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9 Tips for Mixing and Producing '60s Sounds

May 07, 2019

‘60s recordings were limited by the technology available, but the sound is still loved by producers and music fans alike. See how you can emulate the warmth and character of those classic records when mixing in the box.

By George Shilling

9 Tips for Mixing and Producing '60s Sounds

It’s amazing that after more than 50 years, there is still so much love for the sounds achieved by the creative recording professionals of the 1960s. It’s akin to the Beatles sitting in the studio in the early ‘60s referencing wax cylinder recordings from the time of the First World War – I don’t think they ever did that, although admittedly, the track “Honey Pie” does hark back to the 1930s!

What’s also extraordinary, is that despite 50 years of technological and creative progress there is a charm and magic to the sounds of the great records of that era, that cannot always be achieved by simply using the best equipment available today. So, the approach these days is sometimes the opposite of what our forebears were striving for. Yes, of course we’re trying to achieve excellence and the best possible results, but often it’s by deliberately distressing and distorting things to add a certain magic.

Obviously, a lot of what can be achieved comes down to the song, arrangement, instrument sounds and performances. But if the track you are mixing seems to lend itself to some authentic ‘60s vibes, you could add some spice to the recipe by trying some of the following ideas.

1. Bounce Your Tracks

In the 1960s, track counts were strictly limited by the technology of the tape machines available, but could be increased by combining or ‘bouncing’ multiple instruments together onto one track, thereby leaving tape room for other parts. The Beatles’ recordings used these techniques, and in EMI’s archives there still exist ‘slave’ reels of recordings that were collected after their contents were consolidated onto one track of new tape, in order to allow further overdubs to take place. As well as the sonic differences that occur with multiple tape generations, degradation of high-end and so-on, there is a lot to be said for the psychology of making decisions earlier in the process, and whittling down the track numbers.

If you’ve got, say, 8 tracks of backing vocals, try balancing them up and committing them to a stereo track before you move on to the “actual” mix stage. Or, if you’re feeling really brave and going for an early ‘60s sound, bounce them to mono. You could even apply this same approach to drums or other groups of instruments. I love the satisfaction of looking at the session, for example, and seeing only 16 tracks to mix. I was amazed to hear the separate multitrack elements on Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”; the drums were on one mono track (having probably been recorded with about 5 microphones) including some plate reverb on the snare mixed in for good measure! Abbey Road Reverb Plates is the obvious choice to recreate that effect. Plate A and Plate D are nice and rich for snare reverb, and the Plate - 1 setting in IR1 Convolution Reverb often sounds great for this too, being a little less dense. Perhaps also try gelling the drums with a PuigChild 660 limiter across the bounce.

2. Balance and Pan the Mix

Before you even think about EQ, compression, tape effects or anything else, just remember that the overall balance is most important. Listen carefully to some 60s productions on the same system you are mixing on; the mind plays tricks and analyzing reference tracks during the mixing process can be quite surprising. What is it you like about the balance; does it relate to what you are doing? How loud is that vocal?! How much reverb did they use?! “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds has a very loud tape delay on the tambourine and the drums are actually set pretty far back in the mix compared to ‘70s and ‘80s productions. Radical panning is also a feature of early stereo mixes. Experiment with different panning options, particularly extreme LCR (left-center-right) techniques and see what gives your song that ‘60s feel.

3. Mix from the Console to Tape

When mixing with an eye towards a vintage ‘60s sound, placing a tape plugin on every track can smoothen things, and subtly make the recordings a bit warmer and more ‘listenable’. You could try doing this on the individual elements before you bounce down, and if you’ve narrowed the track count it will be easier on your CPU for the final mix. Something like the J37 or Kramer Master Tape used delicately can really help. However, caution is advised. You don’t need to hear outlandish distortion from the tape. You may not even hear much of a difference on individual tracks, but cumulatively, the results add a touch of magic.

Similarly, the sound of the recording and mixing consoles of the time were vital. The transistor-based EMI TG12345 plugin is an all-encompassing channel strip, accurately recreating this famous Abbey Road console. This unit wasn’t introduced until very late in the decade however, and most of the classic recordings of the 1960s would have gone through the REDD consoles which were valve-based. The REDD17 and REDD37-51 plugins take you back to that era, providing a few different flavors from a time when “plugins” literally meant circuits you could plug in to the console for different EQ types – Pop or Classic. The very basic tone controls seem rather limited, but their gentle curves prevent you from making nasty sharp EQ moves which mess with signal integrity. The high and low tone controls gently shape the sonics, allowing a wholesome character to flourish. Try placing one of these consoles after your tape plugin, but go easy on the drive knob so it doesn’t sound too aggressive!

4. Drive the Bass

Don’t be afraid of distorting the bass guitar quite a bit relative to other tracks. The aforementioned “Purple Haze” bass part sounds like the console input was rather overloaded, but in the mix this just brings extra excitement. Kramer Master Tape is great for introducing some pleasant harmonics for this purpose. For compression, don’t be afraid of using a good dollop of CLA-2A – this is based on a 1960s design, and the fast attack and auto-release keep signals nicely in check, working particularly well for bass guitar and vocals.

Controlling the dynamics will help you balance your tracks by making everything sit together nicely. If you want something a bit faster and more vibrant and aggressive, the CLA-76 which is based on the 1967 classic FET limiter would be a good choice. Choose “Bluey” mode for the earlier, more characterful version. A fast release setting is often smoothest, but perhaps turn the knob slightly left for a bit of audible ‘60s-style ‘pumping’. If you really want something unsubtle to add rip-roaring excitement to a vocal performance, try the Kramer PIE Compressor!.

5. Keep Your Drums in Character

The drums and vocals are often cited as the most important elements of a song. The drum sound in particular can be the biggest giveaway when it comes to estimating the date of a recording, as treatment techniques and fashions change every few years. If you are looking for a ‘60s feel on your drums, you need to avoid any 1980s style digital reverbs or gated reverb settings. I love H-Reverb, but it is definitely off the list for this task. Instead, the obvious choices for drum reverbs are Abbey Road Chambers and Abbey Road Plates. For authentic 60s vibes, try keeping reverbs in mono. You can pan both sides of a stereo reverb plugin to the middle, or better still, place it at the same point in the stereo field as the instrument it serves.

Be careful however to not go too crazy with different reverb settings on each instrument. Tracks of the time were often recorded ‘live’ with everyone in the same acoustic space. Sending a tiny bit of everything to a short room reverb (e.g. the drum room preset in TrueVerb) can help your mix sound more authentic ‘60s. As well as chambers and plates, a great many 60s recordings utilized spring reverb. There are spring settings in the free downloadable IR Reverb Library for IR-1 and IR-L but there are also terrific spring reverb settings in the GTR3 series for some truly authentic shimmery reverb effects. This effect sounds great on guitars, but there is no reason not to use it on any other instruments like drums for some very characterful and wobbly underwater reverb effects. The slightly metallic and “ringy” sound is very evocative of the period and simple to set up.

6. Slap the Vocal

If you are looking for an early ‘60s rock ’n’ roll vibe (e.g. “Everybody’s Trying to be my Baby” by The Beatles), then vocals are best treated with a short “slap” delay. In the 60s this was achieved by running signal through a tape machine in record, and the delay was created by the gap between the record and playback heads. Multiple echoes result from feeding some of that signal back through the machine again.

You can achieve this effect using the delay sections of Kramer Tape, J37 or the Abbey Road Chambers plugin. In the Chambers, turn the reverb fader off in the mix section and set a delay time in the S.T.E.E.D. section of about 120ms. Turn up the drive about a third of the way to emulate tape distortion, and the mod about the same amount to simulate a bit of tape wow. A bit of top cut places it behind the lead vocals, and you can vary the feedback for multiple echoes. Always adjust the delay setting to suit the vocal delivery and song tempo. For more of a haunting Joe Meek production style (e.g. “Johnny Remember Me” by John Leyton), try the GTR3 spring reverb stomp instead, or alongside the delay, perhaps feed some of the delay signal to the reverb.

7. Modulate Sections

Although the chorus pedal was not yet around in the early ‘60s, by the end of the decade there were some very interesting modulation effects that had been developed using tape machines. Reel ADT can achieve these phasing, flanging, ADT and Leslie-type sounds incredibly accurately. These effects are often best used sparingly, in the sense that you rarely want them all the way through a song. Everyone remembers “Itchycoo Park” by Small Faces for its phasing, but it only occurs in a few sections, albeit fairly unsubtly!

Try phasing the drum kit through tom-tom fills, or swathes of mix elements (all the vocals, all the keyboards, even the whole mix!) during the bridge section or during a fade-out. For musically-related sweeps, you could automate the varispeed knob and add swooshes that directly relate to the bars across which you want the effect. Scrolling through the great presets provided should give you enough inspiration to find something close to what you need, then you can tweak to suit.

8. Automate “Bad” Edits

Although console automation didn’t exist in the ‘60s, complicated mixes were often put together with tape edits. Engineers and producers would manually move the faders around during the mix, and if it wasn’t quite right when the song got to the chorus they’d rewind a bit and carry on, wielding the razor blade afterwards to chop the sections together. Of course, this meant that somebody might have moved a fader, pan-pot or echo send between the different parts of the song, so ‘obvious’ or ‘bad’ edits sometimes occurred — deliberately? Who knows. This dramatic change of mood was not always undesirable and can now be easily achieved with automation, so try automating a few changes to all occur suddenly at the start of a section like a chorus for that authentic ‘bad edit’ feel. It might sound great!

9. Final Thing

On the mix bus you might want to try a PuigChild 770 valve limiter, as was used for cutting vinyl in the ‘60s. And don’t forget to put another tape plugin across your mix too!

Want more on adding vintage vibes to your tracks? Get tips on adding retro, lo fi sounds to your mixes.

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