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Has modern recording technology taken the “soul” out of music? In the pursuit of the cleanest, most perfect productions, have we displaced some of the character that made classic recordings so great? And if so, how can we put it back?
The idea of creating vintage sounds within modern recordings is a relatively recent trend. Typically, as technology marches on, recording engineers have used the latest advancements in pursuit of accuracy and fidelity—all in the name of better sounding records. So why the interest in, or lately even obsession, with making productions that sound like they were recorded 50 years ago?
Has modern recording technology taken the “soul” out of music? In the pursuit of the cleanest, most perfect productions, have we displaced some of the character that made classic recordings so great? And if so, how can we put it back? Certainly one key element driving artists and producers to harness this sonic palette is the emotional impact this kind of sound delivers. There’s an ever-elusive “magic” in many of these classic recordings, and sprinkling some of that magic on a song can bring an authenticity and even intimacy to the track.
If only it were as simple as adding an effect or a plug-in to a production. The contributors to the sound we often associate with classic recordings aren’t always purely sonic. So let’s look at two different kinds of influences on the sound—the elements related to performance, and the recording-related technology itself.
When you think about how artists performed on many classic recordings, one thing becomes immediately obvious—from Sun Studios in Memphis to Hitsville USA (home of Motown) in Detroit, the musicians played in a small room together, at the same time. There’s a vibe that comes from people playing off of each other’s energy that can’t be replicated in an era of multitrack recording. Big artists with big budgets and access to any studio facility often choose this approach, because of the impact it makes on the whole record.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Counting Crows, Bob Dylan, Foo Fighters and many others have tracked legendary modern albums in living rooms, basements, or garages for this reason. FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, functioned as a kind of time machine for artists seeking that classic sound—including the Black Keys, Paul Simon, and the Rolling Stones. Mega-producer Daniel Lanois requires the artists he works with to play live in a room together.
Another significant influence on these records is that the musicians were not playing to a “click track” (a reference track that maintains a consistent rhythm). Instead, they followed each other in real time, which meant that often the tempos of the song could vary greatly. The chorus tended to speed up and the verses slowed down—sometimes the entire song sped up gradually from beginning to end. It’s well documented today that most of our favorite music of the 50, 60s and 70s pushed and pulled in this way, and it contributes greatly to the organic “feel.”
On the technical side, that same single-room arrangement also resulted in a situation where the instruments could not be isolated from each other, so they bled into each other’s mics. In the early days of multitrack recording at Motown, the recorders were actually limited to three total tracks—one for bass and drums, one for all other instruments, and finally one for all vocals. Not only did the instruments bleed into each other’s mics, but the instruments were literally inseparable! There was no such thing as “fixing it in the mix” because there was no way to de-couple the parts—mixing was just balancing the groups of instruments.
Whereas “modern” technology aims to be transparent and faithful to the source, vintage recording tech was known for adding a ton of character. In fact, each link in the signal chain added its own color: microphone, mic preamp, mixing console, tape and eventually outboard effects. When you combine these devices together, they became hugely influential in defining the sound of these recordings. Companies such as Universal Audio specialize in plug-ins that strive to capture the essence of gear from the analog era, including all the quirks and unintended behaviors. Ironically, while the progress of technology has worked to remove distortion from recording, it turns out that the distortion that each device added is now viewed as musical and contributed a warmth and color that is often described as “vintage.”
The advent of the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) led to many amazing creative developments in music production, but it also eliminated another important element in the music that we associate with classic recordings—mistakes. Before engineers could surgically edit out any miniscule blemish on a track, these were part of the personality of classic recordings. Any natural human performance is filled with subtle fluctuations in pitch and time that contribute to the feel of a track, and often the “sound” of a classic track can be as much about intonation and timing as it can be about the color of the sound.
So, if you want to sprinkle a little of that pixie dust on your recordings, where do you begin? Here are a few lessons we’ve learned from classic recordings: