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Stay Creative in the Studio #2: Build a Vintage Studio

May 01, 2019

Are you nostalgic for the days of analog gear? See how you can get inside the mind of an old-school engineer and “build” your own vintage studio in the box, to mix like they once did.

By Josh Bonanno

Stay Creative in the Studio #2: Build a Vintage Studio

Remember the days when all a studio was equipped with was a large-format analog console which had what we, in our modern-day digital domain, would consider a limited number of features per channel? (If you’re young enough, you probably don’t!) A 4-band EQ, compressor, noise gate and, depending on the studio, maybe only a handful of outboard units. And if that wasn’t limiting enough, tape machines added a further hindrance by limiting the number of channels you could record and mix at one time.

The Good Old Days

It may seem like the invention of super-computers and plugins, that allow you to use hundreds of audio tracks and processing instances, would cause a boost in creativity and sonic ability. But it’s also possible for the opposite to occur. The modern convenience of having every tool and color available to you is definitely an advantage that engineers of the past didn't have. But along with infinite options, the problem of analysis paralysis arises. At some point, having all the tools, answers and abilities to solve the problems at hand quickly starts to work against itself by actually hindering one’s creativity.

Old records were recorded and produced in a far more limited way. They didn't have the ability to duplicate their hardware LA-2A (CLA-2A) 30 times across every track. They had limited track counts, finite room on the recording console and only a few aux sends for effects. They couldn't easily edit audio or clean up poor recordings or errors. Engineers were forced to use the tools they had in any given situation, as they didn’t have the luxury to swap out their large format consoles or racks of gear with ease like modern-day engineers can. They worked with what they had to create the best sounding record possible.

Build a Vintage Studio

With that in mind, sometimes the best way to regain creativity and create a new sonic space is to limit yourself. Think about the tools that a studio from the ‘60s or ‘70s would have had at their disposal. Try doing a little research and “build your own vintage studio” so to speak, using a limited number of plugins that emulate the specific tools that were available at a given studio. Waves offers many analog-modeled plugins which sound so good that they would make engineers from vintage eras jealous.

Try using only one specific console channel strip for processing on every track, to emulate exactly how engineers previously mixed on analog desks. The SSL E and G channel strips are incredible for this and continue to set the standard for how records should sound. If you're looking for a more vintage color similar to what you would find in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, the EMI12345 channel strip and REDD console beautifully model the classic sound of that era. Alongside the console, choose just one or two FX units to use as pieces of “outboard” gear, and try tweaking them to get a plethora of different effect styles. Similarly, for a ‘60s tone you may choose Abbey Road Chambers, whereas for an 80’s digital reverb sound you could go with something more versatile like H-Reverb Hybrid Reverb.

A lot of studios did have additional outboard units and processors, but because of the large expense of owning and maintaining them, most studios kept the bare essentials around. The most common outboard units were reverb and delay pieces, as recording consoles didn't have those features built in. Again, even the use of these effects was limited to the amount of auxiliary sends that the console had, making it pretty standard for most mixes to only have 3-4 time-based effects in total. Limiting your mixes to only a select few reverbs and delays will force you to be more creative and sparing with how you use your resources.

Working on only one console with a couple of outboard effects may seem limiting, but that’s the idea. Engineers were forced to get creative with the tools they had, finding workarounds when needed and playing into the flaws that existed. You will quickly find yourself learning and understanding the limited number of tools that you have on a deeper level. Knowing how they react and sound in different situations will ultimately let you mix faster and more efficiently.

See how Graham Cochrane from The Recording Revolution turns a DAW into an SSL mixing desk in the video below:

Print to Tape

The recording consoles weren't the only unique thing about the days of old-school analog studios. Pro Tools rigs were not a staple in studios until the early 2000s, so it’s likely those studios were all mixing directly to tape. Therefore, try using a tape emulation like the Abbey Road J37 Tape (Studer) or Kramer Master Tape (Ampex) on your mix bus to craft the overall tone of the mix.

These are just a few ways to spark some creativity by simply limiting what you have. There’s no quicker way to force yourself to think outside the box and gain a creative outlook on things, than when you realize you need to get a job done and only have a certain number of tools at your disposal.

Give it a try and let us know in the comments what Waves plugins you’re using in your vintage studio!

Want more ideas on staying creative in the studio? Get tips on using gear for unintended tasks.

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