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Sounding Off: Elliot Mazer

Classic Gear By Elliot Mazer
Published March 2011

Does copying classic gear devalue its designers?

Most of us agree that records by the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, the Who, Aretha and Led Zeppelin sound great. Very few younger people know that these recordings were made with recording gear that was, by today's standards, crude. The rooms sounded great, but there were very few mics, and the control rooms often had one compressor and very simple EQ on the console.

Back in the '60s and '70s the secret was to have a clear goal in mind before entering the studio, good songs and musicians, good‑sounding instruments, good mic placement and good gear. What mics? Whatever was available in the studio. What mixing desk? Usually some kind of home-made tube desk. What speakers? Large Altecs or Tannoys or JBLs. There was not much gear, but it was good, and it was treated with respect. These days, we have far more equipment, but is it any good? And have we lost our respect for the people who designed and built that equipment?

The ongoing demise of the commercial music industry hurts us all in many ways. One of its many by-products has been the devaluation by consumers of audio quality, but the pro audio industry also suffers at the hands of manufacturers who make mostly inferior copies of great classic gear and, similarly, devalue the understanding of how great the original products really are. Those tiny MP3 files have become the standard way most consumers listen to sound recordings. The engineers who buy or are given bogus applications get fooled into thinking that they are using the 'real thing'. I see no difference between pirated music and pirated intellectual property.

I have seen a huge number of products, actual and virtual, that copy a classic design. Lots of bands make records copying riffs or sounds from classic recordings. If a musician imitates a sound created by another musician, that's fine, but if a musician copies a melody or lyric from another record, that is not OK. Companies and artists should honour the original creators of technology and/or music.

Often patents or trademarks no longer cover these inventions. But a real person or persons designed and built something real and we got to use and respect their invention. Most of the clones do not sound as good as the originals: Neve watched countless companies make bogus versions of 1073 and 1081s. It finally dawned on them that they should make their own reproductions. The new versions sound great. Universal Audio make new 1176s that many people believe sound better than the originals, and the UAD 1176 plug-in sounds like the real thing too.

To me, patent, trademark and copyright protection honour an inventor, composer, recording artist or author. It says that this person (or people) did this. The laws do not give those people perpetual protection, yet even after 400 years, whenever a new Shakespeare edition or play is presented, he is credited. The cloners of technology cannot do that, since that would be admitting that the 'art' is not theirs.

Think about Universal Audio of years ago: a great studio in Chicago where Quincy Jones cut lots of records with people like Dinah Washington. The UA 610 mic pre came from that studio and Bill Putnam's other studios in LA. That preamp is in use today. I first used it in 1968 with Janis Joplin as part of the famous 'Green Board' mixing desk. That board later recorded Richie Havens, and then we used it for a few songs on Neil Young's Harvest. Neil Young purchased the Green Board and it is still in use. I still use 610 preamps.

The 1176 was also Bill Putnam's invention, and I have no interest in using a clone. I do use the 1176 in the UAD card and it sounds like the hardware version. If you really want to use a 1073, get one from Neve or use the licensed UAD virtual one.

To me, there is no difference between file sharing on the Web and the disrespectful tactics of companies who copy other people's intellectual property. Often, companies copy every visual aspect of something like a Helios or Neve unit, and think they absolve themselves by not using a logo or name. Does anybody believe that this exonerates them? How many young people never get to enjoy how great the real thing is?

About The Author

Elliot Mazer is a producer, executive, technologist and project leader. He has produced multi-platinum albums for artists including Neil Young, Janis Joplin and Linda Ronstadt and built, designed and owned recording facilities in Nashville, North Carolina and California.