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7 Tips for Mixing and Producing '70s Sounds

Aug 21, 2019

1970s recordings saw a rapid improvement in technology from the previous decade, which resulted in some signature sonic tones. Get inspired using the authentic sounds of the era when mixing in the box.

By George Shilling

7 Tips for Mixing and Producing '70s Sounds

After the huge growth of pop music culture during the 1960s, there was rapid advancement in recording technology towards the end of the decade. Those familiar with recordings from both the ‘60s and ‘70s will often be able to hear an unfamiliar record and date it fairly accurately by the nature of the sonics.

Greater recording fidelity was achieved with better recording consoles, tape machines and monitoring, and methods and attitudes changed with an increased number of available tracks. This also led to more time spent overdubbing recordings. At the end of the 1960s, 4 track had increased to 8 track, and in the early ‘70s things advanced quickly onto 16 track and 24 track; the latter format proving popular until digital formats started to take over in the ‘90s. There was also greater diversity in styles – rock, disco, reggae, funk, punk and myriad other styles all developed their own sonic signatures. Nevertheless, there are a few general approaches that can help nudge your mixes towards a ‘70s flavor.

1. Keep It Dry…ish

After the proliferation of reverb during the ‘60s, with records like Phil Spector’s hugely lavish productions, there was somewhat of a pull-back from that early in the 1970s. With the growing hi-fi hobbyists market wanting ultimate fidelity and clarity, close-micing and “dead” studio acoustics became fashionable. If you are presented with ambient tracks that you need to dry up, one relatively easy method which works on many instruments is dialing up Trans-X to increase the power of the transients, while reducing the sustain portion. Set the range to a positive value, the duration and release fairly short, and this will have the effect of making things sound a bit closer and tighter.

New York Dolls’ 1973 eponymous album featured dry drums and guitars.

However, sometimes “dry” isn’t quite all it seems. There was often a bit of space around things that got lost in the density of the mix. Records were made in fairly dead spaces, but they were often sizeable rooms with a little bit of “air,” so sometimes a touch of short reverb will add some vintage magic. The lack of shiny surfaces meant that any ambience was often relatively dull. There are a number of suitable settings in the IR-1 library to achieve this sound. Put the plugin on an aux channel so you can send varying amounts of multiple signals to the same room setting. You don’t want anything too bright or long, so perhaps in the Recording Studios section of the IR1 library try JMC and use one of the ‘absorptive’ settings, or for something ‘woodier’ try Konway Studio C. This approach is suitable for almost all sources except perhaps bass guitar. If you are using artificial MIDI drums, try and turn off any ambience in the drum instrument plugin and instead add some of the IR-1 recording studio ambience, to give the whole record a cohesive sound.

Of course, there were exceptions. Led Zeppelin were pioneers of a bigger, ‘roomier’ drum sound. IR-1 Library’s Elevator Hallway setting is a good starting point for this tone, but you might want to back off the high frequency EQ a touch.

Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” is a much-sampled ‘roomy’ drum sound.

Vocals often still had a touch of reverb, and this would usually be a plate, likely an EMT140. In the mid-1970s, EMT brought out the 250; the first digital reverb. There are impulse responses for both of these in the Devices section of the IR-1 library, or a variety of settings in Abbey Road Reverb Plates that should provide this color. “Grandmother of Punk,” Patti Smith’s epic title track from 1975’s Horses album, has classic dry drum sounds and vocals which start off dry, but as the track progresses there are varying amounts of plate reverb thrown onto the vocals.

Patti Smith’s Horses mixes dry and plate-drenched vocals.

2. Double-track

A lot of vocals on ‘70s records were stacked up, either by recording the same part twice or by using some form of ADT (artificial double tracking). Think of records by Fleetwood Mac, Abba and the Bee Gees. Abba’s engineer Michael B. Tretow has spoken of how they would often record doubles with the tape machine slightly vari-sped to create a chorus effect.

Abba’s sound included lots of double-tracking.

If you don’t have two takes of a vocal or instrument available, you can still create thickness in a few different ways. The Reel ADT plugin is great for this purpose. You could also experiment with short delays using Doubler or H-Delay. Make sure the delay signals aren’t too bright in tone using the in-built EQ in Doubler or by pulling down the lo-pass knob in H-Delay. You could even experiment with creating extra harmonies on some vocal lines by automating UltraPitch. Don’t rule out double-tracking the drums – there were a few bands in the '70s with two drummers, and tracks like “Can the Can” and “48 Crash” by Suzi Quatro have a double-tracked drum sound.

Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” with doubled drum tracks.

3. Delay Gimmicks

Delay was still achieved in the ‘70s by using analog tape, but there were also “bucket brigade” transistor delays entering the market. These were relatively lo-fi, and you can get this sound using the lo-fi button on H-Delay. For more authentic tape delay sounds, use the in-built delay in the J37 Tape and Kramer Master Tape plugins. For glam-rock records of the '70s, delay was often used as a gimmick on snare drums and claps – listen to “Wig Wam Bam” by The Sweet. “Instant Karma” by John Lennon seems to have a short delay on absolutely everything! Longer delays were often used sparingly on more experimental records by bands like Pink Floyd.

On John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” Phil Spector went crazy with the delay!

4. Authentic Period Processing: Console EQ, Compression and Saturation

Unlike fully featured modern digital EQs (for example the H-EQ), 1970's console EQ was often simpler and broader. The Kramer HLS Channel is modelled on the Helios consoles pioneered at London’s Olympic Studios, and used on sessions in the 1970s by the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Peter Frampton and also Led Zeppelin, who recorded tracks there for all their albums up to and including Physical Graffiti in 1975.

The controls are quite limited and idiosyncratic, but their limitations help you make careful EQ choices. In a similar vein, the API 550 EQ plugins are forgiving and smooth. For the full console channel approach also try the EMI TG12345 Channel Strip modelled on the console used at EMI studios for albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. This console features a great EQ and a wonderfully characterful compressor and limiter, and you can ‘drive’ the circuitry for even more color. For subtle console harmonics and saturation you could also try NLS Non-Linear Summer using either Mike Hedges’ TG setting or Yoad Nevo’s Neve sound.

Dark Side of the Moon was tracked on an EMI TG12345 console.

5. Compression

There are plenty of choices for ‘70s compression sounds. The companion to the HLS is the Kramer PIE Compressor, modeled on Pye compressors used at Olympic by Eddie Kramer. It’s fairly unsubtle and not always appropriate so you might want to use it sparingly, but for things like bass guitar and the drum bus it can be brilliant. The smooth sounding CLA-2A Compressor / Limiter is modeled on the tube-based Teletronix LA-2A produced from 1965 to 1969, and is a popular choice for bass and vocals. Its transistor successor the LA-3A is modeled by the CLA-3A Compressor / Limiter, and is great for low-mid punch on guitars.

For a more exciting upfront transistor sound, especially on vocals, use the CLA-76 Compressor / Limiter based on the 1966 Urei 1176. Set the attack to medium or fast and the release to a fast setting. For a fatter, creamier approach try the Neve 2254 model, V-Comp. Chaining two compressors with different characteristics can be effective, especially on vocals – ‘70s engineers weren’t shy with compression! In the mid-1970s the more aggressive sounding dbx® 160 Compressor / Limiter came along, which is great for controlling bass guitar and for aggressive snare drum compression. Squashing the drum bus aggressively with a fast releasing compressor can also enhance the room sound.

Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” makes extensive use of compression, and a certain amount of ‘room’ sound on drums and guitars is apparent.

6. Tape

Records were made exclusively on analog tape throughout the 1970s. Putting an instance of Kramer Master Tape on the mix bus at 15ips will warm things up. Make sure to keep the noise turned down fairly low, most engineers were good at juggling levels to minimize tape hiss, and noise reduction also became popular during this decade. However, some hiss is certainly apparent at the start of the Patti Smith track mentioned above, and a little of this can add a certain magic. J37 Tape will subtly provide different tones. Choose the EMITAPE 815 setting for an authentic 1970's tape formulation. For crunchy ‘70s punk authenticity, try pushing things into tape saturation.

Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” uses plenty of compression on individual signals and across the mix, some short delay on drums and vocals, and tape saturated BVs in the chorus.

7. Final Mastering

Try running the mix through the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain plugin for body and warmth. This is based on the TG12410 console of the early 1970s, and is still in use today. There are myriad possibilities here, so perhaps pick one of the excellent presets as a starting point, and have your ‘70s reference tracks on hand to guide your ears.

Want tips on producing ‘60s sounds? Get tips on making your mix sound more authentically 1960’s.

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