Digital plugins offer precision and convenience but can sometimes result in cold or sterile mixes. Achieving an analog sound in your DAW using plugins was once a pipe dream, but with the advent of analog-modeled plugins, it's now easier than ever. Simple mixing techniques can infuse your digital mixes with analog warmth. Here are five tips to help you achieve an analog vibe using analog-modeled saturators, analog-modeled EQs, analog-modeled compressors, and analog-modeled delays.
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1. Add Harmonic Complexity With Analog-Modeled Saturators
Analog-modeled saturation is a powerful tool that adds harmonic complexity and richness to a sound. It's a form of controlled distortion that introduces additional harmonics, enhancing a signal's perceived warmth, fullness, and loudness potential. The tonal effects of saturation can vary from subtle coloration to more aggressive overdrive, depending on the amount applied.
There are various types of saturation, each with its unique sonic characteristics. Tape saturation plugins like Kiive Audio's Tape Face recreate the sound of analog tape machines with this effects plugin, adding warmth and gentle compression to your mixes.
Tube saturators like the NEOLD BIG AL replicate the behavior of vacuum tubes, often resulting in a more colored and harmonically rich sound. They tend to sound great on acoustic guitars, live drums, and vocals but have a range of musical applications, as demonstrated in the following video.
By applying different types of saturation plugins in series — each adding a small amount of saturation to your sound — you can recreate the thick tonal quality produced by a signal running through various components in a hardware recording console. The only downside is that picking a handful of saturators that mesh well together and avoid muddying your mix can be time-consuming.
Louder Than Liftoff's Silver Bullet mk2 offers an easy way to apply multi-stage saturation with its MOJO amps. First, your signal passes through MOJO amp A and N. Then it passes through MOJO amp C, where you have the option to apply vinyl saturation or other creative distortion effects. The MOJO amps are designed to complement each other, leading to quick and colorful results. Drop Silver Bullet mk2 onto a track, drive the MOJO amps, and dial in the overall amount of saturation applied by adjusting the HEADROOM knob.
2. Musically Shape Your Mix With Analog-Modeled EQs
Analog-modeled EQs are known for their musicality and warmth, often described as smooth and pleasing to the ear. This unique sound is a result of the nonlinear behavior of analog components, gentle phase shifts, and harmonic distortion that occurs when boosting or cutting frequencies.
Unlike digital EQs, which can be very precise and clinical, analog EQs often affect a broader range of frequencies, creating a more natural and cohesive sound. The subtle coloration introduced by analog EQs can add character and depth to a mix, making them popular for broad tone-shaping applications.
To achieve an analog sound in your DAW, reach for an analog-modeled EQ that emulates the behavior of classic hardware. One of the most iconic and sought-after analog EQs is the Pultec EQ, known for its ability to seemingly boost and cut the same low-end frequency, creating a resonant shelf.
A Pultec-style plugin, like the Lindell Audio PEX-500, allows you to shape the tone of sounds with the musicality and warmth of the original hardware. The PEX-500 helps you enhance low-end presence, add air to high frequencies, and smooth out your midrange. This is one of our most popular vocal plugins.
The Silver Bullet mk2 is a solid choice when it comes to needing a multi-modal workflow that combines analog tones. Because not only does the Bullet provide some of the most amazing saturation on the market, it also includes a three-band Baxandall EQ featuring a Pultec-inspired low-end. Each Baxandall filter delivers a smooth and musical tone, even when applying a significant gain boost/cut; this is a result of the wide bandwidths that are used. The dedicated AIR circuit control also helps vocals and guitars shine through the mix without sounding overly bright and harsh.
3. Naturally Enhance Your Stereo Image
Analog gear is renowned for its ability to create a rich and dimensional stereo image. Unlike digital processing, which can be perfectly symmetrical, many analog-modeled plugins introduce small variations between the left and right channels. These subtle inconsistencies and unit-to-unit variations contribute to a wider, more organic stereo image. The result is a sound that feels alive and immersive, capturing the listener's attention and providing an enhanced sense of depth and space within the mix.
Tolerance Modeling Technology (TMT) is a feature integrated into many Brainworx plugins that contributes to the sound of an analog stereo image. TMT takes into account the manufacturing tolerances of individual components within an analog device, modeling the variations and inconsistencies that occur in real-world hardware. By emulating these subtle differences, TMT-enabled plugins can recreate the complex interactions that contribute to an analog-sounding stereo image.
The Silver Bullet mk2 offers unique controls to enhance your stereo image. Its ASPECT RATIO control musically enhances your mix's stereo width, height, and clarity, providing subtle and controlled image enhancement. This feature is well-suited for stereo busses, allowing you to fine-tune the spatial characteristics of your mix as a whole.
Silver Bullet's DYNA REALISM control also introduces left/right channel and unit-to-unit variations throughout its circuits, mimicking the natural inconsistencies found in analog gear. The results can range from gentle stereo movement to heavy rhythmic panning effects, depending on your selected settings.
4. Control Dynamic Range Using Analog-Modeled Compressors
Compression is a component of the sound introduced by analog saturation. Fundamentally, saturation combines distortion and compression, leading to enriched harmonics and controlled dynamic range. If you're trying to achieve an incredibly dense sound, solely relying on saturation may add too much distortion to your mix. As a result, you may be better off reaching for an analog-modeled compressor.
Unlike digital plugin compressors, which often apply a precise and linear form of gain reduction, analog-modeled compressors can include design quirks that make them sound organic and lively. The nonlinear response and subtle harmonic distortion commonly found in analog compressors can add a unique texture and feel to the sound. These characteristics are often challenging to replicate with digital compressors.
For example, optical hardware compressors like a LA-2A apply compression based on the brightness of a light source built into the unit. A light-dependent resistor responds to the brightness of the light source, causing the compressor to apply more compression the more the light illuminates. Factors such as the type of light source used, and the material the resistor is made of can affect the way in which compression is applied. As a result, you end up with a non-linear form of gain reduction that can sound quite natural.
The ACME Audio Opticom XLA-3 is an optical compressor plugin that provides plenty of harmonic coloration and LA-2A style leveling. This compressor uses an optoelectric circuit that combines three separate compression curves into one, ranging from clean to dirty and delivering a range of tonal options. Engaging the compressor's Amp mode adds plenty of flavor to your signal, regardless of whether or not gain reduction is applied; a flavorful feature like this is incredibly uncommon amongst digital compressors.
Peculiarities found in analog-modeled compressors lead to mixes that sound original and engaging. They help turn mixing music from a calculated process into an artistic endeavor that feels more like painting with sound rather than solving a math equation.
5. Create Unique Spatial Effects Using Analog-Modeled Delays
Digital delays can typically produce long tails, ping-pong effects, and sometimes stutter repeats. These types of effects can provide your mix with a sense of space without flooding it with reverb. Digital delays serve a purpose, but analog-modeled delays can often generate spatial effects that a digital delay is incapable of.
Let's take a look at the A/DA STD-1 Stereo Tapped Delay as an example. It's an 80s analog delay with flexible time settings and inharmonic delay times that allows you to create rich doubles. Synthetically generating vocal doubles from a lead vocal rarely sounds as natural and impactful as recording doubles; that's one of the pain points that the A/DA STD-1 aims to overcome. Additionally, you can use it to apply flange effects that add body to your sounds rather than causing them to sound weak and thin.
Unlike many digital delays, analog-modeled delays often allow you to create slap-back echoes and even short reverbs. The A/DA STD-1 produces taps that perfectly overlap the previous decaying iteration, leading to what many people call a "3D layering effect." This 3D effect can add depth and dimension to your mix, making it feel more alive and immersive. Whether you're working on a dense electronic track or a delicate acoustic piece, the unique characteristics of analog-modeled delays can bring a touch of warmth and complexity that digital delays might miss.
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