A semi-serious purchase guide for future sound engineers.
Modern music production relies on the availability tons of technology, even impossible to imagine just three decades ago, which allow to do (almost) whatever the imagination of the artist/producer is able to think about and, moreover, allow many more people to actually produce music reaching high levels of quality.
Most of nowadays technology resides in the digital realm, and this drives the technicalities of music production more towards the competences of an IT guy, rather than those of an “electrician”, as it used to be in the past. Hardware becomes software, and the access to processing tools becomes cheaper and easier.
However, one of the big topics you are sure to find in any “home-studio-related” discussion, is about the importance, the value, the absolute need for “analogue processing”. Analogue = warmth, (good) colouration, punch, insert-whatever-positive-word-here. It looks like going analogue is the (only) way to a better, professional sounding production, otherwise impossible in the cold and aseptyc realm of digital processing.
Well, the topic is widely discussed, but I want to put a firm point about the concept of “analogue”.
Music IS an analogue phenomenon.
No matter how, where, why, by whom, with what your favourite tune is played, recorded and distributed, but at some moment in time it will make vibrate a fully analogue system in your inner ear (made of a tympanic membrain, three little bones and some other anathomical stuff), which will generate an (analogue) electrical signal delivered through your nerves. Even if we all think of loving power tunes, beautiful lyrics, rock-star stories and singing along at concerts, we are attracted by harmonic variations in air pressure, indeed. Not so different from photons attracting moths. I hope this didn’t hurt your need for romanticism too much.
Back to music production, what does this actually mean? Well, it means a lot, and gives strong advice on priorities when investing in your studio. Since music IS an analogue phenomenon, at least in the very last part of the audio chain (from the transducer – monitor or headphone – to your ear), it is very important that this stage is really solid and valuable, allowing you to hear sounds in a correct, reliable way. In a few words: invest your money in some good studio monitors AND (unless you are working on headphones only, which could be tricky) in the acoustic treatment of your room! Having the perfect audio chain but listening to the result in an untreated environment would result in wasting time, money and opportunities. Would you imagine a world-class chef cooking in a stinky kitchen? Or tasting his creations while chewing gum? Or, again, would you imagin a 3D artist programming stunning visual effects on a vintage monochrome screen? Correct, you wouldn’t. Now think about how many chest-level monitors, (badly) reflective walls, asymmetrical layouts etc. you saw in home studio pictures. Got the point?
Of course, a similar consideration applies to the beginning of your audio chain (unless you are generating sounds digitally): the quality of the instrument (and of the performer), of the environment where you are tracking and of the transducer (i.e. microphone(s), which includes the competence in using them applying the correct techniques) are extremely important.
Then, all the audio chain is important, of course (DA and AD converters, preamps etc.), but not thinking at the listening quality causes a very big risk: the last point of the chain has the power to define the final quality of what you hear, conditioning your decisions. Even if your audio chain is the best possible, it is completely useless if you do not have a good listening environment.
So, does it make sense to invest in the central (processing) part of the audio chain? Of course it does: if your processors are crap you can’t expect great results…
“Wow, so my processors have to be analogue!”. Mmm… no, I didn’t say that. They have to be good (hardware or plugins), and YOU have to be good at using them. Read it again: YOU have to be good at using them. For most “normal” users analogue or digital processing doesn’t really make a difference, while for ALL tools the user (i.e. the human being listening to musical/artistic results, assessing them and taking decisions) DOES make the difference. In other words: a real pro will deliver the result both on analogue or digital processing chains (of course anyone will have preferences), and a lousy user will struggle to get the same result, whatever the tools available. There is no magic tool, whether analogue or digital.
So, what are the real variables in preferring digital vs analogue? Too many to list, of course, but of course there is no quick answers. Each approach has pros&cons, and many times we end up with hybrid approaches. As inspiration cues, here are two big advantages of either approach (which also tend to be big issues for the other approach):
– analogue usually means physical control, allowing to touch the device and to focus on listening, instead of looking at a screen;
– digital usually means multiple instances and, most of all, instantaneous recall. This is pivotal if your creative process requires to stop working on one project and to move to another one before coming back to the first one with a fresh mind: immediate in the digital realm, rather time-consuming (if ever really possible) on a large format console.
In conclusion, is investing in analogue hardware worth? Of course it can be (both technically and – why not? – emotionally), but the first “analogue” investments you should take into account when building your home-studio are those related to your listening environment (monitors+acoustics) and to your most precious analogue device, otherwise called “ear”: invest in your training and learn to listen, assess, and process professionally with what you have. Results will come and they will be astonishing!
Giovanni @LakeWave Music Lab