4 Ways to Add Analog Sound to Your Digital Productions – w/ Dan Freeman

Dubspot instructor and prolific musician Dan Freeman suggests a few way to get out of the box and add some analog sound to your digital creation process.


Much of today’s production, especially in realm of electronic music, is done completely in the digital medium, or as people say, “in the box.” Creating sounds, composing, and mixing entirely on a computer has great benefits both for sound design and workflow, but music produced this way tends to have a certain color and sound to it. Similarly, music produced and recorded with traditional analog gear has a certain color and sound to it.

I’m not going get into any kind of discussion about which is “better.” There is running argument on certain websites where you can hear arguments for both sides. I see them as different colors that can be utilized, the way a painter would use shades of blues or greens. I mainly produce with digital gear, but I love incorporating some analog equipment and techniques to enrich the sound.

In a recent Dubspot interview with Moby, he summed up why it’s such a good idea for young producers to embrace analog: ”One of the challenges to an up-and-coming producer is how do you sound distinctive? It’s very easy to stay purely in the digital realm because it does everything. Figure out how to incorporate an analog element. Learn how to use microphones and compressors and pre-amps and samples. Bring elements in that other people aren’t going to have access to.”


1. Use Analog Instruments and Synthesizers

If you have a soundcard with even one channel, like an Apogee One, you can add some guitar, bass, or really any instrument that you can plug in or mic up. As a bass player, and a proud owner of a Moog Lil’ Phatty analog synth, I’m biased. I often design the upper part of the bass digitally, in Ableton’s Operator, for example, because I dig the harsh, jagged sound of FM synthesis. Then, I’ll use Ableton’s External Instrument device to send MIDI to the Lil’ Phatty, and record its output into Live. I love the deep, rich lows of the Lil’ Phatty, and the fact that wave form is always slighly different, even on the same note. Other times, I’ll plug in a bass guitar, or a guitar, and sample the sounds to a Drum Rack. I’ll then use the ease of digital editing to create new patterns with these instruments.


2. Re-Amping and Outboard Processing

Take a sound that you’ve created digitally, send it out of the computer for processing in the analog domain, and record the results. For example, send an output to a guitar or bass amp, and record the signal through a mic. I use a Rivera guitar amplifier and an Eden bass amp–both of which live in my studio. I also sometimes take the bass sounds I build in Ableton’s Sampler, and run it through my Great River preamp and EL8 Distressor to warm the sound up. Dubspot instructor Steve Nalepa uses a little Orange guitar amp. I also have a buddy that uses a cheap Gorilla practice amp. It doesn’t have to be super hi-fidelity: sometimes lo-fi is what you want. My mic of choice for re-amping is often just an SM57. Guitar pedals are another great option. I sometimes run bass through a Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver pedal, or a fuzz pedal by Death By Audio, called the Harmonic Transformer. Really, anything you have laying around can work in the right situation.

It’s important to bear in mind that guitar amps and pedals take a high impedance, instrument-level input. Your audio interface sends line-level which is louder than instrument level. As Dubspot instructor and Ableton guru Jon Margulies (a.k.a. Hobotech) puts it, “a lot of guitar gear sounds like crap if you don’t knock the signal down to instrument level before processing.”  There are boxes out there to do this for you, such as the ones made by Radial Engineering and Pigtronix. They’re not huge investments and will make your life considerably easier if you re-amp a lot.


3. Sum Your Mix To Analog

I recently read Mixerman’s Zen and the Art of Mixing (which I highly recommend), in which he attacks the sound of digital summing. If you’re new to the concept of summing, here’s the deal: if you have 40 tracks in a mix, all of them are “summed” to a two-track (stereo) signal in the DAW’s master channel. This is also what a mixing console does, except the computer does it by crunching numbers, while an analog console combines multiple electrical signals instead. Curious to see for myself (and inspired by Goth Triad’s phenomenal performance at Cielo for Dubspot’s seventh anniversary), I began using an analog console to sum signals from Live during performance. I found that I really do like the sound, and it gives me a lot more headroom than simply going out of the soundcard.

If you are curious to apply this to a mix, there are dedicated pieces of equipment, like the Dangerous 2 Bus, which will take groups of tracks from the DAW, and sum them to stereo. (For this technique, you’ll need a soundcard with at least eight outputs.) You can also rent time at a studio with an analog console and great converters, and sum the tracks through the board to test out the process without investing in a pricey piece of gear.

I don’t believe that this will ever be the key to making a bad mix sound good. There are plenty of fantastic mixers that sum “in the box” and their results speak for themselves. Mixing has much more to do with having great music, performances, sound design, arrangements, and proper use of gain and spatial techniques. However, this might be a way of experimenting with a different color to find out if it works for you. For the second part of this series, I’ll be bringing a mix to The Hook Studios in Brooklyn, where I’ll sum a mix through a Harrison console, print it to tape, and compare it to the version I summed in the computer.


4. Use everyday sounds from life to inspire your sound design

This is not technically the use of analog, but I want to throw this suggestion in anyway. Lately, I’ve been recording random noises on my iPhone, e-mailing them to myself and using Ableton’s Sampler instrument to turn them into parts of tracks. For example, the sound on the two and four of this beat is the sound of the metal front door of my apartment building closing. Here’s a snippet: https://soundcloud.com/c0m1x/junk-snare-sample

I find that using samples from your environment will give you a distinct sound, and you can get some fantastic reverbs depending on the space you record the sound in. Plus, it’s a technique that doesn’t require a new, expensive piece of gear–just a working smartphone.


Dubspot instructor Dan Freeman (CØm1x) is a Brooklyn-based Bassist/Producer and Ableton Certified Trainer. He has traveled and performed extensively worldwide as a session bassist and with his group Comandante Zero (CØ), a digital music and art collective. He currently directs Dubspot’s international programs, and does clinics on production using Ableton Live around the globe. For more info, check out www.danfreeman.com.