Why are we lusting after vintage gear?
So the awards season is over for another year. Bucket-loads of Grammys, BAFTAs, Brits and Oscars have been delivered to their stunned and tearful recipients, while the unfortunate losers look on and applaud, wearing permafrost smiles. The audience agonise with the shortlisted nominees and argue amongst themselves as to the relative merits of each. Subjective opinion rules. CD and download sales will increase after the Grammys and Brits, box-office receipts and DVD sales will increase after the BAFTAs and Oscars.
One ceremony that has more to do with musical excellence than sales is the Music Producers Guild awards, at which I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted for my mix work on Paloma Faith's Fall To Grace album. Although I came away empty-handed, it was a great event, and a wonderful opportunity to catch up with a lot of the studio people who I've got to know over the years. The undoubted highlight of the evening was witnessing Sir George Martin receive the Outstanding Contribution to UK Music Award, fittingly presented to him by the current Producer of The Year, Paul Epworth. Sir George's work with The Beatles is the stuff of legend and he is undoubtedly the godfather of modern record production. There was also a lot of chat at the awards about Dave Grohl's film Sound City, which concerns the studio where Nirvana's classic Nevermind was recorded, using a vintage Neve 8028 console and tape. Grohl now owns the console and advocates analogue recording over DAW use.
The evening got me thinking about the trend of worshipping vintage studio equipment and recording methods, and I've come to the conclusion that a lot of people are really missing the point. Don't get me wrong, I love analogue gear and I love the sound of tape, but I also love Pro Tools and plug-ins. I have a studio with racks of analogue goodies and an analogue console, but it's all modern... and here are my reasons: vintage gear is vastly overpriced and it goes wrong a lot. There, I've said it! The pricing factor is a combination of rarity and nostalgia. Everyone wants a Fairchild compressor because the Beatles used them, but they are rare and expensive to maintain. The same goes for vintage consoles and tape machines. Poor reliability is just a function of age. The argument goes: all the classic records of the '60s and '70s were made using this equipment and tape, so I need to use it to make a classic record. This is flawed logic. Of course they used that equipment, because it was the best available at the time. The Beatles were renowned for using each new generation of multitrack machines to their full potential, adding more and more tracks to more and more elaborate productions. For them, the equipment was modern. They were innovators, forever looking forward. Imagine what the Beatles would have done if they'd had Pro Tools? Would they have become creatively stifled by too much choice?
When I started working in a studio, 25 years ago, almost all the sessions were analogue. Editing was difficult and time consuming; copying and pasting parts was done using half-inch tape and a chinagraph pencil, and largely discouraged. Tapes were noisy and a lot of the equipment was unreliable. We could not wait for the new technology. I learned how to use sequencers and samplers the minute they arrived and never looked back. I can understand where the vintage gear fans are coming from but I think their passion is somewhat misdirected.
My suspicion is that the obsession with vintage equipment has more to do with a desire to impose limits and discipline on the process than anything else. The 'limitless' possibilities of modern recording and production can lead to laziness of performance and a lack of decision making. Musicians and producers are spending more time working alone on a computer rather than collaborating in the studio with like-minded souls. Bouncing ideas around with others can be the most creative and fun part of recording, and it's easy to get bogged down in isolation. The lack of discipline that the technology can promote isn't the fault of the equipment itself — it's the fault of the users. Making music shouldn't be about the equipment at all: it should be about the music makers. What kind of equipment you use doesn't matter that much. What really matters is what you choose to do with it.
Simon Gogerly is a Grammy-winning mixer and producer with his own (analogue and digital) studio.