Analog Schmanalog

Ever notice how most analog vs. digital battles discussions boil down to two basic questions?

1. Can digital sound as good as analog?
2. What are the practical benefits of digital?

They’re good questions, but they tend to overshadow another important (and probably more interesting) topic: What are the musical benefits of digital?

Everyone loves great analog guitar sounds. But there’s lots of cool stuff that you can only do in digital. Here are a few of the ones I enjoy.

A partial list of the strictly digital sounds and techniques heard here:

• looping
• granular synthesis and delay
• pitch-shifted delays and reverbs
• impulse-response reverbs
• subharmonic sysnthesis
• Realtime MIDI control

You heard it here first!

Hey, I’m totally guilty of fostering simplistic analog vs. digital arguments. After all, I launched this blog over a year ago with an Amps vs. Models listening contest. (The prizes have long since been claimed, but you can still take the test.) But maybe we should spend a little less time arguing about how faithfully that amp model mimics the sound of an amp from 1965, and a little more time exploring the cool and meaningful musical applications of post-analog tone production?

17 comments to Analog Schmanalog

  • Thomas

    Agreed. Digital processing allows so much room for wild and interesting sounds, yet most guitarists seem to want the same old Fender/Marshall/Mesa sounds. My recent fascination with electronic music and synthesizers has really opened my mind. That’s the cool thing about electric guitar – since your sound has been turned into electricity, you can do virtually anything to it – pun intended. I’d love to see more posts about unique digital sounds and how to make them. Plus, it’s always good to see/hear the Steelcaster. 🙂

  • Digital Larry

    I’m sorry to contradict you, but I am now designing an analog looper that was inspired by your Oil-Can Delay. It is the Kenmorely Dryer-Drum delay/looper which utilizes my old Kenmore Dryer’s drum as the charge storage device.

    The clothes flopping around don’t seem to directly impact the charge signal storage on the drum, however they do create a subtle “mojo” in the rotational jitter that seems best with fuzzy blankets and worst with Levi’s 501s.

    Adapting this unit to stage performance is going to be tough, however it might be made a little easier by booking low key gigs at the laundromat. At least that way it would blend in.

  • Tom Mulhern

    Good points, Joe. The focus really should be on the end-product of musicality. Unfortunately, marketing people grab hold of a buzz word like “analog” or “digital” and shake it to death, causing confusion in the marketplace. Case in point: there’s all sorts of maybe-true/maybe-false info cooked up around certain analog chips used in analog delay pedals and choruses that just add mud to the water. It ain’t the components we listen to. If an analog anything sounds better than a digital version (or vice versa), then my ears will be my guide. I’m just glad that some people are smart enough to build analog, digital, or hybrid devices that cleverly sound good enough to use.

    • joe

      Hey Ferd — thanks for stopping in! (“Ferd” is what we called Tom M. when we all worked together at Guitar Player.)

      Know what’s interesting on that front? All the newly manufactured vintage components, presumably coming out of China, and about which I can only get sketchy details. For example, all those bucket-brigade chips in those inexpensive Dunlop analog delays ain’t 30 years old. Same with the flood of (good-sounding) germanium transistors available from Mammoth and other vendors. Interesting.

  • Mika

    I’m not really going to weight in a whole lot on the digital vs. analog debate.

    I’m just going to say that your music made me happy. That’s all.

    • joe

      Oh, I’m so glad to hear it. Usually it makes me miserable. 😉

      Naw, just kidding. Guitar playing is actually kind of fun.

      Thanks for the kind words, man! 🙂

  • Sam Geese

    Locutus of Borg, is that you?

  • David Fung

    It’s been a few months since I mentioned how much I love the sound of your Trussart, so I thought I should mention that I love the sound of your Trussart!

    • joe

      Yeah, I love that thing! Definitely my favorite guitar. I think I don’t use it in my videos and audio examples as much as I might, because I have it tuned down to CGCFAD (low to high) and string with .013s, so I sometime think it’s not a great reference instrument for demonstrating some guitar gear — I usually go with a more standard reference, like a Strat or Paul (or Strat-oid or Paul-oid).

      James guitar’s feel like old guitars to me, and I don’t just mean the artfully distressed character of his finishes. They always have such a strong personality and point of view. More personality, I guess. And after playing it for the better part of a decade, it is SERIOUSLY worn in. I’m hard on my gear.

      The Steelcaster is the ONLY guitar I used to record the entire Mental 99 album (

  • Digital Larry

    Analog stuff has the edge of being less predictable, especially in circuits that depend a lot on the characteristics of things like tubes or transistors, which vary all over the place. In the case of tubes, they even change over the lifetime of the device. As a result, things can happen which were not envisioned or intended by the designer.

    If you bought or built ten analog phasers, and looked at their notch spacing, each one would be slightly different. Digital? No way. Hup two three four everyone the same. “Oh, but we can randomize it, see, and simulate aging effects”! Yeah, OK. Now you’re taking all the fun out of it.

    Also, there are places where, for example, your guitar’s input interacts with a tube input stage. The effect is different whether you use a humbucker, single coil, or buffered guitar. “Oh, but see, we can characterize that and simulate it in DSP!”. Now you’re really making me mad.

    Part of this is simply philosophical. Some people just like using a particular form of technology. I fall into both camps. I’ve used programmable effects boxes and really enjoyed the sounds, but found in general that the mindset required to adjust or deal with any menus or parameters on a screen was entirely antithetical to my creative flow. So I don’t have any of those things any more. my most recent piece of kit is the Line 6 M9 stompbox modeler. That is much more accessible to me, as I no longer have to try to remember what “patch 23” sounds like.

    To me the biggest difference between digital and analog manifestations of tone generators is how easy they are to use. Analog will typically have fewer adjustments possible. Once you get into flexible, programmable systems, DSP or not, designers have a critical decision to make balancing between flexibility on one side and complexity (inversely proportional to usability) on the other side.

    I think I saw this first when I graduated from my first analog synth (a 6-voice single oscillator Sequential Circuits Six-Trak) to a Yamaha FM synth rack unit. With analog, you could adjust a certain parameter, and have some sort of anticipation of what that change would sound like. With FM, just about all bets were off, other than within a few tweaks, your patch would sound like an elephant having a rough morning in a giant Rubbermaid garbage can.

    However this has nothing to do with the inherent tone capabilities of analog circuits vs. DSP. On that point I’d have to remain on the fence, since I’ve heard both awesome and awful examples of each.

    • joe

      I think Analog Larry has kidnapped Digital Larry and taken his place. 😉

      You raise SO many complex audio conundrums here, Larry! And evangelizing for digital is the furthest thing from my mind. There are many, many reasons players might now want to play through some crazy rig like I’m using in the video. Whenever players ask me about it, I always find myself discouraging them from going down that road!

      And oh man — what you said about flexibility/complexity design decisions is SO true. Example: I really, really thought I was going to end up making complex stompboxes, but went in the opposite direction. Now I tend to think that sometimes the best thing a designer can do for a user is take a definite point of view and stick with it.

      But that’s a very Apple idea, I suppose, and I understand the reasons some folks don’t like the way Apple software can be so “predigested,” though I am very much an Apple geek. I think the reason I relate to MainStage so well is because it straddles that divide in an interesting way. It’s infinitely customizable — I make my own UIs and instruments. But what I end up making are simple interfaces that do what I want them to do and nothing more.

      I suppose what leads users down one path or the other is at least as much psychological as technical.

  • Oinkus

    Hate to bring it up but money is a huge factor in this equation.I bought a few of the early digital multi effect processors that were just god awful in every way.Besides the prohibitive price tag and complicated operating parameters, if you spent enough(eternity)time working on them you could get some good sounds.A DD 3 is almost unrelated to an Echoplex. It pretty much takes us back to the whole basic idea,that if things work for you then they are good period endofstory.

  • mwseniff

    I always thought it was unfotunate that digital FX tried to make digital clones of analog FX and failed at it a lot. However I am starting to see some very creative new digital FX like Earthquaker’s Rainbow Machine

    Check out some demos. I love mine there are so many sounds available inside from subtle to full on UFO landings

    I do use some amp modelling software but not to recreate classic tones rather to do something useful for the project. It can also speed up the process of recording. I never do reamping because I feel that the guitar reacting to the FX is part of the performance and changing things later sounds phony to me.

  • daveyohill

    Hey Joe, Wondering if there’s a possibility of maybe seeing one of your MainStage channel strips, patches or several. I’m rather new to this digital thing and have gone as “all in” as I can afford (new Mac, MainStage, 16GB RAM, Focusrite i2i, decent headphones). My ability to develop great tone seems to be hit or miss. I’ve played guitar for ever but have never recorded. Even as organic as Apple has made Amp designer and Pedalboard I’m not over the world with my tone yet. I believe that is maybe because I don’t know how to think like a recording engineer as far as setting up the signal and plugins for dynamics and EQ. I am TOTALLY having a blast but think there is so much more available under the hood if I only had a clue! Also really digging your blog. Thanks!


    • joe

      Hi Dave!

      Well, it sounds like you purchased the right stuff! But as cool as some of those tools are, it’s probably going to take some experimentation and practice to bend it all to your will.

      Actually, you already have a lot of my channel strips, ’cause they’re in the Logic/MainStage libraries. Do you know how to load channel strips in MainStage? It may be worth your while to try loading complete channel strips (as well as just dialing in sounds from scratch, like you’re probably already doing). I can’t promise you’ll dig these particular sounds, but I CAN promise you’ll learn a lot about how effects chains work. 🙂

      Anyway, I think you’ve inspired me to write a little intro to MainStage piece for the blog. In the meantime, in case you’re curious, here’s as link to the template I’ve been using for live shows:

      If you load a channel strip, the controls here will NOT be pre-mapped to plug-in parameters — you have to make the assignments manually. But once you do make assignments you like, just save the patch, and use it as a template for making additional sounds, so you don’t have to do all the assigning from scratch each time.

      Hope that helps!

  • daveyohill


    Thanks for the concert template. Glad to hear your thinking of doing a piece for the blog. I do understand how to load channel strips and assignments and such but it is good to see how your concert template is set up. Thanks again! Looking forward the next installment. I have begun recording most of my jam sessions and frequently find I can mine them for loops or samples to use in the future. Cool stuff!


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