Analog vs. Digital Recording

Warm or Not to Warm: the Dichotomy of Analog vs. Digital Recording

By Dawoud Kringle 

One of the most polarizing controversies among audiophiles is the dichotomy between analogue and digital recording. Surely you, dear reader, have been subjected to (or subjected someone else to) an impassioned soliloquy about how much warmer analog recording sound than digital. 

In this article I will attempt to address the issue exclusively from the perspective of a professional musician.

Analog vs. Digital Recording

Back in the late 80s / early 90s, I used to work as a recording engineer / in-house studio musician in some analog recording studios (I managed one of them for a few years and even had my own office overlooking Time Square). I’ve engineered a lot of sessions and I’m familiar with the technology.

With an analog recording studio you need a multi track tape deck. Two of the studios I worked at had an old MCI 24 track analog recorder; another one had an Otari 24 track. For you youngsters who grew up with computers, these machines were the size of a small refrigerator, and required constant maintenance that was very time consuming (have you ever tried calibrating an MCI?). And those machines were (and still are) prohibitively expensive: I recently saw a near mint vintage Studer A820-2 Analog 24-Track Multitrack Tape Recorder w/Dolby on eBay with an $11,000 price tag (with a digital computer-based studio, you could have an all inclusive and very decent set up for a lot less than that). 

Then there is the tape. Back then a single reel of 2” Ampex cost about $140. Now they cost about $400 new (you can find them cheaper on eBay, but they’re used. And no matter how well you store them, they deteriorate over time. I’ve seen people come in with tapes that had the chromium dioxide literally falling off of it in flakes). The worst part is that you could only fit about 20 minutes of music on one of those tapes. Digital doesn’t have this problem.

Editing tape is not for the unskilled or faint of heart. You had to go after the tape with a razor blade and an editing block; and you had one shot to do it right. One mistake and you’re potentially responsible for hundreds or even thousands of dollars of your clients money going down the drain. With DAW programs you have unlimited non-destructive editing and unlimited tracks.

So, you have a ridiculously expensive analog multi track, another tape machine to mix down to (doubtless with another ridiculously high price tag attached to it – unless you give in and mix down to digital), the inevitable assortment of outboard gear like preamps, compressors, microphones, etc., which you need if you are a studio owner (don’t get me started about how expensive a vintage Urei preamp is,,,)

Let’s also factor in the cost of setting up a place to use the equipment. Anyone familiar with the cost of real estate should be getting a little nervous by now. Of course digital studios are not exempt from this. But personal home studios can be set up in a corner on a desk. And problems like mic placement and isolation can be solved with some god old fashioned ingenuity. 

Analog vs. Digital Recording

This all has to be paid for somehow. Who pays for it? The musicians and producers who rent the studio time. And how will they pay for it? Either 1. Get a record deal which means that at best they are not going to see a penny of profit until the production and promotional costs are recouped by the label (and keep in mind that some labels pull a real con job on musicians by stipulating that the recoupable of the advance is payable only through the artists royalties), or 2. Put up the money themselves. This money is paid back through sales of recordings or cross collateralize other revenue sources. 

Some years ago I did some sessions with a major artist. She block booked time at several upscale recording studios in New York City. She recorded everything onto analog and then transferred it to digital. This was a time-consuming process that ran up an insane amount of studio costs for her. I have no idea if she ever recouped her production costs. For smaller independent artists to attempt something like this is sheer insanity. 

Needless to say the intelligent thing to do is to keep production costs at a minimum without sacrificing quality in order to maximize the potential for profit.

I built my first small computer based recording studio / setup in my home in 2002. It was not very impressive, but it was operational. Within three years it paid for itself, and every project I did with it thereafter was profit (and occasional bouts of musical self-indulgence that cost me nothing more than a few sleepless nights). I’ve done upgrades on it ever since, and I am presently in the process of a major upgrade. My equipment has reasonable portability, and I can record as much as I want any time I want.

Case in point: two years ago and independent film maker approached me to do the music for the film he was producing and directing (a comedy about vampires). We hammered out a budget and schedule. The contract we had stipulated that all production costs would be the responsibility of the composer (me), even if the production costs exceeded the lump some I was being paid for the job. I recorded everything in my home studio, with next to no out-of-pocket expense on my part, and presented the director with the finished work two months ahead of schedule. 

If I had gone the way of an analog studio, production costs would have been prohibitive. At best, I would have ended up not making a penny from the project – and at worst, production costs would have skinned me alive.

Digital software companies are very much aware of the complaints of those who feel that analog sound is superior. Needless to say, they understand that it is in their best interest to develop technology that achieves that same warmth and sound. It’s not an outrageous goal to analyze the harmonics andequalization curves of high quality analog sound, and attempt to recreate it using digital technology.

And let’s face it a lot of people could not pass a blind test; analog and digital would sound the same to them. Especially since in the end many of these recordings are going to be played on digital systems anyway (and many will recall how horrible some of the older sound systems sounded. Those of my generation will laugh – or cringe in horror and loathing – at the memory of the Close-N-Play record player!). 

Perhaps all the musicians need to do is buy or rent some warm sounding vintage analog preamps, and record through them onto digital. Problem solved.

It would be unfair and irresponsible of me to overlook the fact that jazz and classical musicians, and their like, are constrained by the need to record their music in specific acoustic environments. Many of the processes of digital recording and sound manipulation are foreign to the nature of their music. Yet it is still possible – and even advisable – for them to record onto a digital medium. 

Am I saying that digital sound is superior to analog sound? No; and I will not engage in that argument. And if someone has the luxury of owning a high-quality analog sound system, or even the greater luxury of being able to record with analog equipment (and justify the cost,) I say Salute. 

But since I or any musician who makes at least a percentage of income as a self-employed musician (and possibly even own recording equipment), it would be terribly irresponsible if we did not take these hard financial realities into careful consideration.