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Analog - not dead yet?

An introducton to analog recording for the recording studio. Why top professional studios still use analog machines.


Contrary to what you might read in gear advertisements, analog recording is not dead. Recording as we know it today started with the early analog recorders of the 1940s, the multitrack recorders of the 1960s, and many of the recording techniques we still use are based around analog methodology.

The reason why analog recorders have now fallen out of favor with the majority is that they are expensive - very expensive compared to digital. They also create significant noise and distortion, and that was once thought to be a bad thing.

But despite these problems, top professional studios still have analog recorders simply because they have a sound quality that digital just can't match. One top - very top - studio not so long ago quoted that they use analog multitrack recorders on nearly 50% of their sessions.

This isn't really to say that they sound better than digital; in fact their faults are easily quantifiable, but their sound is often said to be 'warm', and it is often true to say that it is easier to mix a recording made on analog than it is to mix a digital multitrack recording.

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There is also a school of thought that say that since there is no theoretical limit to the amount of sonic detail an analog recorder can capture, even well below the noise level, they are intrinsically superior to digital recorders where what they can capture is certainly limited by the number of bits they work to.

The other useful feature of analog recorders is that they are universal. You can take a tape anywhere and find a machine to play it on. With digital recordings, you are often compelled through the sheer complexity of digital systems to play back the recording on the same system you used to create it. (That's a problem that analog recorders once had, but it was solved in the early 1950s!).

As digital formats become increasingly diverse, individual studios become more and more isolated with audio being subject to an often complex export process to transfer it from one studio's system to another.

With tape, you just mount the reel on the recorder and press play.

It took analog around thirty years to get from the point it first become feasible to record music successfully, to its full maturity beyond which further significant improvement, other than convenience, was impossible.

Digital recording has been with us nearly thirty years, but maturity somehow still seems a long way off...

By David Mellor Wednesday February 5, 2003