Analogue gear is fighting off the digital revolution in music recording.
Of all the audio-visual art forms, it is arguably music that holds most dearly to the past. Despite the prevalence of digital in all aspects of our lives, in virtually all professional music recording studios – and plenty of semi-pro and amateur project studios – racks of analogue audio gear with their brightly lit mechanical meters remain firmly in place and are even gaining ground on their computerised counterparts.
Often cryptically referred to by model number alone – 1073, 1176, 670 – so ingrained have these standards from the likes of Neve, Universal Audio (UA) and Fairchild, respectively, become that their sound has been used to record hundreds of thousands of hit records across the decades. Their design continues to inspire manufacturers today. So what is it about them that has captivated people for decades?
The answer is simple: audio engineers often prefer their sound to digital units. UA product manager Will Shanks says: "Certain pieces of analogue gear are deemed to be classics because of the unique tone and reliability. A lot of the classics have endured because they're already in our ear. We're familiar with the sound of analogue classics, whether we know it or not."
Peter Rodriguez, chief engineer at Heritage Audio, highlights a further reason why the classics have endured: "Nowadays it is really easy to design a piece of audio equipment that has a frequency response flat from almost DC and negligible THD [total harmonic distortion]. The 'classics' have some imperfections that add up to the sound, like second harmonic distortion and slower transient response. Both things sound pleasing to our ears."
At Denmark's Tube Tech, famous for its retro-inspired valve-driven range of products, Jesper Bo points to the importance of quality components and construction – something increasingly squeezed out of design and manufacturing today: "Many of the 'classic' outboard units were designed and manufactured to very high standards without the pressure of a marketing department that demanded lower retail prices. These units have been able to stand out for decades and deliver top sound quality."
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Analogue audio equipment designed and built during the 1950s to 1970s golden age typically had a straightforward design edict: use the highest-quality components to construct the most robust and reliable device that delivers the best sonic result. The result of this approach was such imposing devices as the Fairchild 670 'variable mu' dynamic-ratio stereo compressor/limiter, used on almost every Beatles recording, which weighed more than 30kg and used 14 separate transformers and 20 vacuum tubes inside. All that transformer iron and valve warmth is what enables a Fairchild to impart its signature 'golden glow' to any sound passed through it and is why rare vintage examples are likely to set you back upwards of £20,000 – if you can even find one for sale.
Another advantage vintage gear has, and a challenge for today's manufacturers, is that certain components that helped create the classic sound simply aren't available any more. The way transformers were wound, the metals used, the choice of transistors: much of it is no longer available or permissible for use in manufacture. The world's supply has simply been used up or regulated out.
Can modern analogue gear therefore hope to compare and compete? Many of the manufacturers we spoke to are still designing their products for high-end analogue audio use, but find themselves inhibited in their ambition to fully emulate the giants of the past by simple economics. EveAnna Manley, the owner of Manley Laboratories, admits: "Commercially speaking, due to rising materials costs it is very difficult to be able to charge the prices that we should be charging. These days when doing a new product design, we are looking to build to a cost. To achieve that we will shave off features and keep focused on efficiency of the build. Years ago, the final selling price was almost not contemplated during the design process, so our classic gear was designed and built 'cost no object'."
It is clearly a challenge, as Tube Tech's Bo notes, to "maintain a high quality in design and also construct to a high standard". However, the ambition to produce future analogue classics that stand rack-ear-to-rack-ear with vintage legends remains a unifying theme among manufacturers. Much inspiration can still be derived from looking back – as Chandler's owner and chief product designer Wade Goeke puts it, "the past is still the future with audio".
UA's Shanks elaborates: "Vintage gear informs modern design heavily. In pro audio, most modern gear is still somehow referencing the past, though there might be variations or improvements. It's almost the exception to have something entirely new. Our 710 TwinFinity mic preamps are an example of this phenomenon. They are using innovative circuit techniques to blend solid-state and tube topologies, but still rely on tried and true components like vacuum tube amplifiers and FETs [field-effect transistors]."
Manley freely acknowledges her company's debt to the classics: "Starting with the sound, we do not forget the sonic lessons we have learned from vintage gear. We constantly draw inspiration from older gear, studying circuit topologies or researching lost transformer winding techniques."
Does this mean that today's analogue devices are slavish copies or rip-offs of tried and true designs? If it's all been done, is there room for innovation? There are generally three types of approach today, as Warm Audio's Bryce Young explains: "Companies like Heritage and Brent Averill have made it a goal to come as close as they possibly can to the originals. Other companies are proud to try to improve the original designs. Others are proud to get close and will admit to minor differences that may either be intentional or unintentional depending on the component sourcing."
Rodriguez says Heritage Audio sees it as an opportunity to "bring modern features and added flexibility while maintaining the classic sound. Recording workflow has changed a lot since the tape machine days and analogue equipment needs to be integrated into it."
Shanks adds: "The best reissues are ones that modernise an existing classic design. For example, in the case of our LA-610, we expanded the EQ functionality, increased the input gain range and added modern features such as phantom power, phase reverse, cut filter, things like that. But the fundamental sonic character which made the associated circuits famous has remained as faithful as ever."
Whichever the approach, Bo says: "If the high standards of the originals are kept and not degraded at all, clones will be as good as the originals." It is in this regard, that of quality control, that independent designers can successfully continue to fly the analogue flag – and the rewards are tangible. As Chandler's Goeke says: "It's very hard to sell a product that is not at least inspired by something from the past. The new trend seems to be to take one of those products and make it in China with the cheapest possible everything. Ribbon cables are replacing actual wires, surface mount is replacing full-size through-hole components and all to make things smaller and cheaper. To me those are components designed for cellphones and computers. In the long run I don't think the race to the bottom is going to be successful or productive."
The drive to modernise is leading manufacturers to different form factors. Vintage equipment fits neatly into the 19in racks that adorn traditional studios. The need among recording engineers for greater flexibility and even to go mobile led to the introduction of the 500 series 'lunchbox' format. This was originally created by API as a way for people to combine its mic preamps, EQs and compressor modules in a portable rack that could be used independently of a full mixing console where they would normally be found. The idea has proved popular with end users, Shanks says: "500 series modules are definitely a hot thing right now and a lot of its popularity comes from how affordable and expandable the platform is."
Manufacturers, however, are somewhat ambivalent about the 500 series. Manley explains: "I am not thrilled with the whole 500 Series concept because the power supply situation is a total compromise, especially for us vacuum tube people. Also, the physical space available constrains what one can jam into a 500 slot. I still have better 19in designs to do, which also cost less than the equivalent 500 rack and units would."
Goeke sees both sides of the 500 coin: "I like the 500 format in general, but I don't think it encourages innovation. The small size of the module and low-power rails make the format quite limiting and in my opinion it is nearly impossible to be innovative within that. It's simply a way to hopefully pack many units in a small space for what the consumer hopes is less money."
So if new trends such as the 500 series modules are not the future for analogue audio, what else should be considered? In a modern twist, an increasing blend of old-school analogue with cutting-edge digital appears inevitable. Shanks says: "Companies these days are looking to bridge analogue and digital in a more seamless way."
Manley predicts "the future of analogue equipment [will be] better interfacing with computers via remote control, so that your computer becomes the new GUI for your analogue box. As long as the hardware still sounds better than the virtual model, then we are going to see more of the computer being the controller while the analogue hardware processes the sound".
Although computer control offers the benefit of quick recall for mix settings – a major factor in the adoption of digital mixing systems such as Pro Tools by recording and mixing engineers over the past couple of decades, many of which offer software 'plug-in' replicas of analogue gear – the tactile, physical nature of analogue equipment has long been a key attraction for many users.
Rodriguez says: "No matter how 'digital' we try to turn this world out, it's analogue in the end. Primary sound sources, like a singer, piano or guitar, will always be analogue, as our ears will always be mechanical transducers. The analogue gear acts like an inspiring, creative environment which affects the mood and indeed the final result. Knobs that ask to be grabbed, with a nice feel and inspiring look, it's all part of the creative process. Plug-in makers know this and that's why they make their GUI's so analogue looking."
Analogue-inspired skeuomorphic digital design? It's happening already. The art of analogue audio is neither static, nor rooted in the past. The iconic status of the established studio legends may be assured, but it turns out there's still plenty of room – and customer demand – for future analogue classics. At least until, as Manley laughs, "our ears are no longer analogue".
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