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Justin Grealy: Analogue and digital systems in audio

Daniel Gumble
Justin Grealy: Analogue and digital systems in audio

Revered FOH engineer and Audio Pro International columnist Justin Grealy takes an insightful look at the analogue vs digital debate and its impact on the world of pro audio with his new article 'Analogue and Digital Systems in Audio'.

The great analogue versus digital argument can be heard at any event that requires more than one sound engineer and any kind of mixing console. Although there are some of our number (myself included) that can have a pretty good argument alone, if two sound engineers are talking shop then the various merits of analogue voltage change over streams of ones and zeros will certainly be debated, often at length and usually with no satisfactory conclusion. I’m not going to trot out all the usual arguments, as many of you will be familiar with the principles and the hardware already. If you want to know which bit of kit sounds better, your best bet is to listen to it, I reckon. Obviously there are factors other than audio quality that determine the type or brand of gear to be purchased - hence the ubiquity of LS9s - but it is my intention here to restrict myself to technical merit.

It seems to me that the digital revolution is, historically speaking, still in its infancy. It is my intention to compare its evolution with the early days of audio and audio engineering. If we consider the origins of the loudspeaker or the audio recording device for example, it is clear that development of the technology in the early 20th century was driven by theoreticians with little agenda other that the advancement of science. In the early days of recording, results were often achieved by experimenting with an often cavalier disregard for functionality, and much of this experimenting involved ‘creative’ use or abuse of the available equipment. For example, Les Paul’s early attempts at multitrack and multispeed recording are remarkable, considering the crude equipment used. Had it not been for the early ‘commercial’ valve amplifiers’ tendency to distort harmonically, we’d have no Jimi Hendrix. Had the recording equipment in Jamaica or Detriot in the 60’s not been thoroughly abused at every level, would we have those great sounding Soul or Reggae recordings?

The argument I’m trying to present here is a contextual one. If you view the whole history of the development of music technology alongside the history of music itself, it is clear that the evolution of analogue technology was an empowering factor. Of course digital technology also empowers us, but in a subtly different way. Most digital audio platforms offer us solutions or alternatives to analogue problems, rather than genuinely new and interesting techniques. So powerful are these solutions, however, that they are rapidly superseding their analogue predecessors.  I completely agree that having a massive sample library at one’s fingertips is a great advantage for a band or producer, but that is the medium rather that the kit.

Right from the first moment a razor blade was taken to a strip of recording tape the same argument has been used by the ‘musical purists’ amongst us. Fundamentally, comparing analogue to digital is an apples/pears comparison. They are both useful tools to any sound or visual engineer, but I do feel that our headlong rush towards totally digital music (re)production  is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If one is to record or mix analogue music, why not use analogue tools? I don’t just mean microphones and loudspeakers, but instead of using a digital tape saturation modeller or a vintage amp plug in, why not use the real thing. While you still can, but be quick now….

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I am well aware that this argument is fatuous at best, considering the financial, ergonomic and logistical arguments, none of which I have considered here, but what I’m getting at is that there is still a place for analogue in all aspects of the current audio industry, and unlike the synthesizer revolution of the 80’s, let’s not be too hasty to throw out the Hammond and buy a DX7, you’ll only regret it.

Just a quick post-script from my own small live sound viewpoint. I’d like to have the choice of consoles to mix a show on. If I don’t need the facilities offered by a digital console, snapshots, scenes, transferable memory, plug-ins, etc., then why not have an analogue desk and a pile of outboard. Yes I know it is more money/grief/ weight/work, but since when has that stopped us striving for excellence in the world of audio? I really do enjoy mixing without constant “look at screen page / click/ look at surface/ click / do action / click / escape / click / look at stage…..”

Tags: digital, yamaha ls9, analogue, Justin Grealy, soul, reggae

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