Analog in 2021

Does it make sense to seek out analog or “vintage” recording gear in 2021? Does it sound better? It is worth owning? What’s the point these days? Here are some thoughts on analog in an increasingly digital world.

To start, there are many drawbacks to the oldest and most prestigious “Vintage” recording equipment – the expense, reliability, maintenance, etc. – but the real-deal stuff that’s been used in studios since the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s really does sound great. There’s a reason it’s been in continuous use.

And while this magical gear does exist, there’s also plenty of old gear that sounds, boring. Equipment was routinely modified in busy studios, for functionality or tone, and two identical-looking devices may have very different circuits.

An original Neve 1081, recapped and serviced many times over the years.

The good stuff was generally well designed though. Even by today’s standards, a 1970’s preamp can sound not just good, but high fidelity. On the other hand, modern reproductions of the classics (like the million Neve clones), don’t always manage to recreate that magic. Once little changes to the circuit are made and pennies are pinched on parts, subjective audio quality aside, a bad reproduction can have more noise and hiss than a 50 year old original.

Going digital, we now have access to multiple copies of the best analog gear. Software companies stepped in to bring these audio tools to the masses, trying to capture the sound of prized vintage equipment in a different way. And plugins sound great now!

I use the Soundtoys “Devil-Loc” plugin on virtually every mix, but even with all my tech experience, I’ve never laid hands on an original Shure Level-Loc (the hardware that inspired the software).

Analog Hardware: Shure Level-Loc (audiofanzine)
Software Reproduction: Soundtoys Devil-Loc (Soundtoys)

With so many high quality plugins on the market, a lot of pro audio chatter has shifted from, “does this plugin sound good?” To, “which one of these plugins is best?” There are options.

So, why go analog? In a technical sense, you don’t have a choice. Processing on the way in and out of your computer will always be analog. Even “digital” mics with a USB connection are analog, they just have a built-in digital convertor. If you want to record, you can’t escape analog electronics.

That said, nearly all of the good old analog stuff has been identified and snatched up. There are still deals to be had, but the hidden treasures are long gone. Buying equipment labeled “Vintage” should be thought of as an investment.

Summit TLA-100A, all fixed up.

Analog consoles and tape machines tend to stay popular though, cause they’re fun! Tape imposes creative limitations, the mechanical interaction is exciting, and they do have a “sound.” However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that anything with spinning reels will deliver some holy-grail tape sound.

A lot of mass-marketed analog gear from the 80s and 90s is still floating around, but most of it is nothing special. Tape machines made by Fostex, Tascam, Teac, etc. can sound decent when properly used, or be distorted for cool tones, but these days they should really be considered “lo-fi.” The same goes for mixers, there’s a lot of garbage out there. Do some research and expect to pay for the good stuff.

My advice is to invest in whatever will make your creative process easier. A control surface can help you program a beat, an analog console makes sense if you record lots of inputs at once, etc. – seek out a workflow that works for you. I still like to work with faders and knobs, even with lots of plugins.