The perceived collective opinion is that recording during the golden era of analog tape and vinyl had more of “that something” that made them uniquely exciting and pleasing to listen to sonically; something that made them more musical.
By Donn Aaron
In the past decade, I had the pleasure of working at a prominent mastering studio on over 10,000 records of all genres. That experience allowed me to meet and work with thousands of artists, producers, engineers and experts who specialize in audio production.
Most of those sessions were filled with conversations about the current state of modern recording and how it compares to the “glory days” before the advent of digital platforms. A striking majority of industry professionals, independents and beginners alike all seem to unanimously feel that something has been lost over time.
The perceived collective opinion is that recording during the golden era of analog tape and vinyl had more of “that something” that made them uniquely exciting and pleasing to listen to sonically; something that made them more musical. On the other hand, an extremely widespread opinion exists among the recording community that digital formats are more sterile, brittle and harsh sounding than analog tape.
In digital, it seems that you are constantly fighting your medium to get it to do what analog did for you. Analog tape seemed to glue mixes together in a warm way that is obviously harder to achieve with digital platforms like ProTools. Or did it? Is this: BS? Personal preference? True? Is it the equipment itself or what engineers did with said equipment? If you are a musician or engineer, how many times in the last few years have you heard how much better tape and vinyl sounds over CD or other digital formats? How many times have you heard classic Led Zeppelin albums referenced as a holy grail when talking about drum or guitar sounds? Odds are a bazillion… Why? This is the question that I have spent an enormous amount of time over the last ten years trying to answer.
Because of my own interest and pursuit of info regarding this subject, I have learned a few things along the way that I have put into great use on my own recordings. A recipe for achieving similar results to sounds I cherished on my favorite classic rock albums.
Digital / Analog Debate: Digital is by far cheaper and all of the great engineers of the world have embraced it to some degree. It is not going away. I have found that what I put into digital, I will get back out of it with pretty much mirror image clarity. Ask yourself the question, if the Beatles had ProTools, would they use it. The answer, while debatable, is a resounding: You’re damn right they would. Digital has made it not only possible but also easy to collaborate with other musicians and engineers around the globe. I could lay down an acoustic guitar to a click track, upload it to various session musicians who are all based in different countries, upload it to mix and mastering engineers once the song is recorded and then release it digitally. What can be more flexible and creativity inducing as that? Shipping heavy reels of two inch analog tape outside the USA to collaborate with someone surely is not that fast and inspiring when you look at the logistics. In the end, I believe that combining use of both digital and analog will yield the most convincing results.
Tubes and Transformers in mixing consoles: Vacuum Tube technology has been touted to the audio equipment buying public as almost a silver bullet for warming up digital recordings. This in itself is a major marketing tool used by gear manufacturers to their benefit. With this being said. There is a reason. While not a magic bullet, tubes are part of the recipe. They do color and add harmonic distortion to recordings in a more musical way. A tube(s), usually a 12AX7, injected into your signal path before going into your digital recorder can help add some of these sought after characteristics. While tubes are only part of the puzzle, not everything will benefit from using them.
You will have to use trial and error and your ears to decide if the tube is helping or hindering your signal. It will be obvious if you A/B them with and without it.
The biggest change came in 1969 when Solid State Logic (SSL) released their “tubeless” solid state mixing consoles. Most engineer’s railed against these consoles in the beginning because they simply could not get their tried and true techniques to sound nearly as good on the SSL consoles. Beatles engineer’s, Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott were panicked when Abby Road heads decided to suddenly install SSL consoles in their studios. Emerick and Scott quickly “got used” to the SSL and found that they could still reach the same goals with a bit of re-focusing of their techniques. These engineers have long since embraced ProTools as well. That is a big statement and testament to the digital medium.
Another ingredient that is a prefect partner to tubes are transformers. Classic era mixing consoles such as Neve, API and Harrison all had transformers strapped across each channel. Not only did SSL consoles not have tubes in them but they were also lacking transformers. Transformers have the ability to color a recording in such a way that is unique to each transformer. Once you hear what a transformer can do to a track there is no going back. It is an important part of the recipe. By wiring up and strapping a 600 ohm transformer directly into your signal path coupled with a tube, you will start to hear a “classic” difference to your digital tracks. There are some excellent and terrible sounding transformers out there. They all sound different and some vintage ones are highly sought after. Start with the tried and true from classic companies like UTC, Triad, Jensen or Marinar. To use them in stereo you will need two “matching” 600 ohm transformers. If you can’t afford a classic era mixing desk which can be $100k or more, this kamikaze technique can help you get closer to their sound. (For further reading I suggest an excellent article by Allen Famnelo that appeared in Tape-Op magazine called “Using Transformers To Transform Audio”.)
Dolby: Dolby is mostly known as noise reduction equipment. Noise was an everyday big problem with analog tape. Tape hiss could get extreme and Dolby was the leading solution for a long time. Dolby units are complex and very robust in sound quality. Somewhere along the line, engineer’s found out that if they used Dolby-A units in a wrong and unintended way, set on “encode only.” they could achieve a sound that is both an super pleasing frequency exciter of some sorts and a multi-band compressor. This process drastically “opens up” a track and makes it come to life in ways that sound like a veil has been lifted. The Dolby A “encode” process became a major part of the sound of classic albums by Elton John, Queen, Led Zeppelin etc. It is a prominent spice to a lot of those classic rock records and to my ears it packs more punch than tubes and transformers put together. From Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd to Journey and even Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the Dolby A process took those records to a higher level. Used mostly on vocals, it also has the same effect on instruments either acoustic or electric. Like any recipe, you are required to season to taste as this process does accentuate the high end spectrum and will sometimes need to be tamed down. Try processing a stereo track of drums through the Dolby. Instant John Bonham. This technique became the signature vocal sound on classic songs such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Vinyl: Why does everyone seem to think that music sounded better on vinyl records? It seems that everyone that I know both musician and non-musician think the same way. I believe these are the reasons:
When putting a recording onto vinyl, you have to filter off the extreme high and low end with filters. EQ’s. Otherwise you will run the risk of making the needle skip horribly. When classic rock records were put onto vinyl, the overall volume could not be nearly as loud as a CD or you would get the same skipping problems. With CD, you can squeeze all of the frequency response that you want from 20hz – 20k AND all of the volume. Modern digital music is mastered so loud that it can make many playback systems distort on the front end and sound harsh. On vinyl records, the frequency response was rolled off at generally 40/50hz – 16k. Pretty drastic stuff. Vinyl records actually contain less frequency response and volume than digital versions. Yet most people perceive vinyl as more pleasing than digital. Try using plugin EQ’s to simulate these roll-off techniques on your final mix.
Tape Echo: The Beatles made famous what can be done with tape echo with “Sargent Pepper.” Real analog tape echo was so widely used on classic records that plugin manufacturers are still trying to re-create it’s sound. Digital plugins have come a long way and are getting closer but there is no substitute for the tape manipulation capabilities of using real tape echo. Pink Floyd had tape spooling around microphone stands across the room from the tape machine to achieve some of their echo effects and the list goes on and on. I keep a 70′s era Teac 4 track reel to reel permanently next my ProTools rig to use as an analog tape echo plugin per se. By feeding a track from ProTools into the tape machine and back into ProTools, I can in real time “play” the tape as it passes across the mic stand and back into the other side of the tape machine. For example, on a guitar track that has plucked notes. Try actually plucking the tape as it passes by in time with the music. It creates a wow and flutter of the tape speed and instantly is identifiably classic. It also widens the pitch center of your track fixing sleight tuning issues. The best part is that while you want your tape machine to playback within a reasonable calibration, it does not have to be perfectly aligned. In fact, you will want a machine that has sleight playback speed flaws because it will add some “warble.” Old 4 track machines are perfect for this and can be found in abundance.
Sweetening / Vari-speed: Sweetening for the most part is when either the mixing or vinyl cutting engineer would literally “speed up” the master recording mix. By slightly speeding up but rarely slowing down your mix, you can hone in on what tempo works best for the song and the instruments seem to glue together in a way that makes the performance sound “tighter.” Vocals are especially enhanced by this. Harmonies take on a more singing quality. This is usually done in small moves such as 2-3 BPM (beats per minute) faster which will only raise the pitch a few cents. Usually nothing extreme, just a lift. Alternately, the effect can be used to the extreme. Brian Eno constantly reached for the vari-speed knob when recording U2 and he radically experiments with the speed of backing tracks before vocals are recorded. You can find a sweet spot that you never would have known could exist.
Digital recording and effects plugins have definitely gotten close to the heels of analog’s allure and I suspect that if some new format were to come along that everyone would have a nostalgic fondness for digital at that point. Until then, the techniques that I have touched upon here can take your recordings as far as you would like to pursue them. And on a budget. The units that I have mentioned can be found at a bargain these days since digital plugins and in-the-box mixing has taken precedent. Sure, there will be some “noise” generated from some of these units and processes but the sonic character that you gain is invaluable. If you are trying to cook up classic rock era sounds and are craving “that something,” these are essential ingredients.
To contact Donn for production inquiries – firstname.lastname@example.org