Why Vintage Records Sound Better.

The vinyl renaissance is here, so musicians and studios are eager to capture the vintage sound. Sales of vintage reissue recording equipment are brisk. Even analog tape recorders are making a comeback.

What are the secrets that make those vintage albums sound so wonderful?

I learned the art and science of sound recording in the 1970s during an apprenticeship under recording engineers and producers affiliated with Columbia Records. Sound recording is one of those things you really cannot learn on your own; you need the guidance of a mentor. Trade schools are a good start, but the best approach is an apprenticeship or an internship. Years are required before you can become a competent professional recordist.

Let me share with you my recollections of that time and compare it with today's approach to recording albums. By its nature, this note is both generalized and brief. Large books could be written on this topic.

Once upon a time, when a record label began the process of making an album, they hired a producer and an A&R department to manage the project. A&R? Oh, that means Artists & Repertoire. The producer maintained control throughout every step of the process, ensuring both the technical quality of the actual recording and that the band had achieved their highest artistic realization of the music. A&R strove to ensure every song was great, otherwise the album wouldn’t sell. Few listeners would buy an entire album just for one good song. That’s what 45s were for, yet they weren’t that profitable compared to albums and airplay.

The A&R people, who also served as talent scouts for the label, also oversaw the artistic development of both the band and of the songwriters. They were the liaison between the artists and the record label. Ultimately, every activity involving the band right up to the point of the album's release was considered to be under the purview, and thus was the responsibility, of A&R. The band, therefore, had two persons guiding their artistic development and the album as a whole: the producer and A&R. Once this administrative staff had been assembled and met with the band then the process could begin.

1. Recording Technique: the quality loss going from analog master tapes to the finished album, including LPs or cassettes, is extreme. Recording engineers had to be fanatical about every technical aspect of the process. Quality losses added up quickly. The recording media themselves had serious technical limitations; fortunately, the engineers understood those limitations. There was no room for error or compromise, because sound quality worsened rather quickly.
2. Preproduction: the musicians and the songwriters together worked out the song arrangements before beginning the recording project. They rehearsed. And rehearsed. And rehearsed. Rehearsals often entailed making demo and test recordings. Arrangements would be refined, the songwriting tweaked by the producer. The recording engineer often attended rehearsals to become familiar with the music and to work out recording techniques. This required planning beforehand the tracking order. Which instruments or vocals should be recorded first? Technical limitations of the recording process, musician and staff scheduling issues, and artistic considerations dictated this.
3. Recording Project: finally, months later, the recording began. The band entered the studio thoroughly rehearsed and laid tracks. The first track recorded was almost always the “click” track. A good click track could make or break a recording. It gave cues not only to keeping everyone to the same timing, but aided with musical expression. A great drummer who could lay down a flawless click track was worth more than solid gold. During the course of the project, the musicians left the technical details of recording to the studio staff, stopping from time to time to listen to playbacks for performance flaws. In rare instances, the musicians had the skill and experience to participate actively in the recording details. Otherwise, they concentrated on making music and left the taping to the professionals.
4.a. Mixdown: The engineer now edits and blends all the tracks seamlessly into the final whole. Editing was done minimally, because analog editing is tedious and limited in its resolution. Sometimes, the best sections of multiple takes would be combined into one finished track, a procedure called “comping,” short for “compositing.” Vocals were the parts most-likely to be “comped.” Additional signal processing would be employed, to improve overall sound, even out aspects of the mix and give the finished album an overall, cohesive sound.
4.b. The mixing process often was began in monaural, because phase errors and badly tracked parts would become glaringly evident. The engineer would work toward, then finish, a monaural mix - which became the master tape for AM broadcast, television soundtrack and audiovisual releases. Once the music sounded great in monaural, you knew it would sound amazing in stereo. Finally, the monaural mix would be “panned out” to create the spacious stereophonic mix. Panned? Past tense of “pan,” short for “panorama,” the placement of sounds from left-to-right between the two loudspeakers. Some felt the monaural mix was the more valuable of the two.
4.c.. Fixing the Mix: The engineer really couldn’t fix the mix, beyond applying some equalization or compression. But these processes had to be undertaken sparingly, because the signal processors of that day could ruin the sound quickly; each instance of equalization or compression degraded overall sound quality. The potential benefit to the mix from the processing and the subsequent degradation had to be weighed against the quality loss overall and the cost of the proper, and only genuinely effective, method of fixing the mix: have the musician or musicians redo the problem track, or hire studio musicians to re-record the track then replace the original track with the one done by the studio musicians. The latter method was the path most often chosen. You’d be surprised to know that the musicians you hear on many classic albums are studio musicians, not the band themselves. Now you know why the album sounds so different from the live concert!
5. Post-production: the completed stereo master tape went off to highly specialized mastering engineers who added finishing details to the recording and prepared it to be made into the final albums for sale. The pressing plant made the LPs and 45s as tape duplicators ran cassette and 8-track cartridge copies.

That was then but this is now.

Today, few recording projects have producers and even fewer benefit from the presence of A&R, except those created by the major labels. Most bands feel they can produce their own albums, that otherwise they lose “artistic control,” and will be denied “their artistic vision.”

Far too many of those who make professional recordings, defined for this note’s purpose as any recording made for sale, have the depth of experience and training necessary. Yes, that sounds egotistical, but it’s true. Watching YouTube videos and reading blogs is no substitute for the intense, hands-on experience of internships and apprenticeships. Albums recorded by the band themselves are usually the worst, because the recordist is most-often self-taught.

Similarly, the democratization of recording equipment had led to a trend of bands assembling their own recording studio, making their own recordings, then releasing the finished albums themselves directly to their fans. Most of these so-called project studios are ill-equipped. Some will hire a professional studio but then insist on asserting final control over every technical aspect of the project.

Mastering is seldom applied to the album. When it is, most of the time the band, once again, does it themselves. Because mastering is expensive, many bands elect to avail themselves of flat-rate “mastering” services. To be profitable, such services are often generic, done with presets or otherwise applied in haste.

Little to no preproduction takes place with most commercially-released recordings today. Bands often show up to recording sessions unrehearsed, using some of their studio time to work on arrangements or to rehearse. This leads to a clutter of redundant tracks, unplanned and often haphazardly made.

When a band does hire a studio, the first recording session is the first time the studio staff will have heard the songs and, sometimes, the band as well. This results in the recording engineer having to set up the microphones quickly. So, generic microphone placement and hasty recording techniques become the norm, degrading technical quality.

As the band doubles as both artists and studio staff, their attention is divided. With few exceptions, both the band's artistic performance and the recording's technical quality suffers.
Sorting through, then editing, the aforementioned clutter of tracks creates more problems. Because many of the tracks were made from poorly rehearsed sessions or were more of a "let's try this" nature, getting the mix correct is problematic.

The mixing process then often requires a heavy reliance on excessive editing and extensive signal processing to fix performance defects that should have been worked out in rehearsals and arranging sessions before the recording ever began.

The result is an album that has had the life edited out of it. Dynamics, the vehicle for excitement and expression, have been crushed under layers of compression and limiting. Equalization has been made atop previous instances of equalization in an attempt to fix mistakes in tracking, basic recording techniques, sloppy microphone placement as well as the use of inferior equipment. It's audio quicksand with each fix creating new problems that need to be fixed. They never really are.

I hear you thinking, “But wait, what about the gear? Those awesome LA-2 gain levelers? Pultec EQs? Those sweet-sounding preamplifiers, NEVE consoles, 610s and all the rest. Big diaphragm Neumann U87, Sony C37 and AKG C12A microphones? Oh, and those awesome RCA 44 and 77 ribbon mikes? The warm sound of Ampex MM1100 or ATR-124, Studer A80, and 3M 79 tape decks? Why aren’t you talking about the gear?”

Because that’s not really the secret of the sound of vintage albums. The real secret? The process. The uncompromising, well-planned, methodical approach to recording. Artist management and development. The work ethic of the musicians themselves. Studio musicians.

The gear was largely incidental. Frankly, we knew most of that gear really wasn’t as good as you’ve been led to believe, and that the gear itself wasn’t inherently special. But it was all that we had, so we used it. We didn’t worship the gear or look to it for our sound, we used it to create our sound — often in defiance of its severe limitations. Yes, the gear did affect the sound, but nowhere near as much as the process itself.

Adopt the process behind vintage albums and you’ll get the vintage sound. If we would have had the equipment made today, we’d have used it instead of what we did use. Yet, we still would have achieved that “vintage” sound. As my mentors often repeated, “Technique, not technology.”