Why bother with analog units...

Why bother with analog units...

We're not the first to fall in love with the old-school, a lot of people are onboard with the outboard, replicating, reviving and using classic designs like the LA2A, 1176, pul-techs and classic SSL compressors. But for a lot of us, it's hard to articulate why these units continue to work so well and bring the magic decades on from when they first hit the shelves. To help create some clarity on the topic, I spoke with James Frazzetto, founder, technician and engineer at High Voltage Audio. High Voltage is a small business in the Melbourne suburbs building, reviving and making accessible timeless analogue units to the audio community. 

Hey James, I'm not going to flirt around the topic I'm going in deep straight off the bat, tell me why should anyone bother to use analog gear when there is such accessible, user-friendly digital software?

Thanks Nick for the opportunity to discuss this with you and your readers. Let me start by saying that as much as I am a die hard for analog gear, I am still an advocate and user of software plugins. There's great stuff to be had in both realms.

But "why analog?" ... For me it basically comes down to 2 simple things - sound and functionality.

The first is pretty self explanatory - if I didn't believe that I could end up with a faster and more pleasing result in the analog realm, I wouldn't bother going through the painstaking process of learning the ins and outs of these classic analog designs. It's an immensely time consuming process to build gear from scratch, so you really have to believe that you will get a better outcome going down that path.

The second thing - functionality / workflow I think it is also pretty important. I personally find it a lot more intuitive, and a lot less time consuming to dial in a piece of outboard gear. I find that in the digital realm some of the parameters can be harder to dial in. This is more apparent in software plugins that aim to emulate a piece of hardware that you know intimately. 

For example, I play with a lot of digital amp modellers. A lot of them sound fairly convincing but it takes me a long time to dial in a sound I like, and often I'll end up with bizarre settings that I would never use in the hardware realm. Since time is money, the last thing I feel like doing is tweaking settings forever.

In the digital realm - the plugins I enjoy the most are the kind that don't try to emulate anything. These are essentially pieces of gear in their own right - stuff from fabfilter, sound toys etc.

The Same set's of parameters, settings, and the signal passing through. What is the notable difference between digital and analogue equalisers and compressors? If any?

I think some of what I mentioned previously covers this topic. I find that real hardware gear doesn't always translate that well in certain software emulations. This is most obvious when comparing settings between a software and hardware unit. You'll be hard pressed to find that both sound the same, often they will sound completely different and you will have to experiment with the software recreation a lot more to end up with a similar result.

Some hardware lends itself better to analog modelling than others. I think transformer less, solid state designs translate better than something like a pultec or a Fairchild etc. Outboard gear has a lot of non linear behaviour that is hard to emulate. 

On the flip side I think there are some jobs that are better suited to ITB application using plugins. For example - I find it difficult to do the surgical kind of EQ cutting that I do In FabFilter Q2 on a piece of outboard gear.

A lot of people talk about the ("colour") or "character" analog units add to a workflow, These seem like very ambiguous terms. Could you expand a little?  

These are all the difficult to quantify properties that we love in analog gear. What's often going on here is some saturation, harmonic distortion, and other non linear behaviour that add to the perceived, and often real mojo. The sound of some hardware being pushed to its limit is very difficult to emulate in the analog realm. It doesn't take long to end up in digital clipping hell.

Like anything, there's a degree of cork sniffing. I've seen terms like "analog saturation" in marketing paraphernalia more times than I've had hot dinners. There's always  purists out there who turn their nose up at solid state, IC based gear - claiming that only a discrete signal path can take you to sonic nirvana. The truth is, good gear is good gear, regardless of what's going on under the hood. 

These days, a lot us are working in hybrid hardware/software setups, some are even now strictly running ITB. I think analog gear does a lot for spicing up otherwise dry and sterile mixes that have been done solely ITB. For example a good analog mix bus compressor like the SSL bus compressor can really add some weight and girth to such a mix. It makes things sound less like a bunch of 1's and 0's.

Nicholas Di Lorenzo