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Leader: Going The Distance

Sam Inglis By Sam Inglis
Published May 2024

Going the Distance

One of the good things about analogue gear, supposedly, is that it doesn’t suffer from built‑in obsolescence. Software licences become useless if the manufacturer fails to keep their product current. Digital hardware often depends on driver updates to keep it operational. But as long as there are patchbays, there’ll always be a home for our analogue compressor or EQ. And in a world where sustainability is a pressing concern, we should all aim to own things that are timeless rather than disposable.

In practice, things are rarely as simple as that. For one thing, there’s plenty of ancient digital gear that still works perfectly well. Your Publison delay or PPG synth won’t become a doorstop just because those companies aren’t issuing new firmware. The life‑limiting factor with older digital kit is servicing and the availability of parts, just as it is with most analogue equipment.

Even with contemporary equipment, though, the risks of built‑in obsolescence are often overstated. Yes, there have been some shocking and high‑profile cases of abandonware, but when audio interfaces go to the great driver architect in the sky, it’s often not because of compatibility issues. It’s because they have become physically unreliable, or superseded by better‑sounding, more powerful replacements. And wasn’t that exactly what happened with analogue mixing consoles, back in the day?

Large‑format consoles and other classic gear were, at least, designed to be easily repaired and maintained, and that certainly isn’t true of modern digital hardware. But neither was it ever true of analogue circuits encapsulated in goop, or integrated circuits with identifying markings scratched off. And it’s not only digital gear nowadays that uses surface‑mount components and doesn’t come with schematics.

...when those digital tools aren’t available, even being fully analogue does not offer unlimited protection against obsolescence.

Finally, although analogue gear may be durable, its usefulness in the modern studio often depends on digital tools that allow us to create an environment in which it can be integrated. And the flip side of that is that when those digital tools aren’t available, even being fully analogue does not offer unlimited protection against obsolescence.

For example, most Ambisonic microphones generate an entirely conventional four‑channel analogue signal. Before it reaches the listener, this output needs to be matrixed to B‑format and then decoded to a virtual mic or speaker array. In the more upmarket Soundfield models, this is done in hardware, but most Ambisonic mics rely on software processing. Yet, at the time of writing, there are no Apple Silicon native plug‑ins that can convert A‑format to B‑format; and I know of only one developer, Blue Ripple Sound, offering compatible Apple Silicon plug‑ins for processing the B‑format signal.

For now, Ambisonic mic owners can run legacy code under Rosetta — but what will become of our precious all‑analogue devices when that is no longer possible?

Sam Inglis Editor In Chief