It’s a fact of music production: there’s something ineffable and downright mysterious about vintage gear. Along with our collective sonic history, there’s a certain aural vocabulary that finds its origins in classic records from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that were made with vintage gear.
From Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Thriller, from Harvest to Pet Sounds, vintage gear has played a central role in shaping the soundtrack of our popular culture. But what is it about vintage gear, be it mixing desks, tape machines, EQs or compressors, that makes them relevant in today’s digital world?
We talked to some producers to find out...
Why use older gear in the recording process? M83 producer and Beck musical director Justin Meldal- Johnson says it’s all about personality.
“I prefer to try and remain aloof about vintage versus modern,” Justin says. “But actual results have dictated that some of the older gear can be superior in many ways. I feel that there are sometimes purely prejudicial choices made by many (myself included) that come to bear due to things like visual aesthetics, a certain amount of prestige, stuff like that.”
“But sometimes,” he adds, “it makes all the difference when you get a piece that was made in a different era. More personality can creep in, to the extent that sometimes when I’ve bought the vintage or original counterpart to something that I had as a modern or reissue piece, the sonic difference in terms of depth or character has blown me away.”
Garbage engineer Billy Bush concurs. “To me a lot of the older gear has an element of noise and/or harmonic distortion that occurs when you push it,” Billy says. “Overall it really changes the sound in ways that I find difficult or impossible to do in the digital realm. For example, some of my favorite compressors and limiters definitely distort the transient (as does tape) in a way that i find familiar and pleasing.”
Some engineers, like Nashville’s F. Reid Shippen, flat-out think vintage gear is simply superior to anything made in modern times.
“I use vintage gear because it sounds better. Usually by a mile! It just sounds better. A lot better,” Reid says. “Maybe i'm just biased, but I try, and have tried, A LOT of gear, looking for the best of the best. And I can make you a list of what that almost always ends up being, a list that includes vintage stuff.”
Meanwhile, Radiohead/ Pixies producer Paul Q. Kolderie relates an anecdote that illustrates just why vintage gear is still relevant:
“Well, here’s a little story. I have a friend and client who was trying to make progress on a record at her home studio but was really struggling with the vocals. She came into Camp Street and we put up a ’60’s Neumann M49, which is probably the best mic ever for female vocals, through a Neve 1073 mic pre. Immediately she said, ‘That’s it!, that’s the sound I’ve been trying to get.’ There’s no other way to get it.”
Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King agrees: Sonic thumbprints and a simple user experience trumps digital’s endless options.
“Why vintage? Several reasons,” Jacquire says. “First, because it's a sound we are accustomed to hearing in the majority of recorded music. Much of it uses transformers and more robust signal path electronics that can be pushed harder and create more harmonic content, and many older units are high function with a simple interface. I use vintage gear primarily in the recording process to capture as much harmonically rich content as possible as an integral part of the recording process.”
Billy Bush seconds the idea of a simple interface being conducive to decisive creative choices.
“Sometimes the limitations the gear has makes you have to be more creative,” Billy says. “Like the way a Prime Time decreases the sample rate as you lengthen the delay time. Also, the way those pieces change the sound of the audio going through them is very familiar. Think of hitting tape hard with a kick drum and how it becomes a bigger, better version of what you are recording.”
So what are some of the defining characteristics of the gear of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s? Paul Q. Kolderie breaks it down:
“’60’s stuff means tubes and lots of transformers...hand-wired amps, microphones with tubes, and big Altec speakers. Audio was not a huge consumer business then and there wasn’t much off-the-rack stuff so people built their own rack gear, consoles, and monitors...which led to some amazing stuff that you probably couldn’t afford to make these days. I recorded at the Kinks’ Konk studios years ago and there wasn’t much gear in the racks so I asked the studio tech if there was perhaps a closet with other stuff in it? He smiled and led the way down the hall to a locker filled with Pye limiters that they used to make all the hits at Pye records...boy were those good! And no one else has them.”
“The ’70s was the golden age of recording,” Paul adds, “with so many workhorse products like the 1176 compressor, U87 microphone, Studer 800 24 track, Neve consoles, etc. Computers and digital audio weren’t happening yet in audio and the finest minds of the day were occupied with solving pure audio problems. I’m talking about sonics, not digital/logic stuff. 1978 was the peak.”
“The ’80s, to me, were kind of disappointing,” he concludes. “I hated midi and sequencers and the early digital stuff was underwhelming. Have you ever tried to use a Publison Infernal Machine? The AMS Delay was good and the TC2290 delay/sampler was a real breakthrough...you could really do some crazy shit with that thing! Also I have to mention the Eventide Harmonizer that lets you push vocals around pitchwise. All that stuff was essential in its day but I never use any of it now. I’m still using the ’60s Altec tube mic pres, though.”
What’s the emotion the producer feels when he or she reaches for that perfect piece of vintage gear?
F. Reid Shippen says: “That I’m making a good decision!” Kolderie says: “That I know what it can do and what it’s going to sound like!”
Like what you read here? Then have a look at iZotope Artist Greg Calbi's take on mastering.