Analogue Reversion into the Digital Domain
The Production world of the past: Analogue Reversion into the Digital Domain…
Ever since the birth of reproduced sound in 1877, the many ways we hear, play, receive, retrieve and record music have been changing for the mass audience, ever furthering the possibilities for understanding and access. Huge advancements within the technologies of the recording process have allowed a large volume of twenty-first century owners of music-based programmes to become musicians and producers easily, with readily available recording and compositional software packages. For the most part, these software packages come at very affordable prices, for example Logic Pro X (£149.99) and Pro Tools (£549), but as well as this, some exceptions come at no cost at all, such as Audacity and PreSonus Studio One Free. Each of these software packages include ready to use pre sets, some of which are new original sounds and processing units, and some that are modelled against software from the history of music and recording.
Companies such as Waves Audio strive to offer customers digital plugin production technologies, which are identical representations of historic hardware units, consoles, and many other products. The price of such contemporary technologies changes depending on which plugin is chosen, which gives the user the chance to use technologies used by producers on influential artist’s albums, such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd. As Waves Audio state in a promotional video for a recent plugin, Introducing the Waves / Abbey Road EMI TG12345 Plugin (2014), the virtual interpretation of the iconic console used on The Beatles’ historic 1969 album Abbey Road, allows users ‘the chance to recreate the sound that made history’.
Statements like this one give the idea to a potential buyer the chance to reproduce some of the finest and most iconic recordings in history within their laptop or desktop computer devices. Within this article, views on how the past analogue domain has found its way back into a more compact and portable product will be discussed, showing how a new appreciation for old methods has returned into the modern day world of the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) production method. The new concept of analogue gear in the digital domain will also be discussed, looking at marketing strategies companies such as Waves Audio use to promote sales to a wider audience. When taken out of its original state, what is lost and gained within this reversion of past products with respects to the true workings of the traditional hardware? Finally, does this re-appropriation for old technology form due to reasons such as nostalgia, reliving past times to gain certain production qualities?
When we look back over the near one hundred and forty year history of recorded sound, we can see extensive surges in technological advancements in the area of recording. From Thomas Edison’s invention of recording to wax cylinders with the use of a Phonograph, out dated by Reel-to-Reel Tape after the second World War, advancing Mono to Stereo, to the aesthetically pleasing modern day DAW, recording to hard discs within a laptop or desktop computer. Within this, one part of the process has remained the same. The capturing and replaying of sound for many purposes, such as film and TV or more commonly music in album or single formats, among many other purposes. Along side the process of recording, instruments themselves have been crucial to the progression of the music world, with new technologies such as the electric guitar and amplifier, synthesised sound and sampling machines carving new ways people think about music, forming new and truly original sounding genres.
Within each of these advancements in the differing fields, technologies emerge, gaining cult statuses in the certain areas. Whether this is the Roland TR-808 in Hip Hop, the Moog Modular/Mini Moog in Progressive Rock, or in the production world, the Neve 8078 console in Sound City, users to this day still try to fit into or replicate certain techniques, genres, and sounds with the use of these well-known tools to gain the most authentic tonal qualities. If purchased, these original pieces of equipment would cost a user a substantial amount of money, space and for some a detailed knowledge of how to run and use. But in twenty-first century life, the mass user is able to access these specific technologies all in one place, the DAW.
This amalgamation of technologies allows one user to produce music for vast and varying numbers of styles, when and wherever they are with ease. The storing and saving of technologies now available is seen as a huge advantage over the analogue predecessors, giving the users infinite non-destructive editing tools, minimal set up costs and spaces, portability and much more. Due to this appropriation towards the digital tools in the modern world, an understanding of the workings of the analogue world is usually forgotten about against the successor, the digital plugin, but as Hipps states:
Every new medium makes an older technology obsolete. In this case the word obsolete does not […] mean the technology has disappeared but that the […] previous medium has changed.
This change allows a starting point for a user with no experience with certain types of gear to enhance their knowledge with the use of digital representations further. This knowledge can be then taken to higher levels of understanding with the products of the past, reusing them in a different state to its origin, instead of leaving them in the past. Reusing these products could be seen as an act of nostalgia, reliving certain productions from the past for iconic reasons, but Barlindhaug argues this point by stating that:
By following this quest for analog sound, digital technology helps to create an acknowledgement of analog aesthetics. This must not be seen as merely an act of nostalgia, but rather as a sense that the context of its use is what really makes a particular technology novel.
Because of this quest, as Barlindhaug states, companies such as Waves Audio see opportunities to give users of analogue and digital technology a new sense of working with technologies in their own systems. As CEO of Waves Audio Gilad Keren states, ‘a lot of people thought software would be a toy compared to hardware! But now, our products often replace multiple hardware boxes’. Waves make this point apparent in many ways through their use of advertisement, forcing an idea that the product that they have created and crafted is a true representation of the hardware form. An example of this can be heard in the Waves Audio promotional video, Introducing the Waves dbx® 160 Compressor Plugin, where Eddie Kramer, the infamous engineer producer of pivotal bands such as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix, states that:
The guys at Waves are really clever at analysing a vintage piece of gear and coming up with a plugin that actually works and does precisely what the original was designed for and then upped the ante, making it a much more usable device in today’s age.
Kramer here is stating that the plugin really has the upper hand to its hardware version, making the plugin a superior piece of kit to own. By having such a sought after producer state this about a plugin, which he used in hardware form for his career of making distinguished records, makes the company seem hugely advantageous within their working products. Kramer later goes on to claim that they compared the original hardware to the software and ‘set it up with the same […] settings identically, matched levels… I couldn’t tell the difference’.
This bold statement shows that despite Kramer’s years of experience with the analogue hardware, he admits that he would honestly not know any difference to either the hardware version or the software model. Another example with the use of a famous figure for a point of sale would be the use of Butch Vig, producer of the diamond-selling album Nevermind by Nirvana. Vig (2014) when talking about plugins he uses claims that:
Waves in particular uses a lot more sophisticated technology […], so when you pull up the plug-in, a lot of them sound exactly the same as the hardware units.
Again, Waves Audio’s use of the famous producer shows that even though Vig has become a well-known figure in his field with the use of analogue tools, he now reverts to in the box mixing, specifying his appreciation for and with the use of Waves plugins. Examples such as Butch Vig and Eddie Kramer are a great sale point for a company, showing potential buyers the view of some of the best producers in history using their products. Bringing famous and respected figures into an advertisement, in this case multiple producers, is an intelligent use of celebrity endorsement. Although both producers claim to use the Waves Audio plugins, a potential buyer of the product has no real proof that either producer (Kramer or Vig) uses the products stated within the videos or interviews without researching into their productions. As a result of this, many people could follow the views of the respected member of production history by buying into a product they may not have experience with, in this case using an original hardware version of the dbx 160 compressor. Consequently, all appreciation for analogue technology would be lost, seeing it as the lower of the two, almost making a user disregard a product before even trying it out first hand.
Although the mass user now has the use of digital production, some people still to this day specifically use analogue equipment within their productions, trying to eliminate the new appropriation for the analogue form, and attempt to revert back to their roots of recording. One such musician is Dave Grohl, lead vocalist and guitarist of Foo Fighters. His aim was to produce a full length LP outside of the box. Grohl, in an interview with Sound on Sound, talks about his 2011 LP Wasting Light (produced by Butch Vig) states with a tone of nostalgia ‘what if Butch and I were to get back together after 20 years and dust off the tape machines and put them in my garage?’ The result of this ‘what if’ turned into the Foo Fighters first number one selling album.
Grohl wanted everything recorded to tape, edited and mixed out of the box. Because of this, Vig told the band they had to be as tight as possible before even stepping in front of a microphone, as editing was a no go, because there were no simple cut and paste jobs. This one album is a prime example that with the use of strictly just analogue equipment, albums can still be sold in mass. This appreciation for using completely out of the box production inspired one producer, aged twenty at the time of interviewing; to set himself up his own fully analogue studio within his parents house. Lewis Durham states in an interview for the Guardian that:
I got a lot of my recording equipment for nothing. This mixing console came from a radio station in America. It would have been used in the 1940s and they were chucking it away. It’s not about the era, more the quality of the equipment made. And it happens to be that the best stuff was built in the early 60s. The parts were precision-made and a lot of money and time went into making them.
This demonstrates a certain frame of nostalgia, using technologies from a specific time period to obtain authentic sounding recordings. Durham thinks his recordings would not capture the same authentic feel to them if he used the modern day representations of his old gear, as he claims ‘It just doesn’t capture the energy or feeling of music when someone’s playing’.
Even though producers such as Lewis Durham keep the traditional analogue studio domain, and albums such as Wasting Light sells to reach the number one slot, there are downsides to an all-analogue domain in the modern day climate. Grohl expresses in an interview with HITFIX that:
A lot of the older studios are going under because they just can’t survive in this world of digital accessibility and availability. Anyone can do it in their home.
Places such as Sound City, which has had some of the best selling and world wide iconic albums of all time recorded and produced inside it, has had to close their doors. Grohl believes that the closure of the American studio is due to the digital advancements within the music industry, leading analogue to become almost obsolete within the twenty-first century world of production. Although this can be seen as advancements in the technological world, elements of history would be lost, giving users of the digital format a lesser chance to fully understand, and respect the past world of music production and technology.
To conclude, there is no doubt that the digital domain is now the true dominant force within the modern day music production world. This, for many reasons is for the ease of use, compaction, availability, affordability and more. But even though there is a digital dominance, there is a huge market for production products of the past. Barlindhaug states that:
Even today most musicians and music producers, though they use digital recording, prefer the sound of analog recording technology and invariably employ strategies to achieve this sound quality.
This sound quality is accessible and employed with the use of well-crafted plugins, which for the most part come at a much lower cost than their analogue counterparts. For a producer of the modern age, this allows you to have some of the worlds pivotal and most advantageous pieces of kit stored safely inside your Digital Audio Workstation of choice, ready to bring up on an insert channel anywhere in the world. Companies such as Waves Audio, who with the help of well established producers recreate popular and classic pieces of analogue gear, turn them into a much more sellable format in today’s market. With the use of clever sales and marketing strategies, the product they have reproduced gains popularity thanks to the help of celebrity endorsement, using someone of high status in the industry to compliment the product.
Nostalgia driven producers of today, such as Lewis Durham would argue that there could be no comparison to the sound an analogue machine makes over what a digital reproduction does. But for the mass user, this comparison of analogue and digital would not always be possible, as they would most likely not own both sides of the production world. This makes the user of the digital product lose the true understanding of how the machine would have originally worked, how it would be patched into a signal chain, how it effected other pieces of hardware and what it meant to own a certain piece of gear.
Because of how far we have come with the progression of technology in the music production world, advancements could be made into getting the user back with the hands on approach to music production technology. This could be possible with the advancements of digital technology along side a touch screen unit, giving a user a much more authentic feel to their workings. But with the synergy of both forms, a constant reversal to older systems becomes apparent, giving a brand new appreciation for working technologies.