Is the current craze for all things retro preventing music technology from moving forward? David Mellor assesses the value of retro equipment and sees a vision of a thoroughly modern future.
It is a commonly held belief among cultures the world over, and throughout history, that most of the true wisdom of the culture lies in the past and has somehow been forgotten, carried forward in time only through myth and legend. Why are modern buildings so ugly? Why can't a fridge still last for 30 years? Why don't England win cricket matches any more?
Turning to music, why is it that most of the guitar heroes listed in a recent poll built their reputations back in the 1960s? Why are the '50s‑designed Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul guitars still such popular instruments? Why, if you wanted to buy a classic keyboard, would you go for a Fender Rhodes Mk I rather than the 'improved' Mk II? In the world of hi‑tech music making, there is a definite resurgence of old technology, particularly of synthesizers, microphones and signal processors. But were these devices really better in the old days? And how far should we go in trying to recapture these lost sounds?
These days, most issues of SOS have reviews of 'retro' signal‑processing equipment: retro usually in the sense that the equipment employs valves — or 'tubes' as they say in the USA — as the active devices, rather than discrete transistors, integrated circuits (which you can think of as lots of transistors formed on the same chip) or bang‑up‑to‑date surface‑mount technology. In the days when valves were everywhere and transistors were just coming in, manufacturers couldn't wait to get rid of valves, since their disadvantages were all too apparent. Designers were glad to get rid of them, but the problem remains that valve distortion just happens to be subjectively more pleasant than transistor distortion, and is often interpreted as adding 'warmth' to the sound. Guitarists know all about this, of course, and fully exploit the distortion‑generating abilities of valve amplifiers. Valve distortion also tends to increase gently with level, whereas transistor distortion comes in suddenly and harshly (though a lot depends on the circuit design, as well as on the components). In recording, a little distortion is often considered to be a good thing, but trying to generate pleasant‑sounding distortion using transistors and integrated circuits is a difficult task. It's a little easier with FETs (field effect transistors) which have certain similarities with valves, but many would say that the true sound of the valve can never be replicated exactly.
Trying to imitate old designs, rather than exploiting techniques that should be ageless, is only holding us back.
But is it, in 1997, impossible to build equipment to the same standard as in the old days? Did we once possess the knowledge of how to create perfect mics, equalisers and compressors, and now we have forgotten it? Or does time have a mellowing effect on valves the way it does on antique violins? Many people claim that to get the real sound of valves you have to turn to the genuine old equipment, such as the Neumann U47 and U67 microphones or AKG C12, which will cost you an arm and two legs to add to your mic cupboard. As far as outboard equipment goes, Pultec and Fairchild are the names to look for in EQ and compression; once again, though, even secondhand their limb cost is high. Some musicians go as far as buying up old valve mixing consoles in the belief that they somehow contain the magic of a bygone age of music‑making, and hope that the new sounds they record will acquire just a little bit of this fairy dust on the way through.
Valve equipment does have a place in the modern recording studio. But as more and more newly designed valve equipment becomes available, we should be able to stop looking over our shoulders into the past at classic valve mics and compressors, and have equipment that is as cool (temperature‑wise), efficient, and easy to interface and operate as modern equipment can be. It will also be low‑noise and reliable (with the valves easy to replace), and have exactly the right amount and kind of distortion. Some new 'valve' equipment has no more than a single valve surrounded by dozens of transistors, and though I'm not certain that you can achieve the true sound of valves in this way, generally I look forward to the day when old valve equipment is worthless because we have modern valve gear that is even better!
Despite the technological wizardry that is now available in modern keyboards, the old analogue sounds are still very much in demand here, too. Although analogue synths did go out of fashion for a while in the '80s, my feeling is that today's emphasis on all things analogue is not mere nostalgia for a bygone era. Analogue synth sounds were never fully explored in the late '60s, '70s and early '80s — it's only now that musicians are finding out what their old Moogs, ARPs, Prophets and other vintage synths can really do.
The down side of using the old gear, though, is that it is... well, old. Although the old synths didn't use valves, the circuit designs and components were often quite unstable even when they were new, so you wouldn't expect an old synth to be as reliable as a modern digital one. Also, analogue circuitry calls for lots of knobs and switches, and asking these mechanical components to perform faultlessly after 20‑odd years is asking a lot.
There must be an infinite range of sonic possibilities in the analogue/mechanical domain remaining to be explored.
But if knobs and switches were unreliable, they were also a very effective programming interface. In the '80s, the new crop of digital synths reduced the interface to a couple of buttons and a tiny LCD display; this did offer cost advantages, and being able to store sounds within the instrument or on a data card was far better than using scribbled charts of knob and switch settings, but even so... A return to knobs has recently begun, perfected by instruments such as the Clavia Nord Lead synth, which offers an ideal compromise: totally digital inside, it uses the latest physical‑modelling techniques to produce extremely authentic analogue synth sounds, but they're accessed through an old‑style user interface.
Judging by the success of the Clavia Nord Lead in bringing together old and new ideas, it seems that a large part of the popularity of retro is in the look and feel of the equipment as well as the sound — there is something very satisfying about controlling fine nuances of sound with a large chunky knob rather than holding your finger on an up or down button and watching the numbers change. Contrary to the digital notion of cramming ever more controls into a smaller package, retro equipment also tends to have fewer knobs on a larger front panel. I think this is important. It may be fun skipping through the preset programs on a multi‑effects unit — and it can often lead to interesting chance discoveries — but there's nothing to beat hand‑crafting a sound all the way from the source instrument to tape or disk. When you compress with a retro compressor, preferably with a valve or two inside, the large chunky controls give you the feeling that you are doing something really important — which is absolutely true!
Mind you, there's no reason why this can't be done with '90s styling rather than '50s; over the next couple of years I'd like to see the retro movement maturing to a stage where the equipment doesn't look as though it came here via a time warp. I'll keep the old‑style VU meters, since they actually tell you something LED bargraphs often don't (they're a good indication of the perceived loudness of a signal), but otherwise I'll be glad to wave goodbye to new equipment that looks as though it might have been used by my grandad.
We often think of digital audio as being simply better than analogue, but one has to wonder where analogue would be now if digital had never been invented, and so hadn't drained it of research effort. Digital recorders are very accurate — few people could tell the difference between a live feed and the output of a DAT machine — but analogue tape has a character that is perhaps even warmer than valves (and really old analogue recorders had valves too): it's frequently used in such a way that it becomes an integral part of the sound. Analogue recorders can be used for both multitrack and stereo recording directly, or they can be used in conjunction with digital equipment to add a little bit of tape distortion. Some say that it is better to leave the conversion to digital as late as possible so that the subtle interactions between very high frequencies are preserved (a good analogue recorder can record frequencies up to 25kHz and beyond).
New analogue multitracks are either expensive — costing as much as a house in some parts of the country — or use narrower tape, which leads to slightly but significantly degraded sound quality. Secondhand multitracks are comparatively cheap at the moment, but you will pay dearly for spares and maintenance. But if buying a secondhand multitrack is currently the only affordable way that some of us can get the characteristic analogue tape sound, then surely manufacturers should be doing something about it? The sound of analogue multitrack should be part of our everyday musical language, available to anyone who takes their recording seriously. The snag is that tape recorders use powerful motors and chunky mechanical components which are always going to be expensive — and the sheer bulk of an analogue multitrack means that storage and transportation costs are high too. But even if analogue recorders are always going to be expensive, I don't see why they have to be so expensive. Just wait until the secondhand market in old analogue machines starts going the way of valve mics and compressors and old analogue synths. Then we might see some serious thought on how to bring down the cost while retaining the sound.
If you were going to set up a complete retro studio, then as well as retro equipment you would need retro acoustics — it would be contradictory to admire the sounds of valves and analogue synths, and then not look at the part that studio acoustics played in recording in the old days. Once again, we might be able to plunder the past and use its techniques in combination with our modern ways to achieve new sounds that have never been heard before.
If you start off with a factory preset synth patch and use a factory preset chorus and reverb, then you'd better think of some interesting and original notes to play.
When multitrack recording was starting to become commonplace, one of the biggest problems was that, when several instruments were recorded together, the sound from each instrument would 'spill' into all the other mics, so if you solo'd any track on the tape you would hear the other instruments playing in the background. This, of course, limits what you can do in the mix — you can't remove any instrument from the mix since it will still be audible on the other tracks, and when you EQ or process any one instrument, you will always process the spill on that track too. Consequently studio designers tended to go for a dry acoustic, which discourages spill, and absorbing screens were placed around instruments to eliminate spill as much as possible. But over the years engineers have learned to manage spill, so modern studios usually have quite a live acoustic, and in any case spill can often be beneficial to the overall sound. It's also considered easier to deaden a live acoustic than it is to brighten up a dry room.
In home and project studios, you'll usually record one sound at a time, going straight into the console from sampler, synth or even guitar via a distortion unit. It is always just so much easier to direct inject that you forget that it is possible to amplify any sound source and put a mic in front of the cabinet. If you really want to get a retro sound then you might go so far as to consider DI'ing sampled drums, bass and guitar onto tape, and then playing the recording back with the drums coming through the monitors and the bass and guitar through amps, miking up the whole lot with whatever spill the setup produces. The result probably won't be as good in hi‑fi terms as the DI'd recording, but with a certain amount of effort you'll achieve a much deeper and more complex sound, a sound that repays repeated listening, and one that couldn't be reproduced exactly by anyone else (or possibly even by you!). It will be easier to do this in a large room, and you will spend as much time on the mic positions as you would if you had all the musicians in the room playing live, but your recording will be an original and will combine the depth and complexity of the sound of many old recordings with whatever new input your creative mind can envisage.
As I said, DI'ing instruments is easy, but you end up with a less than interesting sound that's pretty much the same as everyone else's. The only way to make your sound different is to use a digital effects unit, and even then you can find yourself using just the presets. If you start off with a factory preset synth patch and use a factory preset chorus and reverb, then you'd better think of some interesting and original notes to play! Before digital effects units became commonplace, we had to rely on analogue tape effects, analogue effects units and mechanical reverb. All of these had drawbacks — you had to keep turning the tape over every 30 minutes or so, analogue effects units were notoriously noisy, and mechanical reverb units were either ultra‑expensive or sounded horrible. Nevertheless, apart from the cheapest of spring reverbs, these devices had something to offer that digital effects units can't emulate exactly.
In the sub‑universe of guitar effects pedals, the secondhand market is gathering momentum and you won't see a a 15‑year‑old and heavily stomped‑upon MXR Phase 90 or 100, or an Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger, for less than £100. Once again, I don't believe that we should have to buy old clapped‑out units to get these sounds, and I don't want to see manufacturers slavishly imitating their retro design and appearance. We should be able to buy new analogue effects pedals that sound as good, and even better, than the old ones.
The fallacy of retro is that the past can give us the solutions to today's problems, which it can't any more in audio than it can in politics.
For tape effects such as delay and phasing, it's true that you can get sounds with an old Revox A77 that you can't get with digital effects, but even though Revox tape recorders are tough and maintainable enough to soldier on for 20 years or more, they really should be up in the attic somewhere along with those old WEM Copycats, Binson Echorecs and Roland Space Echos, and the reason should be that we have better tape delay and phasing units available to us now, not that we have accepted that we must put up with second‑rate digital imitations.
Although digital effects units can't imitate tape effects very well, they are pretty good at reverb, and the only thing that will beat a good digital reverb unit for naturalness is a real echo chamber. Secondhand plate reverb units are therefore dirt cheap in comparison with what they once cost new. Plate reverbs can also be bulky, which tends to limit their attraction for the smaller studio. Even so, there are producers who will book a particular studio because it has a plate they like, and this must be telling us that, to the people with golden ears, plates have something to offer that can't be found in even the best digital units. Once again, as soon as digital techniques became available, all the R&D effort was diverted from the old analogue ways, and as far as I know there has been no work done in analogue reverb for more than a decade. If scientists and engineers did start looking at analogue reverb again, it wouldn't be to produce a natural sound, since digital reverb units do seem to be very capable of that; there must, however, be an infinite range of sonic possibilities in the analogue/mechanical domain remaining to be explored.
In conclusion, I sense that there is a certain confusion between genuine vintage equipment, modern equipment that seeks to emulate a bygone era, and modern equipment whose designers have sought out the best aspects of old technology and blended it with the best of what today's technology can offer. The fallacy of retro is that the past can give us the solutions to today's problems, which it can't any more in audio than it can in politics. We will appreciate the true value of retro when we realise that, although musical styles may go in and out of fashion, science is eternal and once a technology has been invented, it should remain available to us as long as the world has resources to support it. It's in the nature of the human species to be successful, so let's continue to build on our successes and add to them.
The disadvantages of valves are several:
- They are fragile and bulky.
- Generally, they must be driven from a very high voltage — often higher than mains voltage.
- Their performance degrades over a period of time.
- They generate a lot of heat. (Install a few items of valve equipment in your studio and you'll be able to wear your shorts right through the winter. Also, the hotter the equipment is, the less reliable it tends to be.)
- Valve circuitry generally requires transformers, which are bulky and add to the cost of the equipment. New designs, however, can often eliminate the need for a transformer.
- A valve circuit can never be truly symmetrical, whereas there are two types of transistor that can be used in a symmetrical circuit arrangement to handle the positive and negative parts of the waveform equally.
- Both valves and transistors generate distortion which has to be tamed through the technique of negative feedback. It is easier to apply more negative feedback and thus achieve lower distortion in a transistor circuit design.
The retro equipment currently available strikes a balance between retro for the sake of it and the resurrection of useful old techniques. But when it comes to seeking out wisdom from the past, we've hardly scratched the surface. I'm not looking for nostalgia — which, according to the old gag, isn't what it used to be anyway — but techniques that have fallen out of favour over the years, which could be revitalised in the way that valves and analogue synthesis have. And I don't want to see 20‑year‑old gear fetching ridiculous prices in secondhand shops; this time I want manufacturers to take the lead and give us equipment that offers the very best of old and new in a thoroughly modern package. Trying to imitate old designs, rather than exploiting techniques that should be ageless, is only holding us back; we need new ideas which will build on the past, not attempt to return to it.