Premier Guitar

Sounding Analog in a Digital World

April 21, 2009
How’s everybody doing? For this month’s topic I want to continue on the subject of recording. Since there are two distinctly different media for recording—analog, or tape-based recorders, and digital recording systems, such as Pro Tools, Samplitude, Ableton Live—I thought it would be a good idea to look at what you can do to make digital media, such as Pro Tools tracks, sound more like analog tape recordings.

This time we’ll have a peek at a very flexible software package that does a fantastic job of emulating a large variety of vintage analog hardware components like compressors, limiters and EQs—not to mention the various types of vintage analog multi-track decks like those made by Ampex, Studer, Otari and MCI (just to name a few). Those last four names were key to producing many of the guitar tones you’ve heard on many of your favorite records and CDs. The software I’m referring to here is called Analog Channel, which is part of the Classic Pack bundle created by McDowell Signal Processing (McDSP) of Mountain View, CA.

When using Analog Channel, you don’t have to worry about the inherent problems of recording to tape-based systems, such as excess tape hiss, hum or mechanical wow and flutter. You can align your virtual tape machine’s frequency response and dynamic range to your heart’s content, as well as create all sorts of different and ingenious sounds. Have you ever listened to any of those old AC/DC albums and asked yourself how they got those big, fat-sounding drums? Was this by sheer accident, or was this the work of a very clever engineer who knew just how to align the tape machine’s “head bump” to add a predetermined effect to the drum’s sound when the recorded signals hit the tape? Analog Channel has a separate “head bump” control, too. Interestingly, this type of control does not exist on any tape recorder; traditionally, the tape operator did this manually. The software allows you to perform the same operation by turning a single knob. This particular plug-in has a ton of clever functions that will add immensely to your musical creations.

While we’re at it, it’s worth mentioning that McDSP also makes entire suites of tools (in various available bundles) for compression, limiting, mastering, equalization and sound-processing tasks. For compression, limiting and EQ, the brand new Retro Pack bundle is a wonderfully easy way to add some more analog magic into your Pro Tools sessions. You can make modern sounds with it, too, since the design is original and not just modeled after older, vintage gear. For final mastering needs, you might check into the ML4000 plug-in. This is the perfect way to add some polish and shine to your mixes. The ML4000 has all kinds of useful expanders, gates and compression algorithms for you to tweak with and can be very transparent.

For those of you who love the sound of all things lo-fi, the way-cool FutzBox plugin is just the ticket for manipulating your tones in interesting and twisted ways. The FutzBox gives you the stuff that might turn your musical ideas into the next cool trend. On the flip side, they offer a couple of other handy plug-ins that do an amazing job with all the numerous sonic artifacts that you don’t want to hear. Their NF575 Noise Filter and DE555 De-esser plug-ins are great at ridding your tracks of vocal sibilants and other noise issues that can create problems in your recordings.

Recording music can be very rewarding, because it teaches you at ground level what makes any recorded tone sound bad or good, great or phenomenal. You need some basic ingredients to start you on this journey, and there are a lot of options out there. The last time I looked, I had quite a few plug-ins installed in my computer, but the ones I find myself using all the time now are those I mentioned here from McDSP.

Another issue that happens all too often when using a Pro Tools rig (particularly the smaller LE versions) is that some software plug-ins tax your computer’s processing ability quite heavily. I have found the McDSP plug-ins to be much more CPU-friendly than many other competing plug-ins. You can always benefit from a great reverb program, but so many of the commonly used echo and reverb plug-ins can eat your computer’s processing power alive. Finding tools that are less resourcehungry (as well as great sounding) makes any recording package run cleaner and more trouble-free.

Well, there you have it: a few good ways to make your digitally produced music sound more analog and vintage than ever before. My money has been well spent in the digital recording realm, and I’m getting really great results with the sounds I hear coming from my Mac. If you want to check out what else McDSP has to offer, visit their website at: mcdsp.com.

Happy recording, and we’ll see you next time.


Dean Farley is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.