In today’s digital world, audio recordings can sound too sterile. It is often necessary to manipulate that super clean sound and give it a more colorful, analog flavor. How to accomplish this is wide open to experimentation, but it can be surprisingly affordable for engineers with the right skills.
Giving digital sound an analog warmness can be accomplished several ways. There is no single best method to accomplish it. Hardware components or software plug-ins can be used after the fact on a clean digital signal or the original recording can be made with analog characteristics to begin with. Choices abound.
There are two major competing theories about how to give digital audio an analog flavor. One is to record the original sound as clean as possible using all digital gear and then color the audio in post. The other is to record the original audio using components that add color and mix that flavor into the layered sounds. There is no one correct answer. It is an area of black art that engineers use to define their signature sound.
One of the reasons getting analog sound is so imprecise is that using software emulation to add color does not always ensure the desired effect. Variables in the recording process can effect the outcome. It is also very time consuming attempting to get the desired sound. The budget also comes into play. It is easier for engineers with access to expensive name-brand hardware processors to get the desired effect. Most lower cost, off-the-shelf digital systems often require more tweaking to get the desired sound.
Essentially, analog sonics can be added to digital tracks in two ways — or in combination. One is with individual processors on tracks and stems during the mix, while the other is with such components as summing amps and master processors in the final mix. Neither of these methods is difficult or expensive. But like everything else in pro audio there is a wide range of options to choose from. More expensive tools usually work best, but not always.
If you’re going for maximum authenticity from a certain brand of analog gear, then look for original hardware or emulations either made by or endorsed by the original manufacturer. Hardware can be affordable and often is the only component that is needed. If chosen carefully, one hardware tool — such as a channel strip — can do the trick for the whole mix. Also, investigate 500 series hardware modules, which can allow customization for less money than larger dedicated components.
As for plug-ins, there is a huge range of choices. Harmonics plug-ins — which create the harmonics associated with analog signal processing — can cross the line between mixing and the final mixdown/mastering process. These plug-ins can hold a mix together. Be careful, however, not to overload the mix with plug-ins, which can introduce strange phase issues, depending on how well the DAW compensates for latency.
Another choice is to use a name-brand analog mixer or a summing amp during the final mixdown process. Certain brand names are known for their classic sound. Simply passing the sound through such a device can bring that manufacturer’s iconic sound alive and make it your own.
If that option is not affordable, users can add a device to the end of the signal path. It could be a tube compressor or limiter that imparts a unique character of its own. Any high-quality analog processor can offer the analog effect being sought. Some are even inexpensive. You just have to find it in a sea of choices.
Finally, some mastering plug-ins can add an analog flavor to sterile audio. There are dozens of plug-ins for this exact purpose and some are even free or bundled with new digital equipment. It just requires experimentation, finding the sweet spot and setting presets to remember the results.
It is not hard or expensive to create a unique analog quality to audio. The task requires navigating through a wide range of choices to find what creates the sound desired. This search is one of the things an engineer must do to find and create a unique, signature sound.
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