Notes On Analog

From around the 1950s to the 1990s, when most music was recorded either in studios or concert halls, its continuous waves of sound were mostly captured by microphones, sent into a mixing console, and printed onto magnetic tape. While the sources being recorded might be acoustic (e.g. an orchestra) or electronic (e.g. a synthesizer), the recording path was analog in the sense that it was a continuous electronic signal flowing from microphone to mixer to tape. The voltage of this analog signal varied continuously, in step with the pressure of the sound waves produced by the music being recorded. Over a roughly 40-year span of time, a so-called “golden age” of audio production unfolded, during which albums by the Beatles or Miles Davis or Steely Dan or Michael Jackson captured not just first-rate performances but also an analog circuit path’s sound that is lauded to this day.

Analog can describe several facets of contemporary production. The first is the above-mentioned signal path, whereby a sound source is captured by a microphone and fed through electronic hardware before being recorded. Another facet of analog is electronic circuit-based synthesizers—such as the Moog synthesizers introduced in the 1960s and 70s—that produce their sounds through voltage-controlled waveform generators, electronic oscillators, filters, and so on. Finally, a third and perhaps most interesting facet of analog is a sound quality that some musicians claim to be able to discern. Analog’s sound is often described as warm and thick, in contrast to the allegedly cold and thin sound of digital. Why is this? A digital signal captures sounds through a series of discreet samples and hence produces a constrained and quantized representation. A digital recording is thus like a series of tiny photos of sound: a musical kineograph. In contrast, analog captures sounds through a continuous representation. The warmness or thickness of the analog sound is believed to be a by-product of analog recording equipment preserving the integrity of sound’s inherent continuous variability, as well as the analog’s circuit path’s imperfections—specifically, all the small distortions and saturations introduced as a by-product of sounds flowing through electronic gear (and today, through virtual emulations of this gear).

With that theory in mind, analog purists come in many forms. Some are recordists or audiophiles who insist on using as much vintage analog hardware such as pre-amps and compressors as possible. Some purists are record collectors who swear by the richer sound of analog’s medium of choice, vinyl. And some purists are fully digital music producers who, despite working with a computer, go to great lengths to recreate analog’s sonic aura using plug-in software that evokes wonky analog synthesizers and the saturated aura of analog hardware signal processors and effects.

In recent years, a turn towards so-called “lo-fi” music can be heard as a kind of nostalgia for some aspects of the analog sound, although not others. A lot of this music highlights–fetishizes?–analog’s imperfections by exaggerating them. Examples of this include foregrounding the sonic artifacts of analog recording technologies, like the hiss and wobble of cassette tapes, or the crackles and pops of old LPs. To illustrate, consider the two-minute track “controlla” by the artist Idealism in which we hear a brittle hip hop beat (which the artist describes as “steady, softened beats”), a little bass, and a wobbling piano. Like most lo-fi music, the track was made on computer, yet it evokes an analog sound of yesteryear–in this case, maybe a time in the 1980s when you had a Tascam four-track recorder in the basement.

In some lo-fi music, a track’s entire mix is run through effects that muffle and distort to create the sensation that the digitally-created new sounds were analog-created older ones. For example, listen to Iván Rosa’s “Ciudad de Papel”: 

In addition, and related to, lo-fi, the popularity of “synthwave” music is another facet of nostalgia for the analog. Synthwave often features conspicuously–yet precisely–dated synthesizer and drum machine sounds, often from the early 1980s, a time when MIDI had arrived, yet just prior to the computer-based turn in popular music production. Listen, for example, to the artist Miami Nights’ “Ocean Drive”, which somehow blends the soundtracks of Miami Vice and Flashdance into a sound you swear you’ve heard before:

The point of these examples of analog nostalgia is that nostalgia always looks backwards, to a time when recorded music allegedly sounded better–and by better many musicians mean “warmer” and “less than perfect.” By strategically using obviously analog and/or retro sounds, lo fi and synthwave musicians show a selective interpretation and recasting of an era of recorded music’s history. While music is mostly produced and recorded digitally now, the analog is here to stay.


Resonant Thoughts: Ron Friedman’s “Decoding Greatness” (2021)

“It’s noteworthy that the first action a computer program designed to detect patterns undertakes is not to analyze but to collect. Which is consistent with how many writers, musicians, and designers view themselves: not as master craftsmen but as collectors. They consume voraciously, pursue obsessively, and accumulate influences the way chefs hunt for ingredients.”

“The most effective practice regimens avoid extended repetition, even if that means spending less time working on a target skill. Instead they harness the power of novelty and shake things up by blending an assortment of tasks, which results in sharper learning and stronger performance.”

– Ron Friedman, Decoding Greatness (2021)

On Tempo

Tempo—or bpm: beats per minute–is music’s invisible engine. As listeners and makers we focus on the music’s rhythms, and if it has one, its beat. We hear the syncopations and steady-pulse timelines. We hear the time (typically) divided up among low and high pitched instruments like kick drums, snares, and hi hats. And specific rhythms—four-on-the-floor EDM, swinging jazz, lugubrious folk rock—signify particular musical styles. But tempo is a bit more abstract because it never announces itself, yet informs how different rhythms feel. A tempo is slow or fast, its feel is dragging or rushing, calm or hyper. The wrong tempo can make the music sound worse. Consider an example: at a show a few days ago, the conductor took a slightly slower tempo and suddenly the music felt, to me, sad. Suddenly the sounds were as if without power. We musicians were powerless to change the situation, as we could only follow the conductor’s indifferent baton. For the duration of music, the world lost its pep and I made a mental note to think more about tempo. On the other hand, on a good show day the right tempo feels perfectly calibrated to the moment, alive, and effortless to play.

When you’re making music, it’s worth taking a moment to think about tempo before you begin. In the past, I have sometimes been lazy about tempo. If I made a piece at 60 bpm, the next ten pieces might well stay at that tempo because I never bothered to change it. This reminds me of a quote by the English producer Dexplicit who explains how the default tempo of his DAW, FL Studio, impacted his work: “I got so accustomed to the default tempo that everything I made in my earlier days was 140bpm. Whether it was garage, grime or bassline, it was almost exclusively at that tempo for this reason.”

Increasingly, when I listen to music I focus on its tempo above all else. First I try to guess it, then I tap along on a metronome to figure it out more precisely. I’m often surprised how fast some musics are, even though they appear to move rather slowly. For instance, you might encounter a piece of music with a bpm of 150, yet some of its parts change at a half-time, or 75 bpm feel. In other words, the beat moves fast, while the chords move slow. Alternately, a piece might slink along at a slow-ish 90 bpm, yet some of its parts—rolling hi hats or arpeggiating sequences—chatter away two thirds faster. I enjoy music that works in this way, and such levels of pulsation rates bring to mind ancient musical composition techniques such as prolation canons and the sea of tensions they create. (I wrote about them in a blog post here.)

Finally, I have also found it useful to steal the tempo of music I enjoy listening to for use in my own work. While tempo is music’s invisible engine, it isn’t music’s copyrightable content per se. Tempo isn’t artistic property. In and outside of music, tempo is merely, yet crucially, our rate of movement, an agreed upon level of happening and intensity upon which we build.