Why analogue recording should come back, but not in the way you knew it

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Record-Producer.com.

Wednesday December 16, 2020

What's wrong with digital audio?

Nothing. It's perfect. Well, there are maybe a few small issues, but we'll live with them to be free from the noise, distortion, and frequency response issues of analogue tape.

But there's a big issue as well...


Latency is a problem. Granted, with faster computers and interfaces it isn't as big a problem as it was in the past. But it is most definitely an irritation.

For example, try recording with a conventional audio interface (one without DSP). Set your computer to a buffer of 32 samples.

Great! You can hardly hear any latency at all.

Record a few tracks. Add a few plug-ins.

Oh dear. Your computer can't cope. It splutters out an error message telling you, "It's just too difficult and I can't go on" or words to that effect.

So you increase the buffer to 64 samples. You record a few more tracks, add a few more plug-ins.

Next thing you know, you're up to 128 samples in the buffer. And now you can definitely hear the latency. And has your computer stopped complaining? Probably not.

There are some 'solutions' to latency. One is zero-latency monitoring in the audio interface. But then your performers can't have EQ, compression, and that all-important reverb that makes them sound nice to themselves and helps them perform well.

Or you can take a step up the audio interface ladder and grab one that has internal DSP processing. You can give the performer the enhancements they need in their headphones. But now you have yet one more thing to manage, taking your attention away from the music and the performance.

And - What you hear is different to what the performer hears.

That is simply not the correct way to engineer a session. You need at all times to be able to pick up a pair of headphones that has exactly the same foldback signal that the performer hears. However else are you going to be able to adjust the foldback to their needs?

In a recent post, I talked about Avid's Pro Tools | Carbon audio interface which a) has DSP, b) makes DSP monitoring easy, and c) lets the engineer hear what the performer hears.

But it only works with Avid's AAX plug-ins and there's no software instrument support.

Back to analogue then

There's only one thing for it. Go back to analogue where there's no latency at all. None.

But what I'm thinking isn't analogue as we remember it.

Here's my idea...

What if there were such a thing as an analogue recorder with very low noise, very low distortion, and a ruler-flat frequency response?

It isn't going to be old-school tape. It's more likely to be something along the lines of FM recording on an optical medium.

The precise nature of this medium isn't important as long as it performs well, and I believe that in the third decade of the twenty-first century, it would absolutely be possible to make analogue audio sound as good as digital.

Now what is important is how this analogue medium is used...

Imagine your singer, in the studio, with an analogue microphone, an analogue preamp, analogue EQ, analogue compression, analogue reverb. OK maybe not analogue reverb, but with digital reverb it doesn't matter if there are a few milliseconds of delay.

And all of this is recorded to an analogue medium. I'd record the dry signal to one track, the effects and processes each to separate tracks. All in analogue.

Your singer needs something to sing to, and this can come from your DAW.

The idea is that all of the original recording is done with zero latency, and all of the flexibility that no-latency analogue audio always had.

And when you have recorded a sufficient number of takes and your singer is ready for a break, bounce the analogue tracks to your DAW.

At this point, latency doesn't matter.

Flight of fancy?

Is this just a flight of fancy? Is any of this possible? Can it be made simple to operate? Is it even desirable?

Well, I don't care how it is achieved, but we have put up with latency for long enough. I feel that the day must and will surely come when we drive the final nail into its coffin.

I don't see how this can ever be done purely digitally. But with analogue assistance - it could be in a different way to what I described - perhaps we really could have the best of both worlds.

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