If you’re a musician who has an interest in recording their own work, you’ve probably wondered about the difference between digital and analog recording techniques.
The debate around this issue is fierce within the music industry. There is no “right” answer here, and how a musician chooses to record their music will largely depend on their personal tastes and on their budget.
Why Did Digital Recording Techniques Supplant Analog Recording Techniques?
But there are several key issues to consider when recording your next song or album.
For most people, analog recording techniques are associated with the warmth of pre-1980s records. For decades, artists ranging from Robert Johnson to The Beatles recorded on analog equipment. With the advent of the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and the later invention of digital audio workstations like ProTools, however, the sound of music fundamentally changed.
Specifically, the DX7 was a revolutionary instrument in many respects: The synth’s compact size and affordable price tag made it a hit with pop musicians throughout the mid-1980s. A significant portion of Top 40 music from this period was recorded with the DX7.
A Streamlined Sound
Prior to this point in recording history, most musicians only had access to analog synthesizers made by companies like Moog or Roland. The digital precision and even musical coldness of the DX7 essentially streamlined the sound of pop music.
To this day, digital recording and digital synthesis are central to the sound of popular music. It would be difficult to find a hit song by Lady Gaga that does not use a software synthesizer recorded into a digital audio workstation.
The Digital Divide
To make matters even more confusing, many leading music software plugin companies are now creating accurate emulations of analog recording equipment and synthesizers. Firms such as Spitfire Audio have even sampled a piano used on Beatles recordings from the 1960s.
To wit, the line between digital audio quality and analog audio quality is becoming increasingly blurred. For the purists out there, recording to tape is still the way to go: The singer-songwriter and Beatles diehard Elliott Smith was said to have been obsessed with analog recording techniques and favored reel-to-reel recording methods in order to capture the warmth he heard in his favorite records from the 1960s and 1970s. Smith even created a note-for-note recreation of The Beatles’s song “Because” on analog equipment for the “American Beauty” film soundtrack in 1999.
Fair enough if you’re a Beatles obsessive like Smith: But will you notice nowadays if you record to a computer rather than to a vintage tape machine? That is a question that each musician will have to answer for themselves. Clearly, however, we’re reaching something of a watershed moment in digital technology. In 15 years, we might find that the difference between analog and digital music is moot.