I often get asked about the difference between analogue and digital or working ‘in the box’ compared to using external signal processors.
The term ‘in the box’ refers to working on a computer and doing all of your editing with a software also known as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
There seems to be a common misconception that analogue sounds better than digital but the fact is that you can get great sound out of both and the main difference between the two is in the workflow.
When you produce music on a digital system (i.e a laptop with Logic installed on it) your decisions are heavily influenced by the visual feedback your software is displaying on the screen.
The problem with this workflow is that your brain can sometimes trick you in to thinking that the audio has changed when in fact it hasn’t. One example that I’ve experienced a few times is hearing a specific track (piano for example) getting louder whilst moving a fader up and later realizing that I’ve been moving the fader of another instrument.
This mind trick is related to the McGurk effect which demonstrates the interaction between hearing and vision and how our brain can misinterpret visual feedback and translate it into sound that doesn’t really exist, this video demonstrates this phenomena:
Working with analogue gear is very different. For starters, there is often no screen which forces you to listen for changes instead of relying on visual feedback.
Another difference is the comfort element — on an analogue system every parameter has its own physical knob which you can fine tune using your fingers. I personally find it much more comfortable and organic than using a mouse.
It is clear that modern technology has made the process of music production easier and more affordable and with the use of recently developed audio apps, musicians and engineers don’t even need to use their ears in order to tune their instruments, kill feedback loops coming out of a PA system or even decide on where to position the microphones when recording.
I'm not saying these tools should be dismissed but I would recommend you to keep in mind that relying on these tools might prevent you from using your ears and hinder the development of your listening skills which is the most important tool you can have when working on music.
There is really no problem with the sound of modern digital systems, but only with the way they are used to make music. Making music is much more fun and natural with a hands-on approach that allows you to really listen without staring at a screen and with the right tools (such as my Mackie controller below) this can also be done on a digital system.