Tech: Analog Audio with Robert Yen, Jr.

Written by Mike Harmon

Recording to tape - do you hear a difference?

One main argument amongst audiophiles is the preference of music recorded on an analog format to that of the digital realm. With music and technology now in the digital age, the once standard record-making process has been altered to adhere to a more convenient workflow. Digital audio workstations such as Avid Pro Tools and Apple Logic save us from spending hours on splicing tape to compile the ideal vocal take, or sequencing a simple drum beat to lay down the skeleton for a song.

The arising question amongst audio-enthusiasts, however, is this: Does the digital audio workflow sometimes hinder the final product? Many audio engineers who started their careers recording on analog formats remain advocates of analog, the way of working they deem standard. Details such as tape saturation, hardware synthesizers, and analog signal paths can make the difference between a good sounding record and a great sounding record.

In this edition of Indie Ambassador’s Tech Resources, we profile Robert Yen Jr. of the Musician’s Development Institute and his thoughts on analog recording, as well as the recording process as a whole.

Indie Ambassador: When you started as an engineer, was tape the main format that records were being recorded to? When did you notice the switch to digital audio?

Robert Yen, Jr: Yep, when I started, during the late eighties, analog tape was in its finest hour.  The format had been perfected in many ways, such as tape formulation improvements and the advancement in the analog tape decks themselves.  Digital stuff was around, but it was mainly VHS and such.  Actually, at some point we started to drop mixes onto VHS tapes as backups to the reel to reels.  In the mid nineties, digital multi-tracking started to gain some ground, but the analog stuff still held its own very strongly.

IA: Do you prefer to use hardware sequencers and synthesizers to software-based production tools of the same function?

Yen:  Well, actually I prefer human beings playing real instruments.  Real instruments have character.  For example, you could have two identical pianos from the same manufacturer, same piano strings, etc., but these two pianos will still have their own variations – character in tone, playability, etc.  And come on, a synth orchestra module compared to the London Symphony Orchestra … I’ll take the London Symphony, thanks.  So, that’s how I feel about it. But to answer your question more directly, I prefer hardware synthesizers to synth software, cause they’re more likely to have that variance that I’m talking about. Some synths may have a weird quirk makes them unique.

Every aspect of the analog audio chain pushes voltage

IA: What aspects of an analog signal chain do you prefer to the digital domain, and what do you feel that the digital domain lacks?

Yen: Well every aspect on the analog chain pushes voltage.  The circuits come alive and character / uniqueness of sound manifests.  For example, take a Black Face 1176 compressor vs. the software version of it.  The analog unit has voltage running through it, and as the circuits heat up a type of hotness and warmth is achieved in the sound. The digital equivalent is synthesized; if you try to push a hot signal into a digital device it just craps out and gives you this terrible noise.  Music is not meant to be sterilized; it needs the harmonic structure that exists in nature.  Digital is limited to sampling rate, analog is not limited in this way and it is able to capture complex harmonic structures.  The only thing really that digital has is in its editing capabilities.

IA: What was the last record you had recorded strictly using analog recording formats? Do you continue to use a mix of analog and digital audio production?

Yen: I reserve analog only recording for musicians that really have their stuff together.  Most bands and/or solo artists lack so much that everything has to be digitally edited.  A highly regarded Flamenco artist by the name of Jon Gordon and a country artist by the name of Duncan Walters were albums I did completely on analog.  Mind you, especially in the Duncan case, almost all the musicians were GRAMMY and Country Music Awards winners.  These cats were “one take” AAA super musicians.  Yeah, these days a lot more digital recordings occurring at MDI, what a shame since we have more analog recording formats than any other studio in the world.  2” 24trk, 2” 16trk, 1” 16trk, ½” 2trk, Trident analog console etc.

Universal Audio's software emulation of the classic 1176 Blackface Compressor

IA: Do you feel that analog audio processing will make a resurgence in the way records are produced in the near future, or do you think it’s a fading art?

Yen: Yeah it’s a fading art for sure.  The level of analog engineering skill is an art form unto itself.  There’s only a handful of production grade engineers that are able to make analog stuff work right and sing out, and I know who they all are.  As far as a resurgence of analog recording, of course the musicians and artists out there that have real skills in their creative endeavors would seek to record albums totally analog.  What I mean by that is – are you or is your band really worth it for me to record you on my analog machines? Music is my life and I demand the best from the musicians, songwriting, recording etc. Nothing but the best is acceptable.

IA: Any other comments? What are you currently working on?

Yen: I’m working on something that is going to rock your world – due to be released in the spring / summer (can’t talk about it in detail right now… still in the production queue).  Final thought to the musicians / artists out there, JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE AN “ARTIST” DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO SUCK!

The Musician’s Development Institute is a one stop, full service album production facility and Artist Development center located in Plymouth MA. From basic music lessons through songwriting development, production and music publishing, their World-Class production studios and staff give clients the edge they need to effectively compete, and survive, in the dog-eat-dog business of music.