Once upon a time, there was 16-bit resolution, then 24-bit. Now, the world is tempted with 32-bit floating-point resolution. People once marveled at 44.1kHz CDs and DAT mastering at 48 kHz — then came 96kHz DVDs and now 192kHz conversion. Where will it end? It likely won't; that's the story with digital technomancy. With increasing bit depths and rapid-rising sample rates comes a definite improvement in audio fidelity, yet despite excessive manufacturing costs, the bulkiness of shipping and the gaping hole in major-record-store marketability, many underground audiophile artists still press vinyl. Why does this fetish with analog exist in the days of ultrapristine digital audio? At the core is the fabled “fatness” of analog, and in many cases, the digital laments are true. So the question becomes, how can you warm up your cold-as-steel digital recordings? Is going analog all the way the only solution?
One of the simplest ways to add boldness and life to your binary inventions is to individually compress tracks before mixdown. Compressors vary widely in scope and quality, but analog or digital, outboard or plug-in, they can all do the trick. If you have access to a few, try them all. I have personally found that multiband compressors bring out the best in most scenarios, and plenty of good ones are out there, especially in the software realm. Many of the big-name digital audio workstations have multiband compressors built in. Compressing only the bottom end of a given track, for example, can really fatten things up, especially when the bandwidths can be adjusted with Q or up/down controls. Obvious candidates for this are bass and kick drums. Compressing a wide midrange on guitars can often do justice; trial and error are the only guidelines. Besides compression, another simple thing to try if you are recording outboard digital gear is to use analog I/O instead of digital if you have a choice.
If you're a stalwart who insists on staying in the digital domain, try an experiment: After recording a digital synth line, for example, try looping the prerecorded track out of your soundcard and back into the computer through analog cables only. You will have the original digital version intact to compare with the one that has been piped through actual copper. I'll bet there's a difference. There is something about taking ones and zeros and turning them into energy waves that, in my experience, fills them out just a touch.
RUN THE VACUUM
Going totally analog is not the only way to warm things up; nonetheless, one of the undisputed champions of fatness that all producers should consider investing in are some vacuum tubes. You strictly cyberpunks out there read that right: tubes, like in your older sib's Marshall stack.
For the fledgling personal studio, one tube-driven unit — such as a channel strip, a preamp or a compressor — can go a long way toward achieving a much bigger sound. And if you are recording voice or acoustic instruments, consider purchasing a decent tube condenser microphone. Of course, if money were no object, everyone would own as many pieces of gear as they desired, but overall value is exactly why I suggest getting a channel strip. It generally encompasses microphone or instrument preamps, compression, often some sort of equalizer and sometimes even digital I/O. Tube compression can be mild yet profoundly musical. Vacuum tubes can add harmonics and subtle distortion in a way that solid-state or digital compressors simply cannot. A more cost-effective alternative is to use tube-emulation software. Many varieties are out there, and several are surprisingly quite nice-sounding. I balk at saying that they actually replace real analog gear; however, they can come pretty close. Some things, though, really are often emulated but never duplicated.
KILL THE NOISE
Another type of analog surgery is to take final mixes and drop them to tape and back. Reel-to-reel is certainly the best approach, as, generally, the wider the tape, the better the fidelity and saturation. Plenty of good, cheap used ones are available if you look. Even a cassette recorder can do the trick. In fact, you can just use a tape deck as a signal processor, stopping short of actually tape-recording. Try sending a mix through a deck that is in record-pause mode and straight back out. By just passing the signal through the magnetic heads, you get a slice of that analog flavor minus some tape hiss. An important note regarding cassette recordings is to use only brand-new, high-bias (preferably metal) tapes. And make sure the recording heads are good; clean; and, optimally, demagnetized. Most music-gear shops sell cleaning/demagnetizing kits. I stress these two things because they can make all the difference in keeping the noise floor low. I quickly learned the importance of this through countless hours spent painstakingly overdubbing DJ-mixed tapes.
The road to warm, full recordings can weave in many different directions, and if some of these tips seem a bit unusual nowadays, they are merely a primer and impetus to get you thinking and, hopefully, experimenting. Whether you buy that sparkling new, pricey tube compressor or just go to the local pawn shop and snap up that crusty reel that has collected dust in the window for too long, you may be surprised at what you can discover with some elbow grease and trial and error. And no matter how traditional or unorthodox, remember that it's the end result — not necessarily the means — that counts.