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Analog v Digital: why digital plug-ins make you stupid

Steven Slate microphone modelling: analog v digital

I realised today that using digital plug-ins in recording software when you are mixing records makes you stupid. Now this may seem like a bold assertion to anyone who read my earlier blog on the analog digital debate here: http://circlestudios.co.uk/blog/analogue-v-digital-where-did-it-all-begi.... But read on and you will understand why I think sound engineers and record producers should tread warily.

So this train of thought started this morning when, instead of cleaning the bathrooms and setting up microphones for the inevitable vocal shootout I need to do (I have a singer coming in that I haven't worked with before), I'm still sitting here pondering when I forgot how to do simple things that used to be everyday knowledge. Like how to calculate the time in milliseconds for a quarter-note when you know the tempo of the piece of music you are working on.

So first of all let's consider this, how did I get so stupid? Personally I blame plug-ins.

When did I get stupid? Well, I didn't even realised it had happened until last night. But I've concluded that it started all the way back with the advent of Soundtools but that the process continues right up to this day with Steven Slate and his latest microphone modelling gadgetry, the VMS, and UAD's 'Unison technology'.

How? Well, the answer seems patently obvious. All this digital tomfoolery actually sucks out your brain-power. So what that they've been making life easier: to time sync delays with the mix you are working on, to set auto-release times on compressors and even to recall settings later. Because all this being simple means you never have to think about it. As we all know, what you don't use, you quickly lose. And for these purposes, what you are losing is brain cells. So im thinking about planning a campaign. I reckon the government should legislate to have health warnings written on plug-in wrappers. Like cigarette boxes: "PLUG-INS SUCK OUT YOUR BRAIN!"

What is the old fool rambling on about today I hear you ask? Let's use a little example then. Hands up if you use a satnav in your car? Yep. most of you then. Think about the last place in a city you used your satnav to get you to. Could you drive there again today and remember where you were going? Without the satnav? In the old days you would have to get out a city map and plot your way there. You'd be looking at road signs and checking your map all the way. And next time you had to go, you'd be able to find your way there. Because you were using good old analog random access memory, your brain, to store the information. But not any more. Because Satnavs, like plugins, remove the need to think.

Let me explain how I got to this startling realisation. Last night I was mixing a record. And it had a cool vibe. So, with the intention of staying with the vibe, I decided to use my Digidesign (or whatever they are called today) "Analog Tape Delay" plugin (yeah yeah... i know it's a digital emulation) with its automatic sync to tempo function. Only the exceedingly clever sync-to-tempo button wasn't working. No problem I thought. I'll just type it in manually. Only I had absolutely no recollection how to calculate the time for a quarter-note delay. (Let's leave aside that a quick bit of research on the very digital interwebs led me to www.gearslutz.com, an awesome website fast becoming the font of all knowledge for the pro-audio community, where I quickly got my answer). So that's how I got here. Today's recording studio life rant.

Anyway, for the avoidance of doubt, and basically so I have somewhere to come and look the next time my brain denies me of such simple information, if you want to calculate the time of a quarter-note in milliseconds you need first to obtain the tempo of the piece of music you are working on (either by tapping the tempo or, if you are working in Pro Tools, select a bar of audio and hit 'Apple I' - damn they make it so easy!).

Having obtained the tempo, if you then divide into 60,000 (so 60 thousand divided by tempo) that will give you the exact time in milliseconds for a quarter note. If you half that, you have just found the time of an eighth note and so on. For the sake of completeness I should point out that this will give you a useful starting point but, as with anything in this game, you should always use the appendages on the side of your head to fine tune.

So having re-found the information digitally (on Gearslutz website) and captured the information I'd forgotten due to the digital revolution (here, digitally on this blog). I feel very comfortable in saying that analogue won this second round challenge in the analog digital debate...

Keep an eye out for round three... ;-)