Mixing Digital to Sound More Analog
First of all, I would like to make it clear that I have only recently decided to forgive digital for how it sounds. Yes, I agree that digital is easier, more convenient, more stable of a storage medium and you can do very cool things that would be difficult or even impossible using analog. Unfortunately, I have always felt that analog technology better captured midrange nuances that are crucial to any voice or instrument's sound. So I worked harder because the sound was worth it.
These days digital technology has improved greatly, and A/D converters are finally starting to filter out less of the important aspects of sound during sampling. Meanwhile, much of the analog equipment at studios is being neglected, ignored and allowed to fall into severe disrepair. I recently walked into a studio to mix an album that was recorded in ProTools. They claimed to have an analog 2-track machine in the room, but when I saw an inch of dust on the machine I couldn't bring myself to use it. Yes, it could have been cleaned up (if their maintenance engineer could find the time to really do it right), but it had been about a year since anyone else had used it and I did not have confidence in the machine. Guess what? I mixed straight back to ProTools.
I have always had a reputation for hating digital. I even had a client that recorded on digital 48-track and then bounced to a pair of analog tapes for me to mix, claiming to have recorded the whole project analog. I took one listen to the tracks and called him, asking why he expected me not to hear the sound difference.
OK, so here I am "Mr. Analog" in a world where fewer and fewer rooms have good analog machines that are actually working. What to do? Change. Once I accepted the fact that most of my work must be digital, I went all the way. If I have to be digital, then it can be in a computer instead of a digital tape deck and a large format digital mixing board. That means I can do professional quality work anyplace with good monitors. BUT HOW TO MAKE IT SOUND AND FEEL LIKE ANALOG?
Whenever I record digital, I make the sounds a little extra thick in the bottom and midrange to compensate for what I often lost in the A/D conversion. This is fine for tracks that I have done, but what about mixing tracks that other people have recorded? You see, since everybody can record their own tracks, everybody is! That is wonderful for budgets, but that means that most music is being recorded by people who do not know how to do anything but plug in and press record. Digital technology has led to a generation of engineers that know nothing about sounds but are great at manipulating data. I have met many ProTools "engineers" that have never recorded more than a vocal track but can whip up a great musical collage.
So how do we turn unprofessionally-recorded digital tracks into professionally-recorded analog tracks? We can't. But we can make them feel closer to analog. The first step is in knowing where the differences are and emphasizing the good stuff. You can use "tape simulators" or do it yourself using compression and EQ, but these methods will do no more than thicken your sounds.
The trick is in the dynamics. For the layperson, "dynamics" are changing elements. Some dynamics are easy to understand, such as Volume or Panning. But other dynamics are important as well, such as Rhythmic dynamics (how the timing of different parts change and interact with each other) and Tonal dynamics (how the sound of a voice or instrument changes in different ranges or when louder). Dynamics are subtle but extremely expressive. They can make the difference between a bunch of tracks playing together and a song that people believe.
"Going back and forth between digital and analog is like pouring sand from one glass to another. The glass looks full, but why do I feel sand on the floor?"
Every instrument has dynamic nuances. There are a great deal of Tonal dynamics in midrange, which digital recording has previously not captured properly. These days the expensive stuff is getting there, but most equipment still doesn't do the job well.
THE ANSWER: When mixing (even analog music) I have always placed great importance on dynamics. I have found that when mixing digital (especially unprofessionally-recorded digital) I have to further emphasize certain dynamics that I know should be there but are not. In order to completely understand this vague statement I would have to show you while over a mix, but I can give you some tips here to point you in the right direction:
RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB: Sounds can be edgy, bright, chunky, thick, thin, etc. If the function of the instrument is to be forceful in a certain frequency range, start by selecting a plug-in that sounds appropriate. I have heard some plug-ins with lovely top end but worthless midrange, and vice-versa. In my opinion the UAD-1 provides the warmest, smoothest and most-usable digital compression and EQ available. The Pultec EQ, 1176 and LA2A plug-ins really sound and react like the original pieces of hardware.
I know many people who love to go back and forth between digital and analog to use analog gear during digital mixes. I prefer to avoid all the A/D conversion and stay digital. Going back and forth between digital and analog is like pouring sand from one glass to another. The glass looks full, but why do I feel sand on the floor?
MIDRANGE: Be careful of your midrange! Midrange can be easily messed up by adding or removing too much. In fact, try leaving the midrange alone and EQ above and below where you would normally go for. Some people love to make each instrument's EQ look like a peak. I prefer to hear some of the outer frequencies pushed to make the instrument fuller instead of forcing it into a smaller space.
DYNAMICS: By making each sound bigger instead of turning it into a box for easy stacking, it will be more tricky to make all the sounds fit together. Don't be aware of just the stereo field, but also how things are moving in and out of the spaces of the mix. Now that things are moving instead of just sitting there, the spaces will be dynamic as well, and any effects will have more dynamics, etc. Remember, any sounds generated from a sample will have different dynamics and may require extra attention.
The new A/D's are getting better than ever. Eventually everyone will have a system that accurately captures all the dynamic nuances, and life will be sweet. Until that time, you will have to work hard to make your system act like it already does so don't be lazy.