How to make an analog sounding recording digitally

analog recording
photo credit: IMG_4859 via photopin (license)

A lot is written about analog simulators, tape saturation plugins, tube warmer plugins, analog modelling preamps etc….. but I’ve never read anything that talks about the most important thing about analog recording that everyone seemed to forget about…. Editing, or the lack of editing that was so much a part of analog recording of the pre-computer age.

What do I mean? Well in 1985, you couldn’t just play 4 bars of the verse then loop it all of the necessary times to make a complete verse. I’ve been around a while and I started recording in the days of cassette 4 tracks, and when you had to buy a reel of tape before going to the studio. So I thought it’d be a cool idea to put together some steps to make you have a more natural and analog sounding recording by doing all the little things aside from emulators and plugins.

1. Play the parts – Stop programming! Hey, I love MIDI as much as the person, and yes there was MIDI in 1985, but lets face it, it wasn’t nearly as easy as it is now. In order to sequence midi parts, you had to have an external midi sequencer (or a ridiculously expensive Mac Plus) to create MIDI sequences. Not only that, sequencers had limited functions, could only store so many notes, and you had to actually hook up midi gear! you couldn’t just string together a bunch of plugins, you had to get MIDI cables and actually hook together all the gear you wanted to use. Guess what, in 1985 most home musicians couldn’t afford any of that stuff. You were lucky if you had one synth. So keep it to one synth (or VSTi) and play the parts.

2. No cutting and pasting – You just could NOT cut and paste on analog. There was tape splicing, but it usually was only used in large sections of audio, not to repeat whole sections of songs multiple times. There was the ability to punch in and out, but this was mostly used to correct small mistakes, not to build an entire song. So again, play your parts, and play them all the way to the end of the song. Do it over and over again until you play it right. If there’s one or two small mistakes, it’s okay to punch in and fix those, but no more than 2 or 3 per song. Do not cut and paste or move audio under any circumstances.

3. Limit your gear  – Gear was far more expensive in 1985 than it is now and the entry level options were far less diverse than they are now. Much like the MIDI equipment, you were lucky if you had one guitar, one bass and one drum set (usually one with heads completely beat to shit) and one keyboard (usually a lower end casio). So if you’re using plugins, use only one for each sound, only one drum sample set, only one bass plugin, one synth plugin and one guitar or whatever else instrument you’re using. Better yet, use a REAL guitar, bass and minimal drum set with minimal miking. Limit yourself to only 4 or 5 sound sources max.

4. Limit track amount – I only had 4 tracks for years. If I wanted more I had to “bounce” tracks. This was the act of dubbing the first 3 tracks to the 4th one to free up the first three for more recording. But once you did this, whatever was on those first three tracks is mixed together in mono on the 4th track. There’s no more mixing those tracks individually, what’s mixed is mixed, if you didn’t like it, tough shit, there’s no going back. Not only that, every time you’d bounce, you’d lose audio fidelity. Some people were lucky enough to have analog 8 tracks, so if you are feeling generous, give yourself 8 tracks maximum. Or if you really want to make a challenge, keep it at 4. You could even incorporate “bouncing” techniques after recording the first 3 tracks for authentic.

5. Use a mixer – if you’re recording your band or drums and need more inputs simultaneously, you didn’t have the option to record 10 channels at once if you had a home studio in 1985. Most people had 2 to 4 maximum simultaneous inputs since most people were using analog cassette multitrack recorders. If you needed more than that, you had to use a mixer. You would pre-mix the drums then send them out to 1 or 2 tracks on your 4track. Much like the bouncing, once it was recorded, it sounded how it sounded. You could play with eqs and fx, but there was no changing levels at that point.

6. Limit FX – I had 3 pedals that I used for FX in the 90s. A delay, a distortion, and a ring modulator. This was my fx setup. My 4track didn’t have any send/return function, so any FX I wanted to use were done in real-time and once they were on tape, much like everything else, there was no changing them. So pick your FX before recording the track, set them and do not change them after you’ve recorded the part. Also keep FX use to only 3 or 4 total.

After all of this is completed, then you can go in and start adding your tape saturation plugins and fake tape hiss or whatever else faux analog touches you want to add. If you followed all of those steps listed above, I will guarantee you’ll have a far more ‘authentic’ analog sounding recording than using simulators alone. Plus it’ll make you a better musician. You’ll be forced to learn parts in completion and make smarter decisions the first time since there’s no changing many things after they are completed.

In the age of unlimited options and technology, it takes the will of the individual to put limits in place. Challenge yourself and I bet you something great will come of it!

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