Q&A October 2013, Part I
11/11/2013 (updated 11/11/2013)

Re: Analogophilia

Hi Richard. Been listening to Electric and loving the sound so much better than any other new music I've heard in years, and sort of wondering what magic you use to get that warm, dark depth of sound that's missing from the studio work of so many other artists. Then I read your recent Q&A and saw that Electric was recorded on 16-track analog, and went, "Well, that's 60% of it right there."

With few exceptions, I can't stand modern digitally recorded music for 30 seconds. While shopping for Taj Mahal records recently, I compared tracks from his old records with re-dos on one of his new albums (one with lots of guest musicians), and I just can't believe people can tolerate the new digi-rec versions. I believe it's really bad for the listening part of your brain to sit through that stuff (I read somewhere that there's scientific evidence to show that it really dumbs the brain down on a certain level, making it less able to distinguish between "real" and "not-real" sounds, or "important" and "unimportant" ones--differences your brain knows even if you can't consciously define what the distinctions mean). While I think that there are lots of very cool uses of digital sound tech, and as a musician I own a couple of digital effects pedals of which I'm quite fond, I think that in general the whole digital revolution in music was humanity's biggest aesthetic mistake of the 20th Century. What's your feeling on all this?

Other records of yours that I consider my favorites in terms of audiophilia are Mock Tudor (depth again, and a very Electric-like album in many ways), Mirror Blue (how you got the drum machine to sound like that baffles me), and the widely criticized You? Me? Us? (very dark with a sort of chewy, rotten-wood finish). Your guitar tones, the whole ambience, everything just amazes me about those records.

If you were a low-budget musician (like me) and wanted to achieve sound with that kind of texture and feel on your home studio recordings, using analog equipment (apart from necessary deviations like drum machines & certain pedals), how would you go about it? I currently have an old analog Tascam 4-track, but nothing else yet. What type of mics would you use? What type of rooms? Who makes your favorite analog recording equipment that's somewhat affordable? Any other tricks, techniques or tech you've learned over time that no one else ever talks about? Shoot, I'm totally overwhelming you and asking you to write a book, aren't I? Just pick your favorite answers & I'll figure out the rest. Thanks! - Nick Guetti

This is complex, and there are others who have more knowledge, but I'll give you my two penn'orth:

If you listen to something recorded before 1980, and you're listening on vinyl, then everything is analogue. That's a certain rendering of the original that some have come to treasure, and for good reasons - it sounds warm, and there is a depth to the musical image. Is it accurate? Well, this becomes a matter of opinion. Some say that Schnabel playing Mozart on a 1920s purely acoustic recording - no electricity involved in the process at all - is the best sound ever captured. Then you have digital. I agree with you that a lot of modern music, particularly dance music, sounds cold and brittle, because it is digital through all the processes, perhaps with the exception of the vocal mic.

But here's where it gets blurry... a lot of musicians who play more traditional forms of music, tend to mix digital and analogue, in varying degrees. Many artists will use tube mics, exclusively or as part of the mix, at the front end of the process, and if they are recording onto ProTools or whatever, will then master onto analogue 2 track tape, to warm the whole thing up, at the end of the process. There are many analogue-imitating programmes in the digital realm that simulate the warmth and compression that are characteristic of analogue tape, limiter/compressors, EQ, etc., and they are getting better all the time. Digital has come a long way, and I have failed a few blindfold tests in telling the difference. It's easy to tell blindfold that The White Stripes record analogue. It's easy to tell that the LSO conducted by Sir Adrian Boult in 1962 is analogue.  Other things are harder.