It seems that, despite advances in recording technology, many producers create records that sound like the hits of the '60s and '70s. This is understandable, as these are the records that helped form our opinions of what constitutes good-sounding music. From my own perspective, having also been brought up on music of that era, I have to say that there were some very good recordings made back then. Even in the cases where the musical performances were somehow less polished than we might expect from a modern record, and the sound was a hint lacking in top-end, or slightly on the noisy side, they still had that magical quality. So why is this so difficult to recreate today? Of course, all those old records were made using entirely analogue gear but, even though there are distinct differences between analogue and digital domains, both are equally capable of making great-sounding recordings.
I think a major reason for the difference in sound is that the recordings of the '60s and '70s were made by gigging bands comprised of experienced players, as I've mentioned in this column before. These days, many recordings are pieced together in project studios, rather than being captured using the live-recording-plus-overdubs method. No matter how good your playing or programming skills, the sound of a recording built up track-by-track will never have the same vibe as the recording of a real band doing what they do best.Those old recordings also tended to be made in fairly large spaces with significant amounts of spill, which produces a different sound to that of a garage studio, no matter how well-treated the latter is.Possibly the most significant difference between old and new records is the techniques used to actually produce them; 40 years ago, there were far fewer processing tools available to damage the material!
After all, what did they have in the early days of recording? Razor blades for editing, compressors and limiters to look after level fluctuations, a plate reverb, a tape-loop echo and EQ that was often no more than treble and bass. And that was pretty much it, so they had to get the performance right and position their mics to capture that performance as well as possible. Mix engineers used to be called balance engineers and that gives you a clue as to the process. When everything is miked properly, you don't need to do much more than balance the instruments and voices, which, back then, was often done on the way into the recorder, because the material was probably being recorded direct to mono, stereo or four-track.
Today we have plug-ins to fix everything from timing and tuning errors to excess noise, more EQ bands than we know what to do with, exciters to add top end, enhancers to add low end, vocal modellers, dozens of flavours of compressor and simulations of just about everything else, past and present. It takes time to learn what any piece of gear can do, so what chance do we have of using 300 plug-ins to their best advantage, even when they're actually needed?
Perhaps if something is out of time or out of tune we should just play it again; if it isn't bright enough, move the mic or try a different one, and if it sounds wrong in the mix, try to figure out why, rather than beating it into submission with EQ. Maybe then we'll be able to make records that come just a little closer to what was achieved in that supposedly golden age of audio and all recordings will stop sounding the same because every producer uses the same plugins.
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