Do We Really Miss The Analogue Days? – Beats and Pieces

Shlomo Sonnenfeld, founder of Lofiles, was a music producer in NYC in the 80’s. Now we’re revisiting the “Beats and Pieces” – what it was like to be in the heart of the hip-hop scene when hip-hop was becoming a thing.

For those of you who favor the analogue sound over digital, and treat analogue as the holy grail – we don’t blame you, but here are a few anecdotes to consider.

First of all, we have to take into account that there are still a few of us that grew up in an analogue world, in a time when that was all we had and there was no choice in the matter. There was no midi that enabled you to play like a virtuoso, quantize your work or edit your notes (unless you were Chick Corea). But beyond that, there was no internet. Exploring beyond what was in your surroundings was almost impossible, and if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, it wasn’t easy to learn new things.

As far as sound goes, nowadays 95% of your audience will be listening to your track on their smartphones or computers. In addition, they’ll be listening to your track in the form of an mp3, which in most cases will hurt the quality of your track no matter how hard you work to make it sound good. On both counts, analogue is simply irrelevant.

In my experience, if you have a good ear, there aren’t many restrictions as far as recording something right. Good sound is what sounds right in the song and sounds right to you, whether you recorded in a bathroom or in the large Electric Lady studio. So long as it works with your work, you’re good. I truly believe that if you are looking for a particular sound you will be able to achieve it using fairly cheap solutions, and if you don’t own a $4000 vintage Neumann U87 it won’t be the end of the world. And to emphasize the subject,  I’ve heard recordings of infamous electronic musicians, and we’re talking about the greats, who could use a laptop and a pair of cheap headphones and achieve incredible results. Plus, the track could easily earn a billion views.

Take Skrillex, for example. He doesn’t even use a controller and adapted his laptop keyboard. When I arrived in NYC during the emergence of midi, we used to sit in studios that looked like a cockpit, a big room full of huge analogue synths. They proved to be limited and in many cases, frustrating to work with. There would be issues of  tuning, warming up your gear, saving, and if there was a disc (which was not a given and was considered a perk) it only held 1.44MB of information. Kind of hard to imagine when these days you can carry 256GB on a tiny memory stick in your pocket.

Back in the 80’s, I would curse analogue every day. It was such an ordeal aligning the tape recorders (which had to be done before every session) and editing tape (actually, physically, splicing pieces of tape using a razor blade). Imagine having a splice of tape hanging around your neck, one end in your left hand and the other in your right, and trying to remember where the first bar of the song is located.

Another factor is the characteristics of vinyl. While mastering and pressing an LP (“long play record”), we had level constraints and headroom issues. The point to which you could boost the level had to do with the density of the grooves, so LPs were pretty limited as far as levels. In order to accommodate club needs, the industry came up with an interesting idea. They would use an LP size record played at 45 rpm (same size as 331/3 LPs) that contained only one track which gave us more headroom, therefore allowing us to boost the level and most importantly – push low end limits. Pushing the limits was crucial for these records.  

When the first digital samplers came out we had encountered some problems. First of all, there were no stereo samplers yet. When we needed to take a BG vocal section in order to reuse it on another part of a song, and it was crucial that the part be stereo, we had to find a way to fo around it rather than record the whole section again. Eventually we came up with a method, using Publison Digital delay with 16 second ram memory that allowed us to sample the section and “fly it in” where we wanted it.

Another problem we encountered happened at Electric Lady. We were using SSL G series (fully automated, supposedly) for a particular song and when we left at night we saved the mix as it was. Oddly enough, the next day when the engineer used the total recall feature we realized that the left side of the mix was missing (we’re talking 72 channels). This was the emergence of the digital era, but the issues we encountered aren’t the type you encounter today.

Another aspect is the common argument about hardware vs. software (we usually discuss synths). Now I can assure you that if I were to use the bass of a decent VST or use a Moog synth, assuming I got my shit together, your audience probably won’t be able to tell the difference. The only real audible difference would be with the knob notches and it would be evident while sweeping filters, for example. An analogue hardware synth will perform a smooth sweep while on a digital platform you could hear the sweep change by increments.

Today’s recording chains could be simple, effective and inexpensive, and given you know what you’re doing, they could sound amazing. If in the past you had to use an extremely expensive console, pricey mics, preamps and tape machine that would cost you an arm and a leg and would need to be realigned for every session, nowadays it’s a different ball game. All you need is a decent laptop, a $300 dollar mic (like Rhode NT 1 in black), decent monitors that would cost around $700 dollars and you’re all set.

Now, the biggest problem of today’s sound occurs because everyone wants more level, they want to compete with other tracks and stand out. Everyone is slam mastering their tracks so there’s no audible breathing, no dynamics and and the tension and vibe you used to bet back in the days is gone. When you look at a mastered waveform, it looks like this:

So to sum up, that bottom line is that you need to focus on the feel and the idea of your music. If you do that, I have no doubt that in time you will find a simple way to create the sound you want.

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