Engineers and listeners alike are used to the sound analogue equipment makes. And for engineers who learnt on analogue equipment, combining the efficiency gains of digital with the same workflow and sound as analogue means they can immediately know what a plug-in will sound like (or at least should) and keep their old habits. The classic pieces of kit serve as useful signposts when choosing which processor to use.
Ease of use
One of the great advantages of digital is the unparalleled flexibility it provides. EQs that can target frequencies down to a single Hz, compressors tweakable to the microsecond; these processors don’t exist in the analogue world.
However, that can also be a downside. As anyone who’s ever used any real analogue equipment will tell you, the limited set of controls can actually be a joy. It speeds up your workflow as you’re not inundated with endless options, and can quickly narrow down choices to ‘this one or that one’ rather than micro-tweaking how many decimals of a decibel you’re cutting 53Hz by.
There’s something to be said for replicating the limitations of analogue within the digital realm.
Non-linearity and distortion
The area of analogue emulation that’s received the most attention lately is the non-linearity and associated distortions. Slate Digital are particularly hot on this.
Simply put, digital is linear. No matter what level the audio is at, it will be captured and played back exactly the same. Analogue is non-linear. The higher the level, the more distortion is introduced. And this distortion isn’t necessarily just harmonic (i.e. multiples of existing frequencies). Up until very recently, plug-ins were unable to replicate this.
These are essentially the imperfections that make analogue sound different from digital. And the sonic character of classic pieces lives in these imperfections. But analogue emulations have come a long way, and plug-ins are now capable of very good approximations.
Is it worth it?
Let’s say you’ve just bought Cubase. It comes with all the plug-ins you could possibly need: compressors, EQs, multiband compressors, limiters, reverbs etc. Every tool in the audio box. Do you need to spend money on a UAD card or Slate plug-ins?
Technically no. Technically you can make perfect sounding mixes using just these plug-ins. Technically, you can come pretty close to analogue sounding anyway if you know your theory well enough (by tweaking EQ the right way, using compression to emulate tape compression etc.).
However, as a mastering engineer, I’ve worked on enough mixes to know when someone hasn’t used analogue emulations (or analogue). And a lot of the work actually goes into dirtying them up. They come in perfectly clean, lacking depth and life. They sound small. The perfection of digital is why adding some form of distortion or harmonic excitement is now common in mastering – to compensate for the missing layers of distortion inherent in analogue mixes. Distortion that makes mixes sound big and exciting.
And I have to say, analogue emulations do make mixing easier. Not just in the operation of the plug-ins themselves, but because using them makes mixes come together quicker and with less effort.
It’s true that there’s a lot of marketing hype surrounding analogue emulations. But it’s not all hype.