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Analogue or digital? Balancing hybrid production with workflow.

The secret behind all your favourite songs is well-designed music production workflow, the combination of analogue equipment with digital recording software, according to AMS Neve Product Specialist Joe Heaton. Highly experienced audio engineer Joe has spent decades delicately balancing audio and digital elements, creating music that is accessible while still having heart or soul. He gives us his insights.

 Managing analogue and digital aspects during the production process can be tricky, so a well-designed hybrid workflow is vital to creating music with unique sound. 

All producers need to decide how they want their final tracks to sound, and there are a multitude of steps that can be taken during the recording process to influence the audio. One of the most important considerations for any producer is how they are going to manage their recording workflow, through careful choice of analogue and digital hardware. 

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All acoustic instruments, including vocals, must be captured with an array of microphones – the microphone itself is the first piece of analogue gear in the recording chain. For years microphones have used purely analogue circuitry, but increasingly digital signal processing (DSP) is finding its way into modern studio gear, including microphones that use modelling algorithms and filtering. 

Utilising DSP at this first stage is becoming increasingly common, but many have not warmed to this process and still prefer to use high quality purely analogue microphones, leaving DSP to the software at the digital audio workstation (DAW) mixing stage. 

The microphone signals are then converted into digital files via an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC), which is then mixed on a computer before being mastered. 

A key piece of studio equipment is the ADC, the crucial first step into transferring an analogue signal into digital. 

DAWs are powerful programmes used for producing songs, but many feel digital sound is lacking life when compared to analogue. They are the most common way of recording audio nowadays, having replaced tape machines that were ubiquitous to the recording process for many years. The DAW has effectively replaced not only the functionality of a tape machine, but also most of the entire production chain – including analogue consoles and processors such as EQs and compressors. 

The standard modern recording workflow is transferring sound from the source – an instrument or a voice – using a microphone, passing it through a preamp, into a console, before being run through an ADC and processed in the DAW to create the final stereo master track. 

In a traditional, analogue recording setup, the finished track is printed to vinyl, and all the mixing is done through 24-track tape machines and analogue consoles, but nowadays, this method is seen as more expensive and harder to achieve due to convenience of technology.  Purely analogue recording is not that common, but it is making a resurgence in certain genres, including subgenres of American indie music, because it is a lot more expensive and time consuming. All sound preference is subjective, but modern producers say that using analogue technology brings a warmer and more ‘glued together’ sound than digital-only can offer, which is far more convenient, accessible and quicker. 

At the end of the day, every modern studio has elements of analogue and digital recording equipment, and it’s up to the producer to decide how much of each they want to use in their final recording, and that’s down to personal preference. Even a track that is 90 per cent produced digitally in the DAW can still have the warmth and sound of an analogue recording added at a later stage, and this can be done in several ways. 

Bringing the individual tracks from the DAW, spread out through a summing mixer, or using individual elements of the song in processers, like an EQ or a compressor, can also add analogue sound, which then recorded back into the DAW, forming the Hybrid workflow. Vintage EQs like the 1073 use Class A circuitry, and components such as inductors and chokes, and these old designs, while inefficient by today’s standards, add some ‘magic’ to the sound. 

Reamping through analogue gear is another good way to add warmth to the sound at the mixing stage.  Running individual stems through an analogue preamp, like the Neve 1073OPX, will bring a great transformation and colouration to the song, while still being accessible via a convenient USB output. 

While the first digital recordings were created in 1971, that technology was incredibly expensive and not very common. But during the 80’s, recording shifted from purely analogue to using more and more digital equipment, as technology improved and became more accessible. 

Accessibility is so important, so digitising tracks via ADCs, create files that are highly portable – even if eventually the tracks are run through an analogue summing mixer or console, via a digital-to-audio converter (DAC), to finalise the mix. 

Digital sound can be worked on from almost anywhere in the world, so producers are no longer limited to having to be in the same studio as the recording artist, though obviously that does have some benefits. But digital sound is also devoid of weight, depth, colour and warmth, all adjectives commonly associated with analogue audio. And so, while there is a heavy reliance on digital processing, almost all recording chains are a hybrid mix of analogue and digital, whether it’s a tiny set up at home or a full service professional studio. 

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Producers are always looking to add the gravity, depth and colour of analogue into an otherwise purely digital process, and preamps like the 1073OPX are great for that, because they add desirable analogue weight without the undesirable aspects of being limited technologically. 

One of the main benefits of using modern hybrid gear is having digital control over analogue circuitry. This provides a ‘best of both worlds’ situation, where sound quality remains pure and uncompromised, but has all the benefits of a fast DAW-based workflow.  Selecting digital and analogue elements for a hybrid recording and mixing setup is also genre dependent. Classical recordists want the best, clear sound possible, so will often use less analogue processing, particularly at the tracking stage, opting for premium microphone choice and positioning.   

When digital technology came out, for a few years some completely eschewed analogue recording gear, but over time there has been a resurgence of hybrid mixing.  It’s easier, cheaper and more accessible than purely analogue recording, but even with a hybrid system, tracking through a high-quality analogue preamp into the DAW often adds the desirable weight that a traditional analogue workflow provides. 

Producers need to decide when they want to convert the sound from analogue to digital in the recording chain. This is often done straight after the preamp stage. 

However, many modern producers ‘commit to tape’ by tracking through outboard EQ’s and compressors, this method cements the analogue sound directly into the DAW, often making mix decisions easier and providing a glue that is difficult to achieve via software plugins alone.  Once digitised, tracks can then be mixed in the DAW, or tracks can be ‘summed out’ through an analogue console or through a summing mixer, such as the Neve 8816.  

Analogue summing is another leap forward in modern hybrid workflows, separating individual DAW tracks through DACs and back into analogue circuitry provides a realistic sound stage with depth that in my opinion cannot be achieved in the DAW.   Summing mixers are a great addition to a home studio. While the easiest and cheapest way to get a deeper, richer sound is to use an analogue preamp at the tracking stage, adding a summing mixer to impart analogue character at the mixing stage, is a significantly cheaper option than employing than mixing desks or consoles and they keep the signal flow as good as it can be. 

Ultimately, even with an involved hybrid workflow, that utilises high end analogue preamps, outboard gear and analogue summing, the final master must be re-digitized via ADCs before mastering. 

Everybody knows about the ‘Neve Sound’ – that famed gravity and colour that tracks produced on our equipment possess. While there will always still be a place for professional studios, people can now produce a premium sound at home by using the right preamps, including the plug-and-play USB-powered 88M. 

Personal experience is everything, and while I have been recording music at home for years, it was only when I started at Neve that I realised that no Pro Tools plugins would be able to bring to life the sound and tone I had in my head. Mid-level users, like I class myself, sit somewhere between a keen hobbyist and a professional, and tend to not have access to the most high end equipment, but want the music they make to sound as good as possible. 

Hybrid workflow is key to this, and using an analogue preamp, as well as potentially using an analogue summing mixer, and several key pieces of analogue outboard gear creates better sounding music than a purely digital recording process. 

I had been recording at home for years, but using a purely digital process left my tracks cold and lifeless.  Even though I had good instruments, and a top DAW, the tracks I was producing at home sounded nothing like music recorded in a professional studio.  There was always a bit missing that plugins couldn’t fix, and I couldn’t put my finger on how to get what I wanted. 

But when I ran a couple of my tracks through an analogue summing mixer, they suddenly had the warmth and weight that I had been searching for years to find, and now I recommend everyone interested in music recording goes down the hybrid workflow path. 

Gear is so important, because that’s how the pleasing qualities we expect all music to have comes to life, but not every element needs to be analogue.  Hybrid workflow brings the sound and tone you have had in your head to life, without the inconvenience of working with tapes and vinyl.