The elusive analogue sound is a result many producers strive for, but achieving a true analogue sound is an expensive pursuit, especially for producers who are used to the luxury of the modern DAW. Endless channels and instances of plugs mean that if we were to go back to a true analogue setup, it’d cost in time, space and of course money.
But can we have the best of both worlds? Can analogue be successfully emulated in the box? While true analogue might not be achievable, there are many techniques we can use to give our sound that thick, lush, beefy analogue tone without anywhere near the outlay.
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Use Parallel Distortion
Adding the grit and power of distortion plug-ins can often help you take a dramatic step towards achieving the sound of analogue systems. The only problem is that distortion effects used as channel inserts can achieve too dramatic a change in sonic character. This is where parallel distortion treatments can help. Set up an auxiliary bus with your distortion plug-in of choice and then feed one or two elements of your mix to it, to introduce the sound of distortion to the mix. Remember, you can adjust the return level of the auxiliary to make sure that the distortion effect remains subtle and doesn’t become overwhelming.
Trigger White Noise Alongside Drum Samples
One effective way to add an ‘analogue’ element to your mixes is to sample a blast of white noise and to trigger it, at really low-level, alongside your drum samples. This will create the illusion that the noise was captured – along with the drum sound – as you sampled your drums from tape. To be effective, it’s worth matching the white noise to the envelope of your drum samples, so that it attacks and decays at the same speed. And then be ready to drop its level significantly so that, with each kick and snare, just a hint of high frequency hiss can just be heard.
Tape Emulation Plug-Ins
Tape, as a recording format, has ‘a sound’ which goes beyond the audible hiss it produces. The harder you drive tape, the more the resulting sound will be ‘saturated’, with a grey area available between non-distorted and distorted signals. The tonal characteristics here, as well as the ways in which tape responds to dynamic changes, gives tape a sound which many consider to be warmer and smoother than most digital systems. Tape emulation plug-ins seek to mimic this behaviour, providing a hint of bygone days.
Use Vinyl Crackle
Whenever we think about the ‘impurities’ in analogue signal paths, some ‘noise’ is more coveted than others. We’ve already seen that the gentle hiss of tape can be desirable if it comes coupled with the warmth that tape-based systems traditionally provide. Equally, the reassuring pops and crackles of vinyl remain hugely popular. If you’re working with loops and you have a vinyl crackle sample you want to bring to your track, either sample it or chop it in your DAW, so that it lasts for exactly the duration of your drum loop. That way, each pop and crackle will occur in the same position within your loop, helping the listener be convinced that the loop has been sampled from a record, rather than the vinyl crackle having been added afterwards.
Virtual Console Effects
Slate’s VCC and UAD’s Neve 1073 effects are just two of a growing number of plug-ins which emulate the analogue signal chain of hardware mixing consoles. We tend to think of desks for their capacity to EQ a sound and, on more fully spec’d consoles, provide dynamics control, route sounds to auxiliaries and provide gain and volume control. But, of course, the ways in which the modules in desks are connected also add hugely to their sound, with each internal component adding part of its sonic character. If ‘the analogue sound’ is the one you covet, buying a console will get you the best results – but that comes at a price. For many, software provides a great sounding, yet more cost-effective solution.
Record Something ‘Live’
Back in the day when the analogue way was the only way, there was a much greater emphasis on recording sounds with microphones. Of course, keyboards, guitars and basses could be connected to mixing desks directly via line inputs but more often than not, their amps would be mic’d up too. And, of course, microphones were the only solution for vocalists, strings players, drummers and brass sections. While a microphone’s primary objective is to capture a performance, it does much more, including picking up the ambience of the recording space, lending additional atmosphere to vintage recordings. Try recording a synth part through your monitors back into your DAW as an audio file and, whenever possible, add microphone recordings to your tracks. Sonically, you’ll gain more than just a great performance – but be wary of room interference.
Analogue means more than a sound
Following on from the previous tip, remember that the classic days of analogue-only recordings meant more than the physical ways in which sounds were captured. Not only can we avoid having to plug in real instruments altogether if we make music entirely with plug-ins in our workstations but the ‘feel’ of analogue recordings is lost too. Most tracks now benefit from timing and pitch correction but before reaching for AutoTune and/or Quantize, remember that the ‘feel’ of slightly wonky pitch and time will help create a much more authentic sense of performance – further echoing recordings made on analogue systems.
Run a ‘Noisy’ Plug-in on an Empty Track
Earlier, we mentioned adding a tape saturation plug-in to one or more elements of your mix to introduce the benefits of ‘emulated tape’ to your mix. However, if you simply want the sound of subtle tape hiss, without the additional processing an emulation plug-in provides, simply set up an empty software instrument or audio track in your DAW, insert the tape plug-in of your choice and let it run live as your mix plays down. Without any of the ‘active’ sounds in your mix being affected by the plug-in’s parameters, you’ll glue a ‘tape sound’ into your mix regardless. Dusky use this same technique with iZotope’s Trash plugin.
Research EQ and Dynamics Performance
Different tape machines were in use through the golden age of recording, while there were also many different manufacturers of tape itself. Also factor in that tape machines can be calibrated in a number of different ways and it soon becomes clear that there is no ‘uniform’ sound which tape offers. But there’s plenty of documentation online to help you configure your EQ and compression plug-ins to emulate analogue recording systems and to get away from the ‘digital’ response of effects. Get online and see what people are saying – you may well find your mixes benefit from all that shared knowledge.
Gate Noisy Sound Sources
It’s ironic that as we seek to add ‘more noise’ to our productions these days, those working in studios featuring all-analogue gear were constantly looking for ways to get noise under control. One of the most popular ways was to use noise gates, so that whenever a single track of a multi-track project dropped below a certain volume threshold, its gate closed and it fell completely silent. This removed tape hiss and, if you’re looking to emulate noisy systems of the past, it would be worth passing some of your freshly ‘noised up’ parts through a noise gate to see if you like the results.
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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂
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