Setting limitations can lead to more authentic-sounding, vintage-inspired recordings
By Phil O'Keefe
A lot of the classic recordings from the 1950s through the 1980s are revered for their sound and vibe, and there is a lot of interest in capturing and recreating some of that same magic in our modern recordings. Look at the popularity of vintage reissue instruments, as well as vintage mic preamp designs and other reissue recording hardware. Plus, there's all the cool plugins that emulate analog tape decks (Figure 1) and other vintage equipment too. These can help you get part of the way there, but there's more to nailing old-school sounds and vibe than that.
Figure 1: The sound of analog tape decks like this Otari MX5050IIb is only a part of the vintage sound formula
THE VINTAGE APPROACH - FIRST, DO YOUR RESEARCH
The equipment of the 1950s through 1980s largely dictated the recording approach. For instance, while today we think nothing of adding another track to our DAW session when we want to add "just one more part", back then, the finite track counts of the tape recorders restricted how much you could record, and even how you did it. Having only four or eight tracks to work with drastically changes the way you approach a session; from pre-production planning to final mixdown. This has a definite influence on the way the final recording sounds, and the sonic influence of this aspect of "vintage recording" is often overlooked by modern recordists who are attempting to capture a vintage vibe on their tracks.
Consider the era you're going for first, then research it in terms of the recording technology and techniques of that era. If you want to nail that sound, it never hurts to do it the way they did! Most importantly, immerse yourself in the sound of some of the iconic recordings from that era. The 50s had different gear, different limitations, and different musical styles and preferences than other decades - all of which had an influence on the style and sound of the records of that time. Things changed in the 60s and in every subsequent decade as technology and tastes changed. Track counts increased, gear became more sophisticated and recording techniques developed and changed along with it. Knowing as much as you can about the studios, gear, and methods of the era you're trying to emulate can be very helpful when trying to convey a similar sound.
EMBRACE GEAR LIMITATIONS
Gear is often the first thing people look to when attempting to replicate a vintage sound, whether it's the actual vintage equipment or modern-day reproductions, reissues and digitally modeled plugins and processors that emulate the old classics. However, there is more to copping a vintage vibe than randomly tossing up some vintage compressor and tape simulator plugins. Even if you're recording into a computer DAW instead of a vintage tape deck, nothing says you have to use all the DAW's modern features. Imposing some self-limitations that simulate those from the bygone era can greatly change your recording's sound.
First of all, you should actually play as many of the parts as you can, and on real instruments. Nothing beats the sound of great gear, and those old records were largely recorded, not sequenced and looped. Since post-production processing was practically non-existent by today's standards, much more time was spent at the front side of the recording process in "getting sounds"; try to get it sounding great at the source so you don't need to process it later.
Instead of recording with unlimited tracks, try limiting yourself to only four, eight or sixteen. With limited tracks, you tend to prioritize the essential sonic elements, and a lot of "fluff" never gets recorded - arrangements become simplified, and each part becomes more important.
Record with minimal microphones. The selection of microphones we have at our disposal today is fantastic, and much broader than what was available "back in the day." If you want to do it the old way, use fewer microphones. As they are today, dynamic mikes were the workhorses in a lot of studios of yore. Ribbons were commonly used, especially in the 50s, although they were later largely replaced by condensers. Mic technique was also different in different decades, with placement going from more distant in the 50s to closer in the 60s and 70s. The sound of the new studios in each decade changed too. Larger and more ambient studios were more common in the 1950s, while smaller, deader sounding rooms became more popular by the 1970s as multitrack recording and overdubbing largely replaced large live ensemble recordings.
Mixing boards and EQ were different back then too. Large format mixing consoles largely didn't exist, or were only available to those working in large commercial studios. People rarely used a wide variety of different preamps, and many classic records were done with just one "flavor" of preamp - whatever happened to be built-in to the studio's mixing board. EQ was limited too, and sometimes all the board had was as simple as a two band high and low shelving EQ at 100Hz and 10kHz, or maybe you had an outboard 15 band graphic EQ or old Pultec. What you didn't have was unlimited numbers of six different brands of parametric EQ, so if you're trying to simulate a vintage sound on your DAW recording, stick to only a few vintage-flavored EQ plugins.
Limit yourself to just two or three compressor types too. In the old days, you could record through them and "print" their sound to tape, and then use them again for something else at mixdown. Compression was commonly used even in the 1950s, but it wasn't common to see studios with tons of compressors on hand until the 1970s, so resist the urge to over-use them by running too many different compressor models, or using them on too many channels of your recording.
Reverbs and effects were also extremely limited by today's standards. Commercial studios used real chambers and plate reverbs, and by the 70s and 80s, digital reverb units too. Tape delay was well known by the 1950s, and flanging and other tape based effects were in use by the 1960s. Most home studios in the 1970s were lucky to have any outboard processors at all. Digital reverb units were in their infancy and just starting to become affordable to home studio owners by the mid 1980s, and prior to that, most relied on analog and early digital delays, and spring reverb. These were often mono units, so don't forget to experiment with mono effects returns and panning.
The key with the gear is to think about the type of studio you're trying to emulate. Even by the 1980s. most home studios were lucky to have one or maybe two reverbs, and commercial studios often only had a few more, so if you want to replicate the sound of the studios from those eras, limit the types and number of reverbs you use too.
You know those fancy pitch and time correction and quantizing tools your DAW has? The ability to edit endless virtual takes into a single performance? Forget about them. Editing was a completely different ballgame in the vintage days. The whole mix could be copied and spliced, so edits to the overall mono or stereo mixes are allowed, but the individual tracks of the multitrack tape were rarely individually edited. Occasionally, two or three tracks might be used for a lead vocal, with the mixing engineer "comping" between them by muting and unmuting to get the best of the three, but that was more commonly done by the 24 track era. Instead, mistakes were corrected by re-singing or re-playing the line or section of the song until a suitable performance was achieved. Of course, with analog tape, these "punch-ins" required concentration and great timing from the engineer; punch-ins are performed by "dropping in" to record mode on the same track -- recording over what was previously recorded -- and back then there was no "undo" button if you missed a punch-in or punch-out point and accidentally erased part of the previous take that you wanted to keep.
Modern DAW programs like Pro Tools will let you simulate that approach with destructive recording (Options Menu / Destructive Record) but unless you love misery, I wouldn't bother trying to take the simulation that far. Feel free to punch in and out (instead of doing multiple takes and editing it later), but I'd recommend keeping the safety net of having the undo feature and the ability to "touch up" your edit points - at least until you get comfortable doing it the "old way." You'll be busy enough as it is learning how to make decisions on-the-fly that you'll have to live with as the recording progresses. Questions like "was that a good enough take, or should I try it again?" take on a whole new meaning when you're recording over the old material and don't have a half a dozen alternative takes in your DAW to pick from! Doing productions the old way a few times can really improve your ability to quickly evaluate takes. You'll be making those decisions as you go along instead of putting them off until later.
Speaking of your DAW, as much as possible, turn off your computer monitor and listen instead! Don't worry about whether or not the waveforms line up, or are tall enough or any of that nonsense - listen to the recording. Does it sound flat? Tune up and play it again, or re-sing it and punch in to fix the line where it's flat. Does it sound rushed? Slow down and track it again. When it feels right and sounds right, you're done. Only turn the monitor on so you can see the virtual transport, mixing desk, EQ and compression interfaces, and avoid the temptation to look at the edit screen for timing cues or with the thought of "correcting" things. If you want it fixed, play it again!
Drum machines and sequencing were not really a big part of the analog recording era until the 1980s. By that point, sequencers could be synchronized to analog multitrack tape decks, and MIDI drum and other sequenced "virtual tracks" could greatly augment the relatively limited track counts of the typical home multitrack machines of the day. Real drums and percussion were used more often than not on recordings from the 1950s - 1970s. You can use drum machines and sequencing for 80s inspired sounds, but not loops. Feel free to get creative with your percussion and use whatever you have available that you can bash together to make noise - the point is, for vintage era sounds, most of it should be played instead of sequenced.
Because of the limited track counts, it was not uncommon for multiple people to play together and for those parts to be recorded to a single track. For example, if you are trying to get a big wash of acoustic guitar strums, you might lay down three or four separate tracks in your DAW. In 1980, you'd get two or three guitarists to play it simultaneously and record all three to a single track to save space for recording other parts. Does this change the sound? You bet! Not only is the sound of three different players going to be different than one person overdubbing the part three times, but there's also the musical interaction that occurs when people play music together at the same time.
Automation has been around since the 1970s, so it would be unfair to suggest you forgo its use completely, but use it sparingly, and only "by ear" and not by sight. The mix in general was often approached from a performance aspect on those classic records, with the engineer and the assistants memorizing a complex sequence of "moves" -- fader, mute and control changes that had to be performed with musical precision and in real-time while recording the stereo two-track mix. If you have a good multichannel control surface, try this "live performance" approach for the mix instead of your usual methods. You may need to take a few passes at it until you hit one you like, but you may find you prefer the "feel" of the mix when it is performed this way. Even if you do resort to using automation, try performing your mutes and fades on a control surface instead of drawing them in.
THE BIG BOUNCE
Bouncing tracks to create more "room" was a very common production technique in the pre-digital era. Consider a basic four track recording for example. If you record drums on track 1, bass on track 2 and rhythm guitars on track 3, but still need more "space" to record lead guitar, vocals and keyboards, you can "ping pong" or bounce the rhythm tracks down to create more room. This involves "sub-mixing" the drums, bass and rhythm guitar from tracks 1-3 over to track 4. Once you're positive you like the balance of the submix recording on track 4, the drums, bass and guitar parts on tracks 1-3 are erased, and then the lead guitar, keyboard and vocals are recorded in their place. The final mix is of those three new tracks, plus the drums, bass and rhythm guitars that are submixed on track 4. As you can see, the balancing of the submix is pretty crucial, and it isn't always possible to guess exactly where you'll want everything once it's all finished, but a basic bounce allowed us to get 6 parts on that four track recorder instead of only four.
For four-track recorder owners, laying down an additional part while bouncing tracks offers another way to further increase the limited track count. Fill tracks 1, 2 and 3, and while recording a sub-mix of the three over to track 4, use the mixer to simultaneously blend in a fourth part that you play in real-time while the bounce is occurring. If you mess up, the bounce and the performance will have to be re-done, and once the source tracks are recorded over with new material, there was no going back - whatever the balance of instruments is on track 4, so shall it remain forevermore.
Why not just bounce endlessly until you have as many parts as you want? Well, with analog tape, each time a part is bounced from one track to another, there is what is called a generation loss. The signal is degraded with each transfer, and becomes more distorted and noisier. For that reason, parts were usually not submixed more than once or twice at the most or they became too noisy and mangled to use. For a little added realism, try mixing in a little extra dose of tape warmth and noise from the tape simulator plugin of your choice when doing a bounce or submix to simulate the effect of the generation loss that occurs when bouncing tracks on an analog multitrack recorder.
Of course, if you want to really simulate the vintage recording experience with your DAW, you'll need to stick within the track limitations that you set out for yourself and completely forgo the use of any alternative takes. If you set up a 16 track recording situation, then stick with only those 16 tracks. You can bounce between them just like you could in the analog days, but no fair keeping the alternative takes. Once you do a submix, commit and learn to live with it. This will have a profound effect on your recording approach. I don't suspect that many readers will want to do this on a regular basis, but you really should try it at least once - especially if you're seeking vintage sounding recordings.
THINK OF CLEVER WORKAROUNDS
While limitations were a fact of life due to the available technology of the era, many engineers and self-recordists chafed at them and were constantly pushing the envelope and looking for creative ways to get around them; trying to use what was at their disposal in new ways, to create new sounds. This spirit of creativity led to constant experimenting. Today the temptation is to take the easy way out -- to grab a preset or just add another track. And that's great - I'm all for the improved modern tools. But if you're seeking an authentic old-school vibe on your recording, or want to break out of a rut and try something different, try it the old way sometime and see if it doesn't open up some new ways of thinking and working. Instead of relying on presets, dial up something from scratch… then instead of recording the song with 64 tracks, try doing it with only a dozen or so. You may find you can say a lot more musically than you think, even when working with a lot less.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.