Are Digital Recordings Too Clean and Clinical?

Lately, the legendary Jeff Beck has been on the television bemoaning the clean and clinical sound of modern recordings.  It was also the subject of a forum debate on KVRaudio.com in the past couple of days.  This subject comes around frequently.  Jeff Beck wasn’t the first to voice the complaint and he won’t be the last.  But is he right?

I think he is only partly right.  If your producer falls into the trap of letting the technology guide and constrain the artistic decisions, then maybe so.  However, I would argue that modern digital recording technology gives the producer unprecedented choice to use as little or as much noise and saturation as he or she likes.  And you have unprecedented, fine-grained control over it.  Not so with analogue recording.

Most people never recorded with analogue equipment or forgot how frustrating it was.  You could never get rid of the noise, especially when you really wanted to.  If you messed up a take, there was no digital editing or non-destructive undo.  You had to start over.  Pitch correction was in the far future and timing had to be achieved through painstaking rehearsal and good luck with the take you captured.

Singles often involved using long tape loops running around the studio on mic stands and whatever jury rigged gear that would do the job.  Tapes drifted and tape decks went out of alignment.  You had to use the edge tracks on the tape for bass-heavy things like the bass guitar or kick drum, because high frequencies couldn’t be reliably recorded on the edge of the tape.  Tracks bled into each other and you had to worry about how you stored the tape in the box, due to magnetic print through.

On every analogue desk and patch bay, no matter how expensive and well-maintained, every recording engineer knew that some channels were sweet and some unusable.  Recording with analogue gear was kind of awful and frequently got in the way of making music.

That’s not to say that digital recording doesn’t come with its own inconveniences, frustrations and limitations.  Of course it does, but if your goal is to recreate the sound of the seventies, eighties or nineties, you can do it.  Painters know that the invention of new paints and pigments doesn’t mean that you can’t paint like the old masters.  You can.  You just have to use the materials judiciously.

So here’s how to get an analogue sound:

  1. Add some hiss.  Not too much.  But a little.
  2. Use tape saturation emulators.  Again, a little goes a long way.
  3. Use less limiting and compression and use slower attack and decay responses.  The new Valley People Dynamite emulator that was recently released is a good tool.
  4. Turn off the convolution reverb and go back to algorithmic reverbs.  Choose plates and small halls.  The biggest, most expensive reverbs back in the 1980s were not very good, in reality.  The Quantec room simulator and the AMS RMX-16 were pretty limited compared to the soft reverbs we use today.  People tended to mix pretty wet back then, as well, but to record parts in very dry rooms.  Record dry, mix wet.  More is more, in this case.
  5. Don’t use sequencers as much (or keep it really simple) and don’t use any small, short audio loops.  Forget samples that exceed 16KB!  If you loop at all, make it a long loop of 8 or 16 bars in length (or a full verse or chorus!)
  6. Weed out instruments that didn’t exist in that era.  You have to put your Alchemy and Zebra synths away.  No Absynth.  Put a mic (usually a Shure SM-57) in front of a valve amp, in preference to using an amp simulator.  Record bass guitar using direct injection to the desk.  No amp.  Positively, definitely no autotune!.
  7. If you must use samples, use the Emu library or the old Fairlight Series II samples (both available as software emulations).
  8. Simulate track bleed.  Mix some stuff from one track faintly into another and then process it through the EQ and reverb settings of the target track.  You can also simulate tape print through by adding a long, faint delay to the final mix.  That simulates a tape that was left “tail out”, as per best studio practice.  Leaving a tape on the shelf “tail in” usually resulted in a pre-delay effect, where the faint delayed version was audible before the desired programme material.  That was generally thought to be objectionable.  It was often reasonable grounds for firing the tape op!
  9. EQ to ensure that you don’t get much programme above 15kHz,  We really didn’t have much above 15kHz in the typical analogue studio.  It was rolled off by the limitations of the desks and tape decks, or through tape to tape generation loss.
  10. Get into the mind set of the era.  Try to think like a producer from those times.  Pretend some of the stuff you have in your digital studio doesn’t exist at all and think about how to solve sonic problems using more primitive means.

In the modern digital recording environment, it’s all too easy to do what we always do because we can.  We keep lots of digital silence between notes.  We use pristine convolution reverbs to recreate the finest concert hall acoustics in Vienna, we think nothing of using five bands of parametric EQ on every track and of using loudness war limiting to push the mastered track up in the volume stakes.

If we impose no creative limitations on ourselves, we’ll always get the sort of results that the technology is capable of producing by default and maybe that isn’t how we want our work to sound.  That is no more than handing creative control over our work to the software engineers that made the tools.  Just as a painter must think before he paints, so too must the record producer before he produces.

Happy nostalgic production, everybody!

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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3 Responses to Are Digital Recordings Too Clean and Clinical?

  1. I simply wished the remixing of insipid songs without any real emotional expression the media try to impose us all day long would be recognized as products promoting a fake sensation. It sounds all the same, all for the show, nothing for the heart or the brain.

    I see another problem, in future generations used to a certain panel of frequencies unable to understand “undertones” in communication. That could affect our understanding of each other and situations drastically and lead to a dangerous “normative” handling human issues out of an sensorial non awareness.

  2. As pitch perfect pair of ears with a human attached to them, I truly suffer to tears sometimes in a society over glazed with an omnipresent marketing fitting “canned sound”. That is one of the reason why I live at a place, where it is possible, beside few annoying noises from the mostly half deaf peasants, to listen to different nature sounds up to several layers of peaceful silences.

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