What we can learn from old samplers
Modern digital recording is great. So convenient, so clean, so reliable! So much to love. Excellent-sounding recordings are available to artists in a highly democratized way. What a time to be alive.
The one thing that’s sometimes a bit of an issue for me is the “so clean” bit. Like, sometimes it’s a bit too clean? Sometimes I feel like stuff I get to mix is lacking a little bit of character at the track level.
So I like to rough things up a bit! And, because I’m old enough to have come up with hardware samplers, I sometimes draw inspiration from that world — specifically, the AD/DA side of things.
AD and DA stand for “analog to digital” and “digital to analog,” and they refer respectively to the processes of bringing analog audio into a digital device and getting digital audio back out into the analog world. These are functions that we already use every day in our recordings — our audio interfaces handle this for us.
But, back in the day, if you had a hardware sampler (Akai S950, MPC, Emulator, Fairlight, etc), the device itself would have its own custom AD and DA chips onboard. And these old chips had a sound about them! They would variously make the sound a bit crunchier, or a bit “harder,” or a bit grittier, or a bit less hi-fi, or a bit “warmer.”
And, further, because CPU and memory were expensive back then, there were also always methods onboard for using less of them: bandwidth reduction, sampling-rate reduction, and bit-depth reduction. Each of these processes, which were typically user-configurable, also offered their own unique palettes for use and creative abuse.
And, great news: you can now get the sounds of these older AD/DA and sampling-related processes in your DAW. So cool! Here are three of my favorites:
https://www.inphonik.com/products/rx950-classic-ad-da-converter/ — emulates the sound of the Akai S950. Not versatile, but sounds fantastic. (US $19)
https://tal-software.com/products/tal-dac — this is both the most versatile and the best-sounding of the bunch; not only does it let you choose from a number of DAC emulations, but it also lets you design a virtual reconstruction filter, including jitter. (US $25)
https://www.hornetplugins.com/plugins/hornet-adda/ — this one also has a lot of user configurability, including both input and output saturation. (US $13)
It’s easy to get “mangled” sounds with any of these plugins, and that can for sure be fun. But where I tend to prefer them is in their subtler applications; they can rough up a sound in ways that are hard to put your finger on but which add a ton of emotional interest and a “finished” character.
Long live obsolete technology — jamie