The Truth About Analog Emulation

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Analog emulation: the cream of the crop when it comes to merging digital innovation with historic musicality. Or is it?

More than half of digital audio processors on the market today pride themselves on the heritage behind their analog counterparts that they’ve emulated. While many of these companies have done a great job modeling their virtual processors on the real deal, there are plenty of others that completely miss the mark.

But even with the ones that do a good job – are they missing the point of being digital? After all, what good is a meticulously modeled processor with hours upon hours of research & development if the best they can ever hope for is sounding more like something else?

There’s got to be a better option.

Why Do People Idolize Analog?

I’ll preface the rest of this discussion with a disclaimer. I truly and honestly love some of the analog emulations I have in my collection. It doesn’t mean I worship at the altar of analog, just that I’ve found a valid use for some of them. They’ve saved me a ton of money versus buying the hardware and even if they don’t sound exactly like the original, they do what I need them to.

This is the only good reason for using an analog emulation. You have to like how that particular emulation sounds.

At the end of the day, you’re going to buy the hardware if nothing else compares to it or you’re going to make do without it. If you can get close enough for cheaper, by all means, take the shortcut. But don’t think that you need analog in your sessions to get the results you need.

Your plugins should enhance your mixes and they don’t need to be based on some legendary hardware to do that. Often, by sticking with “traditional” you miss out on some of the greatest benefits of working in the digital realm. Innovation will never come from reinventing the wheel. It comes from improving and enhancing it.

Good Examples of Analog Emulation

To understand what makes a good emulation, you really have to understand what makes analog gear unique in the first place. Things like EQ are drastically more accurate when programmed digitally, so what is it that makes the hardware more desirable? Harmonic distortion.

Whether it’s a synthesizer, EQ, compressor, or tape delay, harmonic distortion runs rampant in the analog realm. This is usually a good thing; small amounts of harmonic distortion can create more natural, musical sounds. Extreme distortions can push things from warmth into breakup like in the case of tape or tube saturation.

Great emulations meticulously document these inconsistencies in analog gear and replicate them in their plugin counterparts. By completely tracing the response of knobs and sliders across a processor and how they interact with each other, you can have thousands of variables to account for. You also need to account for things like fluctuations in electricity and quality of components.

Making decisions about which of these variables matter most and prioritizing those efforts are what separate the good developers from the bad.

Bad Examples of Analog Emulation

Bad emulations can be found anywhere developers focus on the wrong things. It’s completely possible to become too focused on replicating the original and spending time working on matching something that has no benefit to your sound. It’s also possible that no matter how much time you spend on it, you’re emulating something that’s just too unpredictable to replicate.

One of the biggest places we’ve seen emulation technology struggle is with guitar amps. There are some great models out there and a lot has changed over the last couple decades, but even a lot of modern digital guitar products avoid emulation – they focus on pushing into modern, uncharted territory.

With technology like the Fractal Audio AxeFX & Line 6 Helix, you’ve got manufacturers focused on creating new sounds beyond the run-of-the-mill amp emulation. We do the same with our Toneforge virtual guitar rigs. There are plenty of emulations that are “good enough”, why build more of the same?

But even still, we see dozens of new plugins coming onto the market doing more of the same. I don’t think any of us need another 1176 emulation; yet that’s all some manufacturers seem to be interested in doing. I’d much rather have a fresh new take on limiting and compression to add to my collection.

How about you?

Getting More From The Gear You Have

While a shiny new plugin is always fun, you hit a point of diminishing returns where new plugins don’t add much to your workflow that you don’t already have access to. There’s an old saying that an experienced engineer can do more with stock plugins than a new engineer with any plugin they want. That’s the perfect example of why experience matters more than the tools you’ve got.

If you’re interested in getting more out of the gear you’ve already got, be sure to check out our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets. In this eBook, you’ll learn everything there is to know about your stock plugins and how to get the most mileage out of them in any DAW.

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