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Distortion is good




One of the common comments on audio forums a few years ago was that old analog recordings had a fuller, richer, warmer, and generally more pleasant sound to the ear, whereas digital recordings sounded sterile, flat, bright. , without soul". The objective explanation for this subjective perception is the presence of "harmonic distortion", present in the previous analog recordings and absent in the later digital recordings.


Harmonic distortion is the electronic addition of frequencies to the original audio signal caused by the equipment that was used. What some call "color" was generated by the interaction between the original audio signal coming from the microphone and the equipment used to alter said signal in order to make it useful and storable. Preamplifier, console, processors, tape recording machine, etc., were stages of a linear audio chain through which the signal passed, becoming soaked in harmonic distortion as it passed through each of these pieces of equipment. In digital recording through audio interfaces this harmonic distortion is non-existent, since the amount of it that is present in said device is of such a slight level that it is practically imperceptible. In this sense, the digital recording is totally faithful to the signal, clean, without involuntary additions. We could say that it is a pure recording. This aspect, although desirable from a strictly technical paradigm of precision and fidelity of the audio signal, artistically it is not so desirable and the reason for this could be found in the way our human hearing evolved thousands of years ago on this noisy planet.


The wind, the rain, the water, the sea, the birds, the thunder, the echoes in the caves and in general the entire natural environment in which our species evolved have been a sound backdrop full of frequencies, mostly pleasant. to the human ear. Who has not felt how their mind relaxes when they move away from the inharmonious noise of the city and immerse themselves in the peaceful and organic noise of the countryside and nature? Said noise is supremely loaded with frequencies that interact with each other in a harmonious way. In the case of analog recording we can find a type of frequency interaction "analogous" to that of the natural world, that is, not identical, but similar. It is perhaps because our ear/brain associates sounds rich in frequencies with something pleasant that analog recording seems more "artsy and musical" to us. The problem with it is its storage and subsequent manipulation, which in the case of digital recording is its strength.


How can we take the best of each technology to use to our advantage? In studios with large budgets, the main path has been to combine analog hardware equipment with digital recorders, configuring a hybrid system. Fortunately for those of us who do not have the purchasing power, and honestly the time, to acquire and work with analog equipment, digital technology itself has provided us with tools that emulate the tonal behavior of expensive analog equipment, with a very high level of precision, so high that in practice it is impossible to know if a song was processed with real equipment or digital simulations just by listening to it. Logically, simulations are just that, simulations, imitations, not the "real" and from a purist and even conceited perspective it will be argued that they are of a lower category, but to the human ear, it is impossible to distinguish the one that was processed with digital simulations from the one that was processed with analog equipment. So this debate is meaningless. What does make sense is to understand that our ears like distortion, it is like the "seasoning" of the audio, it is that "tasty little color" that makes well-played and well-recorded music a pleasure to listen to.


That said, the beginning sound engineer must train his ear a lot by listening to good quality recordings and also quality live music. Nourish sound memory with sound delicacies, in the same way that an aspiring chef must educate her palate by eating everything and of good quality, to learn to recognize the taste of good food. If your auditory education is poor, if all you listen to is through the insipid audio algorithms of YouTube or, worse still, you got used to listening to and judging music by how it sounds on your cell phone or on bad, cheap headphones and So you pretend to be a music producer or audio mixer, because you will never become a gourmet food chef, even if you sell as many hamburgers as McDonald's.


Learn to know your equipment, nourish your hearing with well-recorded sounds, listen to CDs if possible, vinyl if possible as well and on equipment with good sound, not cheap headphones, and cultivate demanding sound criteria. It is true, today there are low-cost devices that sound very good, but you know how to use them and take advantage of their benefits and know how to overcome their weaknesses. A good microphone and a good interface, added to quality plugins, will guarantee technical audio quality and your listening experience, your quality sound nutrition will guarantee an outstanding artistic product.

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