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Studio Hardware

Why still analogue technology

In the last 20 years, plug-ins have made things possible that analogue technology can hardly accomplish: In terms of signal fidelity and phase behaviour, plug-ins like the equalisers from Fabfilter or Universal Audio are clearly superior to analogue devices. Even the reproduction of analogue classics is possible nowadays: Instead of imitating the sound of a Fairchild or an API 512, the circuit diagram is transferred 1:1 into a physical, digital model (called physical modelling), which behaves exactly like the original. So why spend a lot of money on analogue preamps, compressors and equalisers? Here, the devil is in the detail: In the design of the plug-ins, component tolerances have not been taken into account much, while the complex reaction to different impedances and levels has hardly been considered at all. The same applies to the characteristic analogue overdrive behaviour: Saturation produces harmonics. In the high frequencies, harmonics go beyond the playback range of most plug-ins and thus generate errors (aliases) that are reflected back into the audible range. Only truly outstanding software manages to convincingly reproduce the overtone behaviour of analogue technology.

But more than that: the heyday of analogue technology was not in the 70s, it is today. Companies like Drawmer, SPL and Elysia produce independent, special and functional technology outside the mainstream that cannot yet be imitated with plug-ins and sometimes have clear advantages over plug-ins due to their unique way of working. Pre-amplifiers for microphones are another story: establishing the line level before digital conversion has to be done in analogue. The quality of the preamplifier used, whether built into the interface or not, will always be decisive for the quality of the recording.

Pre-Amps & Channel Strips

Preamplifiers are part of every mixing console or audio interface, but can also be purchased separately. The quality of the preamplification, along with the choice of microphone, is decisive for the further signal flow, so that high-quality sounding tracks can be recorded more easily with a good preamplifier. Especially popular are the AMS Neve 1073, which is available with or without equaliser, as well as its various clones in different price ranges. The Dutch company Triton Audio also produces small preamps with a fixed gain value that can simply be plugged into the microphone. A channel strip, on the other hand, is a complete input channel like in a large console with preamp, EQ and compressor. Especially for microphones with a low output level, such as ribbons or some dynamic microphones, a good preamp should be included in the purchase price. Apart from the equipment and the sound character, the maximum possible amplification is important.

Equalizer & Compressors

Despite the impressive results that can be achieved nowadays with plug-ins, sometimes even in the freeware sector, "real" compressors, equalisers and saturation devices still enjoy great popularity. The reason is simple: these devices facilitate the workflow of time-pressed sound professionals! Simply by being present in the signal path, they often deliver a sound that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with software. What's more, these differences in sound are more than mere nuances or subtleties that no one hears after mastering anyway. Anyone who has compressed vocals with an LA-2A, tried out the Pultec trick or sent their bass line through a 1176 in all-buttons mode will not want to do without it again, just like the guitarist who once played a real Plexi at full range in the studio.

Fortunately, these devices have become affordable in recent years: Thanks to the copying efforts of Warm Audio, Heritage Audio, Golden Age Project or Klark Teknik, the extremely expensive originals have also become interesting for the home studio. If you prefer an original instead of a copy, you should take a look at SPL, Elysia or Drawmer: All three companies produce excellent audio technology without mojo, but with a brilliant will to innovate and finely tunable sound behaviour.

Effect Processors

The classic habitat of hardware effects, apart from studio use, are the side racks of live sound engineers. These are usually reverb or multi-effect processors that are used for all instrument groups and vocals. Important models of this type are, for example, the Lexicon MX 200 or the various models from TC Electronic, which can be purchased in all price ranges and all of which offer an absolutely suitable sound and, depending on the model, the same detailed setting options as a plug-in. In the meantime, however, these devices have fallen behind, especially in smaller setups, due to the increasingly better effects sections integrated into the mixing consoles. In the recording studio, however, they are still the first choice for high-quality reverberation spaces. The Harmonizer H7600 from Eventide is one of the top models and qualifies itself through many years of use in all studio applications.

Producers and engineers who work with computers can combine the best of both worlds with the TC DVR250-DT or Universal Audio's effects processors, for example, and outsource valuable computing power directly from the DAW to computer technology specialised in sound processing.

Especially for singers, the desire arose to make complex studio effects available directly on stage during live performances, so that first-class solutions for pitch correction, reverb, compression or voice doubling came onto the market with the Voice Live series from TC or the Boss VE20.

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What does Class-A mean?

The term Class-A originates from power amplifier technology. For technical reasons, Class-A power amplifiers can reproduce audio material very accurately and distortion-free with less circuitry. However, these advantages have to be paid for with a comparatively high energy consumption. The distinction between Class-A or, for example, Class-AB or Class-D, which is also known from guitar amplifiers, does not really matter for preamplifiers such as microphone amplifiers, transition amplifiers in compressors or guitar pedals: A circuit design other than Class-A would not provide any advantage at all for these low-power stages because the energy consumption is comparatively insignificant. That's why all microphone amplifiers, compressors, equalisers, distortors and other equipment are always designed in Class-A. So why do you come across this term so often? Especially manufacturers of recording equipment based on classics like the Neve 1073, the Urei 1176 or on their sound characteristics use this term to emphasise the authenticity of their products. Similar to power amp technology, it therefore means: no effort has been spared to ensure uncompromising sound quality and carefully controlled colouration.

What does discrete mean?

There are two different designs for electronic components: Either they are designed for through-hole mounting or for soldering directly onto the circuit board. The former are the discrete components and their counterparts in the second group are called SMD components, which you also know from inside your computer. Circuits built with discrete components have basically no advantages over those with SMD components, but they pose fewer problems for the engineer in solving heat dissipation and are easier for the technician because they can be replaced without a microscope and special soldering iron in case of repair. In contrast, SMD components (in mass production) are many times cheaper than discrete components and can be processed better and faster, allowing for a much more compact PCB design. But apart from the fact that high-capacity electrolytic capacitors or many high-end components such as styrene capacitors or Mundorf's film capacitors are only available as discrete components, the term discrete, just like the term Class-A, nowadays mainly serves as an advertising term; as a referent for the fact that no costs and no efforts have been spared in the development or replication of the circuit in order to be able to deliver uncompromising quality.