Love the sound of high‑end analogue kit, but don’t have the space or the money to buy it? No problem...
Access Analog is both a business name and a mission statement. The goal is simple: to make high‑end studio equipment available to everyone who would like to use it. Perhaps you’d love to mix through analogue outboard, but can’t afford it. Maybe you work on the road and you can’t always be where your hardware is. Or possibly you’ve reluctantly given up on outboard because of the recall issues. Either way, Access Analog seems to have something to offer.
The service is enabled by two technological innovations. One is a free, cross‑platform plug‑in that sends audio from your DAW to a remote server for processing. The other is a system of robotics, which makes analogue studio hardware both recallable and automatable. Together, they allow studio gear in another location to be accessed directly from your DAW’s insert points. If you know you’re going to need a particular piece of gear at a particular time, you can book it in advance in half‑hour slots; alternatively, you can simply buy Access Analog credits and use them when inspiration strikes, as long as someone else hasn’t booked out the gear you need.
The plug‑in is called Analog Matrix and, operationally, it’s not unlike using a conventional plug‑in ‘chainer’. On the left is a graphical menu showing the available equipment. This reflects the selection you make in the Rack pop‑up, where you can choose from different collections of equipment in different physical locations. Access Analog also refer to these locations as servers, and each instance of the Analog Matrix plug‑in can talk to one server at once. At launch there was only a single server available, but more are in the works, and I was able to preview a mouthwatering selection of gear that’s about to come online in the new Nashville server.
Mouse over an item in the list and you’ll see a helpful tooltip telling you when it’s reserved, and how much time one Access Analog credit will buy you on that item. This varies from about 4.5 up to 8 minutes per credit, and only kicks in after 45 seconds, giving you the chance to quickly audition things without cost. The core server also offers a couple of Warm Audio processors that are permanently free, so you needn’t waste paid‑for time learning how it all works. In addition, Credits are sold in packages from 15 to 400; there is a discount for buying in bulk, so although the 15‑ and 50‑credit packages cost $15 and $50 respectively, the 400‑credit package is only $320.
To use these tasty bits of hardware, you simply drag them onto an empty slot in the upper section of the main window. The plug‑in itself is available in mono, stereo and mono‑to‑stereo versions, but always shows a stereo signal path here to reflect the fact that some of the gear is inherently stereo. Some of the mono processors are also available in multiples, and if for example you use two Pultec EQs or UA 1176 compressors, you can click a chain icon to link their controls. However, side‑chain linking is not currently available in this scenario.
There are five slots in total, and equipment can be reordered simply by dragging and dropping. Each slot that you use introduces a stage of A‑D and D‑A conversion — there’s no way to route the output of one unit into the input of the next in the analogue domain — but the rack uses high‑quality converters from Antelope Audio and I never noticed any degradation in sound quality, even when chaining three or four processors. Each slot has its own ±12dB gain trim control, as well as a Mix control for parallel processing.
The piece of gear currently selected for editing is highlighted with a green rectangle, and the actual editing is carried out through a (somewhat) photo‑realistic representation of the front panel. It’s little different from working with a plug‑in emulation of the same piece of kit, except that there is a lag between making an adjustment and hearing the results.
There are one or two operational quirks associated with Analog Matrix, though you get accustomed to them soon enough. One is that although there are factory and user presets associated with individual pieces of equipment, it’s currently not possible to store and recall entire chains. This wouldn’t be an issue except that it’s also not possible to move the plug‑in from one channel to another without losing your settings, and settings are not remembered when you save and reload a DAW project. Some way of recalling chains of processors is on the company’s road map for future development.
If you have a super‑fast broadband connection, you can send uncompressed 24‑bit audio directly to the server in real time. You may then be able to use Analog Matrix ‘live’ at the mix, exactly as you would a hardware insert within your DAW. That, however, depends on your DAW being able to compensate for the delay that Analog Matrix introduces into the signal path. By default, this is 1800ms, which is way higher than Pro Tools can manage, but other DAWs are more accommodating. Pro Tools users can work around this to some extent by routing everything that’s not being processed by Analog Matrix to an aux and using another instance in bypass on that bus, but it’s a bit of a kludge.
Those of us who live too far from the information superhighway will need to use Analog Matrix in data‑compressed mode. This allows you to use a variety of lossless and lossy streaming options to audition the settings you’ve made on the remote gear, but obviously you don’t want to pay to use high‑end analogue equipment only to have the signal compromised by a lossy codec. So, once you’ve got the settings as you want them, you can upload the uncompressed audio and have it processed offline (albeit, obviously, not faster than real time), before downloading the results. This can be done either by hitting Play on your DAW and capturing audio into a buffer, or by simply pointing the plug‑in at an audio file on your drive. The latter option is faster and supports the upload of multiple files for batch processing, which is perfect if, for example, you have a ton of stacked backing vocals that you want to process in one go.
At the time of writing, the original Access Analog server offers a total of 20 processing devices. These include studio staples such as the aforementioned pairs of 1176s and Pultecs, an SSL bus compressor, a pair of Empirical Labs Distressors, an LA2A, a Manley Variable Mu, a Neve 33609N and an API 5500 equaliser, but there are also some more modern and unusual processors, notably an SSL Fusion, Black Box HG2, Louder Than Liftoff Silver Bullet, Iron Age Audioworks L5, a pair of Daking compressors and, my personal favourites, a pair of Highland Dynamics BG2 compressors. It’s probably fair to say that if you can’t make something sound good with that lot, it’ll never sound good. However, it’s also fair to point out that there are relatively few EQ options in the collection as it stands. It would be nice to have a few more really high‑quality equalisers such as the classic Neve and SSL designs. Also missing from the line‑up as it stands are effects devices and, especially, reverbs. Even studios that already have a decent selection of high‑end outboard might see value in accessing a really good plate or chamber online!
However, the original server only represents the first step in an ambitious plan. High‑end outboard represents a massive investment, but at any given time, most of the processors in most of the world’s studios probably aren’t being used. Having demonstrated that their system works, Access Analog are hoping that other studios will be interested in setting up servers of their own in order to make more of a return on this investment. And that won’t just bring online more 1176s and Pultecs: there’s no reason in principle why the system shouldn’t be applied to reverb plates, effects units and even miked‑up guitar amps, as well as rare custom outboard that simply isn’t available to buy. And one of the reasons why we see quite a bit of modern high‑end outboard in the launch rack is that it’s an effective showcase for makers. If you’re a boutique manufacturer who produces a few tens of units a year, the advantages of making your equipment available to try online are obvious.
A taste of the treats to come can be found in the new Nashville server, which is about to come online as I write, and which introduces a spectacular selection of mainly vintage gear from the collection of Grammy‑winning engineer, mixer and producer F. Reid Shippen. As well as pairs of Chandler LTD‑2 and Altec RS124 compressors, the highlights include pairs of super‑rare Neve 1057, 1058, 2057 and 1064 equalisers and a pair of Pye compressor/limiters. Reid’s website at www.robotlemon.com is well worth a look, if only to gawp at the astonishing full list of kit in his studio!
Some products are a lot simpler to use than they sound, and Access Analog is a prime example. The Analog Matrix plug‑in window might look intimidating at first glance, but it really isn’t. If you’re accustomed to working with plug‑ins, you’ll be up and running in no time, and the fact that your audio is being sent halfway round the world to be processed is quickly forgotten. Apart from the lag, it really is just like working with software‑controlled hardware in a local rack. Analog Matrix also adds parallel processing capability to everything, which opens up some interesting possibilities.
If you’re coming from an in‑the‑box background, you might also be surprised by how some of this equipment sounds. The LA‑2A compressor is a prime example: there are plug‑in emulations that I like, including UA’s own, but none of them sounds quite as righteous on a bass guitar as the real thing in AA’s rack. I’ve not come across any plug‑in versions of the early Neve equipment in the Nashville server, all of which has a very distinctive and likeable sound character, while the Pye limiter will bring a smile to the face of even the dourest mix engineer. I thoroughly enjoyed using some of the other equipment in the racks, too, especially the Manley and Highland Dynamics compressors. It’s fair to say that a few days spent using Access Analog has lengthened my personal wishlist to an alarming degree!
Arguably, they’ve made it easier to use an 1176 on the other side of the globe than to patch one in at home!
However, it also reminded me why buying esoteric outboard is not for the faint‑hearted. There were clearly still one or two technical gremlins in the Nashville Neves, which I hope will be ironed out by the time you read this; and with some of the vintage and valve gear, you can’t always rely on perfect gain matching when two mono units are used on a stereo track. It might be nice if the trim fader could be adjusted separately for left and right channels. I also experienced one or two crashes relating to the plug‑in, including a repeatable one when recalling presets for linked mono processors. However, I’d emphasise that none of this really had much impact on the real‑world usability of the system, and it never wasted a significant amount of AA credit.
How much will it cost you to do a mix with Access Analog? That’s quite a difficult question to answer, because it will depend a lot on how you like to work. If you load some gear into a rack, forget about it and go off and do something else, you can easily burn up credits to no purpose. Equally, if you are focused and disciplined, it’s possible to get a surprising amount done with relatively few credits. My broadband wasn’t up to using the system in real time, so I typically concentrated on the main mix sources in turn, rendering the processed audio when I was happy with my settings. Working this way I got through an average of perhaps 20 credits per hour, but this was very variable. Overall, I’d say it compares favourably from both a financial and a mental health point of view with the alternative of hiring in a load of outboard, wiring it up to your studio and not sleeping for a few days!
Access Analog’s technology is extremely clever, but what’s equally impressive is how user‑friendly it is. Arguably, in fact, they’ve made it easier to use an 1176 on the other side of the globe than to patch one in at home. It already offers real value for almost any mix engineer, and the potential for future development is obvious. Much more than just a way of introducing some analogue class into your mixes, it’s a shop front for boutique manufacturers, a way to audition new gear and a playground in which you can have endless fun. If AA ever decide to add an extra A, it should probably stand for ‘addictive’…
I’m not aware of any direct alternatives, but if you’re ready to make a serious investment in analogue equipment that can be integrated into a DAW, there are other options available. Manufacturers such as Bettermaker and Wes Audio make high‑end analogue processors that can be controlled from plug‑in front ends, while McDSP’s innovative APB system takes the integration even further, in effect creating an analogue plug‑in co‑processor.
- Offers universal, easy access to the kind of high‑end outboard most of us will never own.
- Well thought‑out and intuitive user interface.
- Massive potential for development.
- Usable even with a mediocre Internet connection.
- Free to try and can be tailored to any budget.
- It’s only possible to store and recall presets for individual processors, not the entire plug‑in.
- Introduces more delay than some DAWs can compensate for.
- One or two stability issues in the review system.
Access Analog does exactly what it says on the tin, providing an easy, affordable way to work with high‑end outboard from the comfort of your own studio. You might be surprised at how much difference it can make to your mixes!