A flexible sound sculpting device with a fully analog signal path.
Today I want to talk to you about a trusty piece of gear that sits firmly on my studio desk and I don’t see it moving anytime soon. It’s simply one of my favourite external FX units: the Elektron Analog Heat.
The Analog Heat is advertised as an analog distortion device, but that sells it short. I see it more as a flexible sound sculpting device with a fully analog signal path. You can use it with hardware or as VST in your DAW. Let’s look at a few of the features and how I use them in my mixes. I hope you’ll get something out it and maybe find yourself grabbing a unit yourself. Let’s get started.
How to use Analog Heat with a DAW
If you have a bunch of external gear laying around you can use Analog Heat to process the audio signal like a guitar pedal or any other box. But the beauty of this device is that you can control the unit from within your DAW just like any software plugin. Super convenient!
For it to work you should have the latest version of Overbridge and the Analog Heat firmware installed. Here you can set the buffer size and change the user interface to the size and colours you like.
A neat little thing is that you can use the Analog Heat as an audio interface. This is completely optional and doesn’t impact the use as VST. On the one hand it means you can use the audio interface and VST at the same time, on the other hand you are free to use your existing audio interface and just use the Heat as external effects unit.
Once you add the VST to your track, you are greeted with a dark, color coded interface which lets you access all the functions of the physical unit in an intuitive layout. If you look closely you can even access things that won’t get to easily on the device itself. In the following section we’ll go through most of the functions.
Analog EQ & Analog Filter
Analog Heat is advertised as a distortion device, but I find myself often using just the analog EQ and filter sections on a track to shape a sound.
I select the Clean Boost setting, because this won’t color the sound (unless you really overdrive it). Then I head over to the EQ section where you have control over a low band and a high band, so you can add a little bit more warmth at low end or tame any piercing top lines. Often I find I need a third EQ band and luckily, that’s quite easy to do. Check out the filter section and switch it to the peak filter. Now you can affect a specific frequency band, which means combined with two band EQ you now have a three band EQ! The EQ & Filter setup is probably the most basic way to use the Analog Heat as a sound sculpting device.
The Heat sounds different to other VSTs or native plugins I have, because its completely analog. And having access to all these functions from the VST means you can automate analog filter sweeps, etc right from your DAW!
So yeah, having an analog EQ and filter accessible in your DAW is pretty dope, but the Heat obviously does a lot more than just that. Let’s check out the distortion circuits next!
The circuits on the big grey dial are neatly arranged from less distortion to more distortion. So let’s go through their characteristics and where you might want to use them.
The Cleaner Distortion Circuits
The Clean Boost circuit boosts and fattens up sounds. If you turn the drive knob, it starts adding some really subtle nuance to the sounds. Turn the ‘Dirt’ and you will hear nice harmonic distortion. Since you won’t get a lot of noticable distortion, I like to use it when I want to fatten up a group of tracks without changing their sound a lot.
The Saturation Circuit drives midrange & low frequencies and is definitely not as transparent as the clean boost. If it gets too fuzzy, simply pull back the dry/wet level – parallel processing style! If you feel you’re loosing your low end, use the EQ low band to bring it back in. The EQ is actually circuit specific, so it always does a good job of countering the distortion in case it goes overboard. I like to use this one on drums if I want to get them real crunchy. It’s also great on bass, because it makes the low end & mid range more even, while rolling off some of the high end and making it sit in the mix.
The Enhancement Circuit works more in the mid range and high end. It’s great on pad-like sounds, because it gives them a lot more character. Pull up the drive and you will hear the circuit scream fairly quickly, so work with the wet level to dial in exactly the sound you want.
The Mid Drive Circuit drives the midrange. Duh. This one’s great for making a presety sound into something slightly different by bringing out and distorting the mid range. It’s especially good on thick sounds in the midrange that take up a lot of space, like string arrangements. Give the midrange more grit with the dirt control, then apply a high pass to thin out the lower frequencies midrange. By now you know: Always use the wet level to find a pleasant balance.
The Crunchier Distortion Circuits
The Rough Crunch Circuit sounds crunchy and obviously distorted, with the high end rolled off. I like to use it similar to a low pass filter. You can easily get the the party next door effect. Nope, not the producer, but the sound of just hearing a booming lowend from a few houses down the road. This is a great style switch in the drum section, be it the intro or breakdown.
The Classic Distortion Circuit is what you expect from guitar distortion. You can emulate the sound of the electric guitar, but works great on synths too. Any presety lead sound quickly turns into an EDM stadium screamer. Then add some delay and you got yourself a gnarly supervillain lead. Dirt really does damage on this one, so be sure to work the high pass filter and dry/wet level to make it sit in the mix better.
With the Round Fuzz Circuit you get unique sonic characteristics right out of the gate. The EQ bumps the low end and rolls off high end. It also adds width to the sound because it pans it left and right a bit. It’s often a bit too much for my taste, so i haven’t really used it a lot, but it can be great on high frequency sounds. Use it to make them sit better in the mix.
With the High Gain Circuit, the name is the game. This is most aggressive circuit Heat has and it will really decimate the sound! Put this one your vanilla 808 sine wave and get a Yeezus & EPROM type 808 in a matter of seconds haha! If you’re not in the same lane as them and you like your distortion more subtle, either choose a different circuit or work the dry/wet level.
A note on resampling:
Only one instance of the Analog Heat can be open per project, so if you want to treat your drums separately from your bass (which you probably should…), you will need to resample drums running through Heat, so you have a flat audio file. Only then you can move the plugin to the next channel and change settings without loosing your perfectly dialed-in drum sound. For instructions how to resample in your DAW or device, consult the manual. If you resample, you have to do it in real time, letting the track run through completely. If you have a flatten function in your DAW, then Analog Heat will only scramble your track in unthinkable ways. I can’t explain why, but it will have something to do with the analog circuits 😉
What else is in the Analog Heat unit?
You can use the LFO to give the sound more movement. You have a few different modes with different waveforms to choose from (sawtooth, sine, square, random and a few more) and you can route the LFO to different places in the device, like the Filter, EQ, Amp, etc. There is also an Envelope Follower which basically reacts to the incoming audio and can trigger the start of the LFO. In tandem these two are super powerful, eg every time the kick or snare hits you get a clean signal, but the quieter hi-hats get distorted.
You also have Mid-Side Processing, where you can process the sounds in the center of the stereo spectrum separately from the ones panned to the sides. This functionality is only available from the VST, not the physical unit itself.
Using Analog Heat as Master Effect
A neat thing I’d like to do on tracks is finish things off with the Heat on the master track. For this to work you want it to sound as transparent as possible, no distortion. And just like mentioned before, the clean boost circuit is the right choice here. Basically you want to glue everything together and boost the levels – making it loud without getting distorted.
Use the EQ to subtly brighten up highs, tweak the resonance on the peak filter to bring out a specific frequency range a bit more and increase the drive for fuller sound. Depending on your mix you might want to experiment with the dirt dial for overall harmonics. Always A/B the mix to make sure you’re not moving too far from the original. The Heat can quickly turn your decent mix into hot garbage.
Hopefully you’ve learned what the Analog Heat does, how you can use it and maybe even picked up some tips on sound design here and there. It’s now core to my studio setup, not specifically as distortion device, but more so an all around great sounding analog effect, that’s seamlessly works in a DAW environment like Ableton.