Evaluating the virtues of virtual equipment

Michael Begg asks whether the industry is sending out the right messages when it comes to analogue emulations.

Given that the word is so common in our professional vocabulary, the word “virtual” tends, nevertheless, to make me uneasy.

I do not have any fundamental problem with the industry that has grown around emulating classic analogue technologies. There is something invigorating about the very suggestion that one could persuasively mimic a cupboard full of classic mics, saturate the signal with the illusion of tape, embed the mix in an emulation of a classic studio room, before bouncing the file to a VST arsenal of mastering tools, faithful in every respect to the original, excepting the smell… and the fact that the interface has shrunk from a 19” rackmount to a 4” long skeuomorphic illustration against which you rub your mouse and imagine you’re turning a pot. But, hey, it’s a pot with no crackle, and you didn’t have to wait for anything to heat up, or rummage for the right lead – the one that hasn’t been crying out for a soldering iron for months. After all that, if you’re still so inclined, you can add the crackle of vinyl to your pristine digital file – because you’ll bend over backwards to simulate authenticity.

So no, I have no real issue with the technology, really, but I do think there is a discussion to be had. Much development, arguably, favours emulation over innovation, and draws attention to the capacity for mimicry rather than original contribution and advancement. Further, I am beginning to suspect that there is the real possibility of it impacting on the creative mindset of progressive generations of recording creatives and technicians.

Of the spectrum of individuals who make use of analogue emulations and self-styled virtual studio software, I suspect that only a fraction of them will ever have been exposed to the hardware original. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, and backed up with an ongoing critical dialogue that infers adherence to the source, it is reasonable to conclude that we’ll largely buy in to the narrative and gauge our relationship to the software in terms of its fidelity to an unattainable original, rather than take it on its own terms and bend it to do our bidding.

I fear that we’ll progressively fall into making AB comparisons between emulations, lending a further obscuring veil of faux authenticity to the rigour of our critical appraisal.

Who really gains from it?

One of the great claims behind virtual technology is that it democratises the world of audio production and allows small studios and individual freelancers to play with an approximation of high-end kit only available to the mature professional studio elite. I can’t help but speculate that the ones who actually benefit most from virtual emulations – particularly with regards to microphones and room/space profiles – are the high-end professionals who inhabit these elite spaces. They have the originals to hand, they have the experience, and, critically, they know when time and cost efficiency will be best served by a broad stroke implementation of fast turnaround virtual models.

Before moving on from this aspect of the discussion I would ask – how much more inspiring to the experimental and hungry young producer/engineer would it be to be served this astonishing array of equipment sold on the merits of what it is technically capable of doing/providing, rather than pre-emptively focusing engagement on the fidelity to classic equipment? It would be so much more creatively empowering to be sold on ?what software can do rather than what it can impersonate.

This, for me, is the crux of the issue. The technology is often brilliant, but it frames the users’ engagement in terms of emulation rather than innovation. A generation of engineers and producers whose youthful sense of innovation – making do, working around problems, focusing on the limitations of their space and equipment and pushing against those margins – are being encouraged not to invent, but to ape.

Missing the point

No piece of equipment stands up on its own. Whether we are aware of it or not, we engage in a narrative in each stage of the recording process, and beyond the hardware and software there is the reverberant space, there is the character of tone afforded by individual tools and toys, there are all the flaws, faults and foibles of our own signal chains, mis-plugged errors and serendipitous accidents of tone and timbre. There are the subtle mechanisms by which we navigate limitations of CPU power and available RAM. Each small event in the narrative nudges the creative journey because we are tuned to brush back these challenges and chase some goal that we won’t recognise until we hear it. How much more difficult is it to chase that ineffable plateau when we are – whether it be consciously or unconsciously – listening out primarily for a tenuous fidelity to an analogue original of which we may likely have no first hand experience?

I am aware – increasingly so as I write this and consider the extent to which my own studio is dependant upon various flavours of virtual resources – that it may well be possible for me to write a piece of similar length from the opposite position and find favour with the increased profile of virtuality in the recording craft. Such is the nature of proposing alternate,virtuous realities.

I also think that a lot more space could be usefully used to address the grey areas bordering analogue emulation, virtual modular set ups, and sample libraries. But for now I will conclude with the observations of an elderly nuclear physicist. He was asked whether he envied the younger generation of physicists’ access to powerful technology and the ability to execute all of their work within the safe simulacrum of computer modelling environments. Not at all, he said. Today’s researchers never get to walk out into the desert and stand in the crater. That was life changing, and it can’t be modelled. Nor is it something that can be passed from one generation to another. That connection will, in time, be entirely lost.

So, maybe the message, if there is one, is this: Go to work. Make a noise. And never forget to stand in the crater.

Michael Begg is a freelance composer, producer and sound designer based in East Lothian, Scotland. He also records and performs with the cult ensemble, Fovea Hex, and writes articles about sound, music and theatre.
Twitter: @michaelbegg