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Blinded By Nostalgia?

Imagine for a moment, if you will, the marketing literature for a fictitious compressor plug-in: 'This classic compressor obtained its unique sound by modulating the intensity of a gas flame that was then used to heat a metal conductor, thus changing its resistance. We have modelled the exact chemical balance of the gas used back in the 1950s, even to the extent of recreating the drop in gas pressure on Friday evenings when everyone was frying fish and chips. The variable-resistance wire is also modelled to take into account the various rates of corrosion depending on how close to the sea the compressor is being used: just enter your postcode when you launch it...' You get the picture. The question I'm trying to ask here is why do we get so hung up about exact modelled replicas of gear that most of us have never even seen, let alone used? It has now got to the stage where we can not only choose from models of vintage gear, but in some cases even which revision... the old one with the slightly darker paint and the slot-headed screws sounds so much warmer than the later one with the pale-green panel and the cross-head screws!

I can't think of any other area where we pay so much attention to the provenance of the tools we use. I'm pretty sure that plumbers don't bang on about how good their 1947 pipe cutter was or how the wrench with the red paint was so much nicer to use than the one with the blue paint. What a craftsman really needs to know is: will this tool do the job as effectively as possible?'

I feel pretty much the same way about plug-ins. Will it do the job? Is it musical? Does it achieve the sonic result I'm after? Does it really matter if it performs exactly like a specific piece of hardware that, in all likelihood, was designed at a time when technical compromises were inevitable because of cost and the technology available at the time? Is it really the case that the old stuff sounded better, or is it just that our brains have becomes programmed by the sound of the records we like that were made using that equipment?

The real issue, surely, is how well a given processor serves the music. Sometimes an emulation of a classic is just what you need, although how important some of the finer details of the emulation are is open to question. At other times you just need to get the job done in a musically sympathetic way, and there are non-emulative plug-ins that do the job perfectly well. Does it matter, for example, whether you warm up your recording using a plug-in that emulates a specific brand of tape machine running a specific brand of tape at a specific speed, or a plug-in that simply creates the necessary sense of warmth based on subjective criteria? We are all susceptible to a touch of nostalgia when it comes to music and the way it should sound, but sometimes I worry that the more we cling on to the past, the longer it will take to invent the future.

Paul White Editor In Chief