For anyone who is just starting out with home recording, they could do a lot worse than spend a few weeks recording and mixing as we did when analogue tape machines ruled the earth. The problem with buying any modern DAW, even something so ostensibly simple as GarageBand or Tracktion, is that they do so much more than those old tape-based systems, meaning there’s a lot more to learn before you start getting results. If you deliberately limit yourself to working in the old-school way, you can be up and running the same day. The only real difference is that you may need to automate individual track levels when mixing, as most entry-level systems don’t have the luxury of a hardware controller that provides a dedicated fader for each track, as analogue mixers used to.
I started out when a four-track open-reel machine was about the best you could hope for if you wanted to spend less than the price of a decent car, but I wouldn’t be so unkind as to wish that on today’s students of the art. However, eight tracks are enough to produce some great-sounding recordings, and 16 tracks was a real luxury back in the 1970s. So, set yourself a maximum number of tracks and record everything using mics or line-level sources. MIDI hasn’t been invented yet!
Although you could splice two-inch tape, nobody liked doing it as it was so expensive and there was no undo button, so record everything you need — no copying and pasting choruses, though you can allow yourself the occasional undo if you must. If you need to replace any parts just use the punch-in, punch-out function of your DAW and play the offending part again, just as we had to in those analogue days.
When it comes to plug-ins, get familiar with the big four before attempting to use anything else: EQ, reverb, delay and compression. After that maybe try out gates. Set the reverb to a medium plate setting, as that was the standard back in the day, and choose a tape delay plug-in to keep the right vibe. Set these two up on post-fade aux sends. Try to choose a simple EQ that looks more like a mixer channel EQ than a fully parametric job — three or four bands with sweepable mids and a separate low-cut filter will do nicely.
Compressors take some skill to use effectively, but try to limit yourself to no more than two or three in the entire mix, as that’s probably as many as most studios used to have in hardware form. Pick one with a small number of controls and a decent gain reduction meter. Don’t even think of plugging in Auto-Tune or anything fancy until you’ve mastered these key processes.
Then set up your mix, automate only the levels and see how it works out. Will it sound exactly like an old-school recording? No, of course it won’t, there will be little or no hiss and the high frequencies will still be there, but then you can’t have everything! What you will have is an efficient, stripped-down recording system, and what better to learn on?
Paul White Editor In Chief