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Vintage Is A State Of Mind

Leader By Paul White
Published August 2010

We're often asked what gear will help a reader to make vintage‑sounding recordings, but what exactly is the vintage sound, and is specialist equipment really necessary? Many of the classic rock and pop records that we look back on with affection were recorded in the days when vinyl was the principal release medium, and because of the characteristics of vinyl records, recordings had to be mastered in a very specific way to make them play correctly. For example, you can't add a lot of high end to a vinyl record, and while you can record reasonably high levels of bass, the more bass you add, the wider the groove spacing needs to be to accommodate it, which then results in a shorter playing time. Consumer music reproduction systems back then also tended to be less sophisticated — everybody had a tweeterless, all‑in‑one record player in their bedroom, so even if the records could carry the levels of bass and treble we use today, few would have been able to hear it. The practical outcome is that records were appreciated mainly for what was going on in the mid‑range, which, after all, is where most of the musically useful information lies. By the same token, it could be that engineers of the day were able to focus more clearly on the mid‑range because there was little extreme top or bottom to distract them.

Today, although digital technology can record any audio frequency at any level, it often seems that the 'smile curve' reigns supreme, with the mid‑range being something to suppress to make way for even more tizzy treble and boomy bass. You can check this out for yourself by listening to some of the better records made in the '60s and '70s and then comparing them with today's offerings. As an example, listen to anything from the Tamla Motown stable or 'All Along The Watchtower' by Jimi Hendrix — you can hear every instrument, yet there's nowhere near as much top‑ or low‑end as in a modern production. The result is that it is more comfortable to listen to, even when cranked up loud, and it doesn't lose any of its excitement for that.

It is also demonstrable that the older people get, the less tolerant they become of aggressive‑sounding mixes, and given the shifting demographic of record buyers, this is perhaps something record companies should take into consideration. While some of the instruments we use today, such as synthesizers and electric guitars, have no acoustic counterpart, it still seems to me that mixing fashion has drifted so far away from the natural sound of the instruments and voices being recorded that many records are fatiguing to listen to, and that's without broaching the thorny subject of over‑limiting at the mastering stage. So, to return to the original question, could it be that the most important piece of equipment needed to recreate vintage‑sounding mixes is already installed between your ears, and it's just a matter of getting it recalibrated?

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published August 2010