Recording is a digital activity nowadays, and has been for quite some time now. Every year, more powerful tools become commonplace, like pitch and time manipulation, and plug-in processors are more sophisticated and better sounding than ever. This makes it all the more ironic that so many digital tools work so hard to simulate the sound of older analog recording and mixing equipment, right down to the “flaws” that gave that gear such a wonderful, warm sonic character. And not only do digital processors emulate analog equipment, but the world of analog recording gear is bigger and better than ever, and it’s not just the larger, traditional studios using all this physical hardware.
Many DAW-based setups, despite the heavy use of digital processing, still maintain an analog signal path, especially for audio signals being recorded. Processing the analog source audio through analog gear, before digitizing it in the A/D converter, is how many recordists prefer to impart that still-elusive “analog warmth” to their recordings. While smaller rigs may not be able to afford the racks and racks of high-end vintage (or modern) analog boxes that the larger studios often employ, many maintain what’s usually referred to as an analog front-end—a series of analog processors that are used and re-used on each track. Since many recordings nowadays are assembled by overdubbing the tracks one or two at a time, even a basic front-end of one or two channels’ worth of outboard gear can be utilized to add that analog sheen to most every track that’s recorded, and later, in mixing, any available analog hardware units can be pressed into service on at least one or two key tracks, even while the rest of the mix is being processed in the box.
Putting together a good analog front-end for a smaller DAW rig usually means assembling a few very high-end components, particularly ones that are known for imparting a bit of analog “character” to signals, even with a minimum of processing. The main elements of such a front-end are microphones, pre-amps (mic-pre and/or inst/DI), compressors, and eq. For that classic analog “character”, vintage circuit designs are popular—this could mean actual vintage gear (if any can be found that’s affordable, given the high cost of true vintage hardware nowadays), or modern analog designs that either faithfully reproduce vintage circuits, or use them as a stepping-off point for designs that maintain that analog warmth and edge, but also provide the benefits of more modern design.
A typical front-end might be laid out like so: Mic -> Preamp -> Compressor -> EQ -> Interface (A->D Converter).
The mic and preamp are key—these comprise a suitable analog front-end on their own. Compression and EQ are optional, and, should be employed subtly if used in the initial recording—it can be difficult to undo excessive compression or EQ later on, and, with the best gear, the desired analog character can be achieved without heavy use of the actual processing. In fact, many engineers run signals through analog components like compression or EQ without really using the effect, just to get the benefits of the analog warmth that comes from simply passing the audio through the circuitry itself.