Let’s start by saying that we don’t actually need analog gear. Nevertheless, everyone loves analog gear. I love analog gear. I’m sure that you do too. But why are we so drawn to it? Because if used properly it sounds great!
So what about analog emulators? Well if used properly they sound great too. Not exactly the same as the original analog gear but pretty good, just the same.
I’m sure you know that most vintage analog gear adds harmonic distortion into the mix through its point-to-point circuitry and analog components. If you’re not aware of this, let me know and I’ll dedicate a blog or two towards it. For now, let’s just assume that we all are in agreement as to why that gear sounds the way it does. In fact, let’s also agree that the reason we like it so much lives somewhere between “It’s what we’re used to” and “It’s more pleasing to the ear.”
So how do the digital versions of these classic pieces of studio hardware compare to the real thing? Some are obviously better than others. Personally, the best ones that I’ve heard are put out by companies like Waves and Universal Audio. Slate Digital does a fine job as well. But none of them sound exactly like the real thing and that’s ok. They don’t need to.
Programmers and software engineers can spend years writing code for the end result of fooling your ear into thinking it’s listening to a piece of hardware. They can trace the signal path through a circuit and add harmonics due to resistance. They can simulate capacitance and even power supplies. But they can’t emulate every setting in every situation. Our computers just aren’t powerful enough for that level of simulation yet. But again, they don’t have to be.
Most of the pro emulators on the market today are pretty good. They can add warmth and character to your mix. They can even take your mix to a certain signature style. Just remember that there’s nothing magical about them or their analog counterparts. They’re tools just like any other.
So as not to drag this on, the bottom line is that modern computers just don’t have the horsepower to emulate analog gear with 100% accuracy. However, the emulators that are out there can still bring a lot to the party, sonically speaking. Does the Waves CLA-2A sound just like the Teletronics LA-2A? No, but it’s still a very good sounding compressor with a lot of the analog character and functionality of the original. The same goes for a lot of modern emulator plugins. However, if you can afford vintage outboard gear then by all means fill up those racks and patch bays.
If you can’t afford vintage outboard gear then plugins can be a viable solution. Just understand that they are different yet can be just as useful and pleasing to the ear…when used properly.