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Completely In the Box!

Andrew Scheps, a major mixing engineer, recently proclaimed that he now works “100% in the box” (jump to 35:43 in the video). Wow. For most home and small professional studios that are doing the same this is a major endorsement. What does this exactly mean?

Whether you’re a potential client, a newcomer to music production, or a veteran you might have heard the argument of analog gear versus digital gear. When technology first allowed us to document music as sound waves—not just notation :p—we only had analog gear at our disposal. What this meant was that the medium which recorded the music (or sound) transformed the sound waves into something that is directly analogous, e.g. a 33 ” vinyl record has grooves on it that are physical representations of the actual sound waves. Digital gear on the other hand transforms sound waves into digital information—1’s and 0’s—that are encoded and decoded with particular mathematical algorithms which is a fancy way of saying, “computer program”. If you looked at the grooves in the vinyl record closely you could see the actual sound waves but if you look at the digital files of recorded music you would see bizarre computer language. Analog audio also tends to imprint saturation and coloration that pure digital does not provide. Although this introduced distortion may seem unpleasant it can actually be harnessed in a musical or sonically pleasing manner.

Because of this (and other factors which I won’t go into the technical details) people have come to describe digital audio as “cold” and analog audio “warm”. This was certainly true at the advent of digital recording technology however that was about 40 years ago! Today’s technology has evolved to the point where digital recording gear, programs, and plug-ins can process audio not just with high precision but also can emulate the “warm” analog sound that people have come to love. I’ve seen other well known mixers such as Scheps do mixes using only a MacBook and a Universal Audio satellite (and probably other in-the-box plug-ins).

None of this is to the detriment of analog gear and recording, in fact a hybrid set-up of analog outboard gear used in conjunction with digital gear gives you some incredible options but hopefully if you’re a new musician, producer, or are searching for recording studios to work in you won’t have to worry about whether or not they have analog gear.

Analog vs. Digital

Frequently I have clients ask me this sort of question: Isn’t analog equipment better than digital? My answer is yes. And no. They’re two different technologies that each have their own unique sets of pro’s and con’s. Lemme es’plain.

Analog recording has the benefit of being ‘continuous’ which basically means that it represents a waveform with just about infinite resolution whereas digital recordings can only approximate the waveform (although it does a good job at fooling your ears that it sounds continuous).

Analog gear does not typically behave in a ‘linear’ fashion, there are attributes which are somewhat random and unpredictable but they sound musical. Digital on the other hand pretty much does exactly what you tell it to do (I’m not talking about plug-ins that emulate analog gear) which is the main reason people say digital sounds ‘cold’. Neither one of these characteristics are value judgements, both can be used effectively depending on the context.

Analog gear requires physical space and a lot of maintenance (both time and $$$) whereas digital gear resides mostly on a hard drive and maintenance can be as simple as downloading an update. Analog gear is very expensive as well, e.g. a Shadow Hills compressor costs about $9,000 but the digital version is about $300.

To make matters more interesting many software developers are creating plug-ins that emulate the behavior of analog equipment, in fact they’re doing it so well that it’s often hard to distinguish between both in what we call ‘A/B’ tests.

In the end it’s best to think of both analog and digital as tools, left in the proper hands much art can be created.