‘In the history of technology, it is not all that rare for technological inventions to gain significance long after their inception’ Theodore Adorno (1969: p. 283)
In previous papers, I have acknowledged the technological acceleration of the 1980s and how new technologies ‘divided’ the opinions of industry practitioners and recordists of the era; the tech-utopianists on the one hand and the sceptics/ pessimists on the other (Bennett, 2009). Indeed, scholars such as Alan Durant and Mark Cunningham also noted such a divide. Undoubtedly, technological utopianism in the Anglo American sound recording industries was – and still is to a large extent – rife, with organisations such as AES and technology trade shows, such as NAMM and Sounds Expo regularly championing new technological developments. Additionally, online fora, such as Gearslutz, promote new technologies to an excitable audiophile community via a busy network of technology-related threads, interspersed with feature Q&A sessions with recognised practitioners. Such organisations, trade shows and discussion sites have all contributed to a technology industry where, certainly over the last 30 years, new=good. Indeed, such utopianism surrounding the ‘new’ is ever prevalent in the sound and music technology press, which is much to do with their line of income so dependent on advertising revenue. Almost no recognition is given to technological precursors or vintage systems and is only acknowledged when mentioned in recordist interviews. The only exception to this is the magazine ‘Tape Op’, which – as the name suggests – gives more prominence to past and current analogue systems being used in today’s recording workplace.
Precursors and vintage systems manifest in today’s recording industry in a number of ways. The digital appropriation of analogue systems is particularly prevalent in software plug-ins. For example, Universal Audio’s new Omni-6 plug-in bundle contains no less than 53 processors modeled on vintage systems, such as the Fairchild Compressor, Lexicon 224, Ampex and Studer tape simulators, Moog synthesisers and Pultec EQs. ‘Access the world’s finest emulations of analogue classics’ is the advertisement strap line. The illustration depicts Abbey Road’s ‘King’s’ microphone simulators, modeled on the sounds of vintage microphones used by the British monarchy in the 1920s and 1930s.
Indeed, scholars such as Barlindhaug have acknowledged the use value of such digital appropriations. He also warned against attributing uses of such tools as acts of nostalgia and instead, argued for a continued quest for sonic excellence where digital tools are more economically viable. He suggested in his essay, Analogue Sound in the Age of Digital Tools,
…by following this quest for analog sound, digital technology helps to create an acknowledgement of analog aesthetics. This must not be seen as merely an act of nostalgia, but rather as a sense that the context of its use is what really makes a particular technology novel. (2007: p. 90)
I concur with Barlindhaug in that the context of a technology’s use is of important consideration. But what about uses of the original systems as opposed to their software equivalents?
The title of this paper alludes to the recently developed Closed Loop Analogue Signal Processor, or CLASP; an interface that allows integration of analogue tape machines into the DAW workflow. Invented by Chris Estes, the CLASP effectively allows for the [allegedly seamless] integration of modern DAWs and vintage analogue tape recorders into the same session.
The uptake of the CLASP system by the professional industry has been strong, but other patterns are emerging. Indeed, technological precursors have long been part of recording workplaces, but more and more, UK and US professional, project and home studios are sourcing, integrating and implementing them either alone or in conjunction with modern DAWs. David Simons recognised this in his book entitled, Analogue Recording: Using Analogue Gear in Today’s Home Studio, which deals almost entirely with the practicalities of hardware installation in the home studio.
Additionally, facilities appear to be using their precursors and vintage systems as marketing tools. In the October/ November 2011 issue of ‘Tape Op’ magazine, for example, London’s Miloco studios took out a full-page advert with the headline ‘London’s most inspirational tracking room just got better with the arrival of 80k worth of vintage gear.’ [2011: p.3]
Concurrent to apparent increases in vintage technology consumption and usage, the tech-utopianism that proliferated during the 1980s acceleration appears to be wearing a little. For example, modern-day production issues such as ‘The Loudness War’ have seen a notable backlash, particularly in the UK via Ian Shepherd’s online ‘Dynamic Range Day’ campaign.
So, why the increasing uptake in precursors and vintage system usage? This research investigates the reasoning behind such choices: how and why are vintage systems situated in contemporary workplaces? Where are such systems sourced? By whom and for what purpose? What are the issues in terms of practicality and maintenance? Indeed the use of technological precursors and vintage technologies in the modern recording workplace presents a dichotomy; if the use of such systems is easily attributed to nostalgia or fashion, why the prevalence?
This research has five key objectives:
- To deconstruct common cultural perceptions of technological precursor usage as ‘nostalgia’, ‘fashion’ or ‘retro’;
- To ascertain how technological precursors are sourced by recordists and workplaces in three case study examples;
- To establish issues of practicality in terms of equipment integration, repair and refurbishment;
- To determine the cultural significance and issues of iconicity and vintage technologies in three case study examples, and;
- To investigate recordists’ reasoning behind technological precursor and vintage system usage, to include issues of sonic characteristics.
The methodology is largely critical ethnographic, and this paper draws upon first-hand interview material with current practitioners. It is hermeneutic-reconstructive in the sense that it takes into account pre-understandings and prejudgments during the interpretive and reconstructive process. Additionally, much analysis of relevant cultural and musicological texts has been carried out in order to establish scholarly views pertaining to the topic. Furthermore, analysis of consumption patterns has been undertaken, including reviewing of second-hand retail, auction sites and outlets.
This article forms part of a larger, post-doctoral study into technological precursor usage amongst Anglo-American popular music recordists. Concentrating on points raised during 3 practitioner interviews, this paper draws tentative findings based on some of the analytical and ethnographic work conducted so far. A small number of case study contexts is presented in this article due to the multi-faceted and complex reasoning behind technological precursor useage. The research will consider further examples in future, but for now, 3 case studies are analysed in depth.
In an industry so preoccupied with the ‘cutting-edge’, it is perhaps unsurprising that the use of technological precursors or ‘vintage’ systems is sometimes met with accusations of ‘nostalgia’ or ‘luddite’. Such attributions have certainly been made amongst the scholarly community. In Against Technology – From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism, Steven Jones theorizes the rejection of new technologies in favour of old or none at all as he suggests:
It is universally acknowledged that we live in the most technological age in history – because, it is widely believed, technology has become universal. How is it possible in the face of such an unprecedented and ubiquitous force to be “against” technology? For one thing, it means you’re a neo-Luddite, someone whose choice of philosophy or lifestyle is a deliberately symbolic act, a back-formation based on the received idea of a historical labour movement. (2006: pp. 19-20)
Simon Emmerson recognised these notions as relating specifically to the audio domain in Music, Electronic Media and Culture. Looking back over technological development in the 1980s and 1990s, he suggested:
It was assumed that improved sound quality, extended processing possibilities including realistic ‘sense of space’ algorithms, would lead inevitably towards a technical Nirvana where synthetic and concrete, virtual and real would be seamlessly manipulatable. A rejection of such a path and its glittering prizes was seen as perverse – even Luddite. (2000: p. 195)
In Ocean of Sound, David Toop criticises nostalgia in music generally, by suggesting,
…musics which attempt to make a nostalgic, exaggerated return (to past musics)…can only seem ludicrous at a time when computers think faster, clone replications at will and spread information over vast distances in intricate, often unidentifiable webs. (2001: p. 263)
In Off The Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America, Morton cites the technological choices made by recordists as ‘crucial’, yet concludes that uses of older technologies are a result of fashion and nostalgia, as he states:
There are important niches in the recording industry where a conservative culture of engineering maintains that high-quality analog sound recorders are better for certain purposes…they sometimes cling to an older technology instead of embracing the new one…clearly nostalgia and fashion create temporary reversals of the trends. (2000: p. 185)
By attributing uses of older systems in contemporary recording as ‘fashionable’, ignores more important factors that may be present in recordist’ choices, such as sonic characteristics, aesthetic intention, preferred processes or techniques, availability or accessibility of preferred technologies. It is indeed problematic to suggest that the use of technological precursors in modern recording can be put down to nostalgia alone. In, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesiser. Pinch and Trocco recognised an ‘analogue revival’ in synthesiser usage at the turn of the 2000s and suggested:
It is easy to dismiss this analogue revival as a form of nostalgia. Nostalgia is usually taken to be a means whereby present uncertainties and discontents are addressed by drawing on a past era or culture. But we think something more interesting is going on. In users’ adaptation of and reversion to old technologies we see salient criticisms of how the synthesiser has evolved and expressions of genuine feelings of loss. (2002: p. 318)
In his article, Analogue Artists Defying the Digital Age, O’Hagan reviews the work of Naomi Kashiwagi, a DJ using a gramophone and 78 rpm records, Claire Askew, a typewriter-dedicated poet and Lewis Durham. Whilst questioning whether uses of technological precursors in the wider creative industries is down to nostalgia alone, he cites the young artists’ decisions as being a reaction against digital culture, as he states:
The work of these artists is born of dissatisfaction with digital culture’s obsession with the new, the next, the instant. It values the hand-made, the detailed and the patiently skilful over the instantly upgradeable and the disposable. (2011: p. 2)
All the artists in question cite patience, skill and the mechanical aspects of working with their respective precursors as reasons for their choices. However, in all cases, this does not appear due to a reaction against – or resistance to – current technological trends. Moreover, the artist achieves intended and satisfactory results with their chosen technology, regardless of the availability of contemporary systems; their choice to use vintage systems is not a rebellious one. So what of current applications of technological precursors and vintage systems?
Case Study 1 – Snap Studios, London
The first case study is Snap Studios, based in Harringay, London, UK. Built in 2009, the premises were bought, refurbished and refitted with almost purely vintage technologies by Mark Thompson of Pro Audio Europe. Studio 1 is fitted with a modified 1972 Neve 5316 console, fully integrated with a Pro Tools HD system. Additionally, the studio is home to an EMT140 quad plate reverb, EMT240 Gold Foil plate reverb, a Fairchild 670 compressor, Otari 2” analogue tape machines and a large collection of vintage microphones. Interestingly, the outboard equipment features many familiar units synonymous with record making in the 1980s: a Publison DHM89 Harmonizer and Lexicon 224 digital reverb.
I interviewed studio manager Marco Pasquariello about why studio 1 was fitted with vintage technologies as well as issues surrounding client demand, integration with Pro Tools and thoughts on future demand.
Fig. 1: Neve 5316 console with custom ‘Flying Fader’ automation in Studio 1 at Snap! Studios, London.
Case Study 2 – Liam Watson and Toerag Studios, London
The second case study is Liam Watson’s Toerag studio, based in Hackney, London. Watson has worked as a recording engineer since 1991, when he first set up a studio in his London flat. He acquired his current studio premises in 1997, where he has worked ever since. Watson is both Toerag’s owner and main recording engineer. Comprising one control room and one live room, the centrepieces of Toerag include a Studer A-80 tape recorder, a 1950s EMI REDD 17 console, as well as a large range of vintage microphones, outboard effects processors and amplifiers. Toerag does not feature any computer-based recording equipment or DAW. However, at the time of interview, Watson expressed an interest in purchasing an Otari Radar II hard disk recorder. I interviewed Watson about his acquisition of Toerag, his influences and reasons behind his chosen technologies.
Fig 2: EMI REDD 17 console in the control room at Liam Watson’s Toerag Studios, London.
Case Study 3 – Lewis Durham and Evangelist Studios, London
The third case study is Lewis Durham’s ‘Evangelist studio’, based in Kentish Town, London. Built into a residential town house, the studio comprises one control and one live room. Durham, age 21, is one third of Rockabilly group ‘Kitty, Daisy and Lewis’, who have released both their debut and follow-up albums on hardback box containing 6 10” 78rpm records – the first releases on such a format in over 50 years. The son of Graeme Durham, head mastering engineer at the Exchange, London, Durham has collected pieces of vintage recording equipment, learnt to maintain it and built a working home studio. The studio features an Ampex 5258 tape recorder, an Ampex 300, Leak ‘Point One’ valve amplifiers amongst a range of other pieces. I interviewed Durham about where he sourced such technologies, the reasoning behind his choices and how others perceive his working practices.
Fig. 3: Ampex 5258 8-track tape recorder in the control room at Lewis Durham’s Evangelist Studios, London.
Issues of source
Until the late 1970s, most professional recording studios worked solely within the analogue domain. Upgrades usually took place as track capabilities increased, particularly from 4-track to 8-track and from 8-track to 16-track. The introduction of digital recording equipment in the late 1970s was pivotal. Almost overnight, high-end sound recording technology transformed and the systems used until that point were considered redundant. This sudden change was epitomised in Abbey Road Studios ‘Sale of the Century’. On October 15th-16th 1980, the studio held a sale of its redundant recording equipment. As Don Weller remarked in a 1980 article in Billboard:
LONDON – Buyers from all over the world are expected for the recording equipment ‘Sale of the Century’, taking place Oct 15-16 in EMI’s famous Abbey Road Studios. Centrepiece of the sale is the 4-track, Studer 337, on which ‘Sergeant Pepper’ was recorded, alongside a Mellotron with many of The Beatles original tapes intact. Aside from such memorabilia, the main sales covers multi-tracks, mixing desks, monitors, mikes, stands and screens, test equipment, disc cutting and tape duplication equipment, reverbs, noise reduction, delays, flangers and much more, along with a jumble sale of other oddments. It’s a case of off the old and on with the new at Abbey Road, where a 16-channel digital mixer developed and manufactured at the Thorn EMI Central Research Laboratories in Hayes has just been installed for operational evaluation. (1980: p. 64)
The advertisement is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, the 4-track recorder and Mellotron, as used by The Beatles are described, not as working, useable pieces of equipment, but as ‘memorabilia’, implying that the systems are collectors items of historical value. Additionally, this also illustrates an early reference to vintage equipment as being associated with memorable artists or events. The 4-tracks were not being sold on their use value, but on the basis that they were associated with The Beatles. Secondly, the statement ‘off the old and on with the new’ is indicative of the tech-utopian culture at the time. As has been recognised by many scholars (Durant, 1990; Cunningham, 1998; Bennett, 2009) the influx of digital sound recording and music technologies into the industry during the 1980s had a divisive effect.
I asked Liam Watson where he managed to source his equipment from, particularly the REDD 17 console. Watson cited two former outlets that were instrumental in the resale of technological precursors during the height of the 1980s digital boom; Abbey Road’s Sale of the Century and the BBC’s Redundant Plant:
When we first set up, the BBC had a really good place called the redundant store, which they closed down and now they just sell stuff through brokers. Their policy at the time – in the late 1980s/ early 1990s – was when… a piece of equipment became redundant, as in it was ‘upgraded’ or there was something wrong with it, they weren’t allowed to throw it away and the staff weren’t allowed to buy it. It had to go to this central depot, The Redundant Store, which was this big warehouse in West London. You’d go down there in 1990 and there would be just shelves and shelves of old recording equipment, really really cheap. I got this 8-track there [Studer A80] for a ridiculously cheap price. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to get a Studer A80, 1” 8-track if it hadn’t have been for the BBC redundant store. Even back then, they were quite an expensive item. (Watson: 2012)
The BBC Redundant Plant (as it was officially titled) was based in Power Road, Chiswick, specialising in the resale of its antiquated sound recording, broadcasting and television equipment to specialist recording and broadcasting facilities, as well as the general public. The plant itself was instrumental in supplying outdated systems to the BBCs own Radiophonic Workshop, as former manager Brian Hodgson stated:
In the very beginning, Desmond [Briscoe] had been given £2000 and the key to ‘redundant plant’ [the BBC’s junk pile] and that was it! The place kept going for years on what we called ‘fag-ends and lollipops’. ‘Fag-ends’ were the bits of unwanted rubbish that other departments had thrown away; ‘lollipops’ were the much rarer treats that were occasionally sent down to keep Desmond [Briscoe] quiet. (Hodgson: 2008)
The BBC Redundant Plant was a significant retailer of vintage technologies and precursors, until it ceased to exist in April 1996. Arguably, retailers like Vintage King, Pro Audio Europe and eBay have filled the leftover void, although none of which operate on the same scale.
In addition to the BBC Redundant Plant and Abbey Road’s Sale of the Century, Watson remarked upon being part of a network of individuals trading equipment. Indeed, it was by a combination of the above means that Watson sourced his REDD 17 console, as he states:
The other thing was friends of friends telling us about stuff. This desk we’ve got here was one of the Abbey Road desks. The bass player from the Milkshakes had bought this from Abbey Road in 1981 when Abbey Road had the sale of the century and they sold all their equipment off. A friend of mine that was the drummer in that band when we were first setting up, we knew him a little bit and he said, ‘Oh my friend Russ, he bought that desk and I don’t think he’s doing anything with it’. He moved up to Scotland, he was a teacher, and he still had the desk in his parent’s garage in Kent, so we managed to get it off him. So there were things like that that happened and we were really lucky with some of the stuff. (Watson: 2012)
Nowadays, new sound recording and music technologies, such as workstations, software DAWs and plug-ins are easily sourced through retailers and distributors, trade shows and online outlets. However, vintage technologies and precursors are rarely available via such means, so how do recordists and practitioners source such equipment, post-BBC Redundant store?
Marco Pasquariello discussed London’s Pro Audio Europe (also known as Funky Junk) and California’s Vintage King as the two market leaders in vintage technology sales, as he described the equipment in Studio 1 at Snap!:
Mark Thompson who owns Funky Junk, this is his private collection of gear. That’s kind of how the studio came about. He’s picked the best of what’s come through over the years. But gear’s gear to him. He understands the value of it and to an extent, his company dictates the used value of things, well Mark and Mike Nehra at Vintage King are the 2 that dictate the price of equipment on the second hand market. (Pasquariello: 2011)
Pro Audio Europe’s main outlet in London, however the company also has outlets in Paris and Milan and serves a global network of recording studios, practitioners and engineers. Pro Audio Europe is Europe’s largest company dealing in the resale of vintage systems and technological precursors. Funky Junk, as it is also known, has a team of in-house maintenance engineers who refurbish equipment sold on by the company. There are, however, a few smaller outlets, such as Audio Toyshop based in Bristol, UK. Since 1995, Audio Toyshop has dealt exclusively in second-hand pro-audio equipment. However, in recent years, the showroom has closed ‘Due to total lack of demand…’ and the business now operates via the Internet only. Nashville’s Primal Gear operates in a similar vein; the company does have a showroom, but deals almost exclusively online.
Lewis Durham, however, has never used a second-hand retailer to source his equipment. Instead, he has relied solely upon a global, yet small and close network of individuals who trade in vintage equipment amongst themselves, as he states:
Once you get into it and you start talking to people, it’s a very closed circle of people all around the world. I collect Blues 78s. There’s not many people who do that. But once you know one person, you get to know the rest of them. So you find people, mainly in the States. In the States a lot of stuff [recording technology] was produced for RCA, for the radio stations. So I got this [vinyl cutting lathe] from North Carolina. The motor shaft got bent in transit, so it was a real ball-ache to get it going. That was pre-eBay, so it was only like 100 bucks. No one wanted them. The speakers, I traded Studer tape recorders – A80s. They’re the workhorse machines, but I didn’t want them. The records I like were not made on those machines. It wasn’t the date that bothered me – I used it and it sounded quite nice, but then you compare it to the Ampex and it’s like ‘Wow!’ you can hear the difference. But Studers, they were giving them away, literally. So I traded a load of them with Liam Watson from Toerag studios for these [speakers]. The speakers inside them are Tannoy and these were their mid-1950s speakers, which was a studio standard called the monitor red. The cabinets were made in Harrow. In the 1950s, you’d go to a studio and this is what they’d have. Now, this is the only pair left that I’m aware of. So I traded the A-80s for these [monitors]. The amplifiers were made by Leak in the late 1940s. (Durham: 2011)
Durham implies the lack of demand for vinyl lathes and spare parts ‘pre eBay’. This is a key observation, as in the last decade particularly; eBay has become a popular and wholly viable outlet for the sale of both current and second-hand sound recording equipment.
Today, there are few means by which precursors and vintage systems are sourced amongst the UK recording industry. The BBC Redundant Store and Abbey Road’s Sale of Century were instrumental in the resale of perhaps the first ‘batch’ of vintage technologies, particularly once 16-track analogue tape recording was superceded. Indeed, both outlets served as an important predecessor to the vintage market today. However, both outlets reinforced the perception that vintage sound recording equipment was either redundant, implying loss of meaning or function, or for collectors interest only. The use value of the second-hand equipment was largely ignored.
Interestingly, this is not the case with current vintage technology resalers. Both Vintage King and Pro Audio Europe market their systems almost entirely on use value alone without relying on heritage or legacy. Nowadays, few specialists exist that deal wholly in vintage technology resale and most operate online with only a small demo room. Additionally, eBay has become an important source of vintage systems and precursors. However, practitioners working regularly with such systems prefer to use their own network of individual contacts when sourcing technologies.
Issues of practicality: repair, refurbishment and replacement
The vintage technologies discussed so far were at one stage current, or even considered ‘cutting edge’. The tape machines, such as Watson’s Studer A-80 or Durham’s Ampex 5258, were once central technologies to professional recording facilities that had an in-house team of engineers, assistants and – perhaps most importantly – maintenance staff. Today, such recording facilities are rarities. The proliferation of small-scale project and home studios, coupled with a steady decline in professional recording houses over the last 20 years, has led to many facilities operating as single owner-operator businesses. The lack of in-house maintenance staff in such premises is problematic, particularly if the workplace operates on a commercial basis and relies upon the technology in order to keep sessions going. This is not to suggest only vintage technologies and precursors require maintenance. Digital and computer-based recording and production systems arguably require as much care; faults will always occur regardless of the technological domain. However, as certain technologies become older, the upkeep demands are inevitably higher. How do recordists and practitioners deal with the practical, day-to-day maintenance and repair issues without in-house maintenance engineers? Since he was a child, Lewis Durham has learnt to maintain his equipment himself, as he states:
I was about 11 or 12 and I was just getting into Rhythm and Blues. I got together an American broadcast disc-cutting lathe. Most people now are using the 70s lathes to make records, but I wanted to use the mechanical stuff, which didn’t have pitch control motors. I wanted metal and to see things moving. That was a ball-ache, because there weren’t any people around to show me how to use it. I had to figure it out for myself and there were problems, but I managed to get it working. I started making dub plates for people in my school. It grew from there. I had to learn how to fix the stuff. You can’t just send it away or get some bloke round. The first thing I learned how to fix were those green microphone mixers, they were built in the late 1940s, so I’d read these books and learn how valve circuitry worked. It’s actually really simple. Of course it gets more complicated once you get into oscillators. It was like learning how a road map works. So after doing that, you look inside the equipment and go, ‘Oh ok, I know what that’s doing now.’ I know if something goes wrong what’s going to happen. I know what components go wrong and why. It was a lot of trial and error and a lot of electric shocks. Even sometimes messing things up, but you learn how to fix stuff and it became simple after a while. (Durham: 2011)
Durham’s predicament is arguably exceptional. His construction of Evangelist studios has stemmed from a childhood passion and has been heavily influenced by the occupation and interests of his parents and grandparents. As a result, Durham has been able to develop his passion for sound recording relatively easily, with the support of his family and within his own home, without the pressures that come with a commercial business. In saying that, Durham, having just a record label running in conjunction with his studio, faces a new challenge in turning Evangelist studios into a viable, commercial business.
Marco Pasquariello discusses why vintage technologies can be easier to maintain than their modern-day counterparts, as he states:
On a console like this [1972 Neve 53 series Broadcast desk] if one of the mic pres is broken, we just take it out, fix the component, they’re individual components. On a lot of cheaper, modern gear, it’s surface mountable electronics, if it breaks, a bank of 8 goes down rather than one channel. It’s one of the main reasons why people revere this sort of console. Integrating this stuff, particularly a console of this age isn’t as easy as some people might think. As the digital age took off and as people started using more track counts, the need and demand for more than 16 tracks and more than 24 track started expanding. When Neve started bringing out inline consoles… it’s quite a small console in the scheme of things… to integrate this with a 24-in/ 48-out Pro Tools rig is a bit tricky. There’s only 16 groups. (Pasquariello: 2011)
Once again, Snap! is in a unique situation as a commercial business. The owner of Pro Audio Europe built the studio; if a piece of technology needs maintenance, staff at the company can easily maintain it. Pasquariello already stated that the control room at Snap! features vintage technologies and precursors from Mark Thompson’s (Director of Pro Audio Europe) private collection. What is interesting here is that in the case of both Evangelist and Snap! studios, both have been built by individuals with a passion specifically for vintage technology. Durham, however, does not have a team of maintenance engineers to hand and has had to learn to service his equipment himself, as he states:
All the stuff in here is serviced by me. Sourcing stuff is a problem. Trying to find parts. People will store stuff, but it has to be used. This stuff was made to be used. This was in a museum [Ampex 5258] I did an article in Tape Op and this guy asked me what would be my dream piece of equipment and I said this… and the guy called me up from Muscle Shoal studios in Alabama and said ‘I’ve got it – do you want it?’ And everyone I called to ask ‘How was this thing used? Because the engineer Tom Dowd from Atlantic, he’s dead, I never got to talk to him. And people just said, ‘Oh you shouldn’t bother with that, it’s a museum piece, you want to use the Studer, it’s easier.’ But I was like, ‘You don’t understand, I don’t want that, I want to use this! They can’t see why I want to use it. And it’s because the records sound great. Hear Stand by Me – everyone’s like, ‘Fucking hell!’ It’s a great sounding record, but they say ‘don’t bother’. It’s a mindset. It’s patronising. People say [about the wardrobe console], ‘You can’t use that for mixing’. And I say, ‘Well, we are and we have and why not? (Durham: 2011)
The console Durham refers to is his homemade desk, built from a wardrobe door and Tech Laboratories faders. Durham expresses frustration at the wider cultural perception of pre-1960s technologies as museum pieces. However, whilst the systems may still have a practical use, some pieces are extremely rare (Durham stated his Ampex 5258 was one of 3 ever made). Rarer still, as Durham points out in his reference to the late Tom Dowd, are maintenance engineers who worked with such systems during the 1950s and 1960s.
Fig. 4: The mixing console in Lewis Durham’s Evangelist Studios, with 1930s Tech Laboratories faders.
Liam Watson has relied upon a combination of his own maintenance skills, as well as the expertise of a small network of individuals who specialise in the maintenance of vintage equipment, as he states:
If something does go up with a piece of equipment – unless of course it goes bang and goes up in a puff of smoke – often, if something goes down in a session, there’s probably something else I can use instead. So I’ll make a note that this piece of equipment wasn’t doing right, then at the end of the session, I’ll have a look at it and often, it’s something stupid. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s a dodgy patch lead, but sometimes there’s a bad joint. You can usually figure it out. But other times you can’t, so you have to phone people. There’s a guy called Brian Gibson who used to be one of the maintenance engineers at Abbey Road. He comes in and helps me with the desk. With the tape machines, there’s a guy called Tim de Paravicini and he services the tape machines for me. And there’s various other people around. There are people out there who can help you and actually a lot of this stuff is fairly straightforward really. (Watson: 2012)
Interestingly, all practitioners refer to their equipment maintenance as being relatively straightforward. The lack of in-house maintenance staff does not appear to have deterred technological precursor and vintage system usage. However, one critical point that Lewis Durham touched upon is the scarcity of maintenance engineers who understand equipment that is reaching 50 to 60 years old.
Issues of technological ‘iconicity’
One aspect of vintage technology usage, repeatedly mentioned during discussions with all featured practitioners, is the cultural value associated with certain technological precursors. Some vintage systems are more ‘in demand’ than others and, over the course of time, have garnered reputations that have increased their monetary value. The mention of such systems by recordists as being implemented on key sound recordings reinforces such ‘technological iconicity’, such as in the Sergeant Pepper 4-track example as mentioned previously. Additionally, certain manufacturers’ systems have become sought-after brands, particularly the large-scale consoles and tape machines of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Neve, SSL and Studer. Having discussed such issues with each of the practitioners featured in this research, certain vintage effects processors appear to be particularly iconic. Lewis Durham cited a number of systems:
I think one of the reasons is that every engineer and producer knows that the old mic amplifiers and processors, limiters, EQs, are the best. Every engineer will go on about Fairchild compressors, Pultec EQs, they’ll say it’s the ultimate. If a studio has a couple of pieces of outboard gear, a client will want to go there because they’ll get a nice vocal sound or snare sound or whatever. In most studios, the only old stuff they’ll have is processors. That gives the studios credibility now, because people want to use that stuff, especially if they see the name ‘Fairchild’. But the one thing you’ll never see is the actual pieces of equipment that capture the performances, such as the Ampex. You won’t see that. I only know of one other studio that has an Ampex recorder in the UK. But they won’t have old monitors. (Durham: 2011)
Durham refers to his own Ampex 5258 8-track recorder. Whilst this is indeed a rare piece of vintage technology, many studios still operate with some form of analogue tape recording facility. I asked Marco Pasquariello if there was a piece of equipment in Snap! Studios that was a ‘draw’ for clients. He substantiated Durham’s observations by replying, ‘The Fairchild. It’s regarded as a ‘holy grail’ piece of kit and not many studios have them. Also, the mic collection.’ [Pasquariello: 2011] However, he also mentioned that generally, Snap! was a draw for clients seeking to book sessions specifically to use the vintage equipment and precursors in the control room, as he went on to say:
People demand it because it’s the golden age of gear from a golden age of recording. Analogue tape is in demand because it’s the best, sonically. It’s also to do with the process, the limitations of tape. There is romance involved to an extent. But 99% of people using this room want to mix down to tape. (Pasquariello: 2011)
Pasquariello cites a number of reasons as to why the vintage technologies in Snap! are in demand. Issues of sonic characteristics and romanticism are discussed later on, but the reference to the processual aspects of analogue tape recording is key. Analogue tape recording, particularly 8-track and 16-track, is associated with live performance-based recording with minimal overdubs, as opposed to the ‘construction’ or ‘layering’ of a multi-track recording that can be achieved phrase by phrase on latter-day digital multi-tracks and DAWs. The inextricable combination of live performance and analogue tape has resulted in certain systems considered more authentic and true to the performance; this is particularly the case with sound ‘capturing’ technologies such as microphones, consoles and tape recorders. However, Liam Watson has a different view surrounding vintage effects processors and iconicity, as he states:
In fact, I avoid all of those things as much as I can, because they’re not that good. And they’re ridiculously priced. I mean the Fairchild limiter is for disc cutting; it’s not really a good piece of equipment for recording. It does certain things pretty well and it’s a well-built, serious piece of kit and some people like it for certain things and some people don’t. I don’t really have much of an opinion on it, apart from the times I’ve used one, I’ve found nothing that that equipment does that I can’t get out of other bits of equipment that have no value at all. As I said, it’s a disc cutting limiter and the fact that people spend… it’s just ridiculous! It’s really stupid. It’s actually stupid. And it’s reached a point where a lot of this stuff is just one-upmanship. It’s just people saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got a Fairchild’ or ‘I’ve got a Pultec’ and it’s absolute bollocks. With Pultec Eqs, I know they’re good Eqs, I know that everyone says they’re great and they made a whole range of them, but they’re too expensive. (Watson: 2012)
This is an important observation and Watson recognises a certain amount of mythology surrounding such iconic systems. Processors such as the Fairchild Limiter and Pultec EQs are known to have dramatically increased in value, particularly over the last 20 years. Yet Watson is right to question the value of such systems, (particularly a Fairchild Limiter, which can cost in the region of $30,000 on the second-hand market) in the context of the wider musical performance and recording process; just how much of a difference can a particular EQ or compressor make? The answer is of course subjective and just as Pasquariello cites the Fairchild as a ‘holy grail piece of kit’; Watson is indifferent towards it, as he goes on to say:
I think it’s reached a point where some of the older, iconic gear has always been valuable, but it’s reached a point where some of it is just, the value far outweighs its uses. I think there are certain bits of gear that will always be like that. And I think there’s a certain mentality that always keeps that going. The problem is, is that things come out and they’re absolutely fantastic – and fantastically expensive – but in a year’s time, maybe they’re not that impressive any more; maybe they’re a bit shit and no-one wants them. But it’s too late, you’ve spent 15 grand on it and now it’s worth £100. It’s like the Fairlight. When they came out in the 80s, they were so expensive, no one could afford one and people used to hire them. You look in the back of old studio sound magazines – in the early 1980s the Fairlight you could hire for £100 a day. That was then! That’s like hiring something for 700, 800 quid that is now a useless piece of junk. (Watson: 2012)
The certain ‘mentality’ Watson refers to is the wider cultural shift toward a technology-centric recording process as opposed to one driven by musical performance and/ or the influence of the recordist/ workplace. Such a shift can be traced back to the influx of affordable digital technologies of the mid to late 1980s and the rise of the music technology press. Latter-day online equipment fora such as Gearslutz focus almost entirely upon the technology itself, thus reinforcing a cultural perception that sound recording as a process is technology-driven.
It is, however, interesting that Watson mentions the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument, which has had a resurgence of its own in recent years. The groundbreaking sampler/ sequencer, synonymous with the early 1980s work of recordist Trevor Horn, is still highly sought after and can fetch up to $10,000 on the second-hand market1. Additionally, the Fairlight company launched a 30th anniversary edition of the machine in 2011 priced at $20000AU. The system has also been reappropriated in virtual form and is available in 2 downloadable App formats for Apple’s iPad. This suggests that even though the technology is more than 30 years old and is synonymous with a particular ‘sound’ of early 1980s Anglo-American new wave, the Fairlight CMI still has a ‘place’ in contemporary music technology.
Issues of Sonic Character
Back in the early 1980s, proponents couldn’t say enough great things abut digital technology: how quiet it was compared to tape; how digital storage eliminated the problem of archiving; and how it made editing child’s play. All still valid points, a quarter-century later. However, it was easy to overlook one very noticeable shortcoming: digital didn’t always produce the most pleasing tones. (Simons: 2006: p. 14)
This quote by Dave Simons highlights a common argument in favour of analogue recording technology. One of the fundamental reasons cited by recordists and practitioners working within the analogue domain is the quality, sonic character and ‘warmth’ associated with analogue tape recordings. Indeed the ‘quiet’ nature of digital recording as opposed to the noise and hiss commonly associated with analogue tape was a key reason for the almost immediate uptake of digital technology from the early 1980s. However, in recent years, not only has the presence of vintage technologies and precursors become more prevalent, but digital ‘plug-in’ appropriations featuring analogue ‘faults’ have become ubiquitous. For example, Izotope’s Vinyl plug-in includes ‘dust’, ‘scratch’ and ‘mechanical noise’ settings and Avid’s Tape Saturation plug-in features ‘noise’ and ‘wow and flutter’ settings; the very issues that recordists once fought to eliminate are now desirable features in the form of expensive software simulators. Lewis Durham has compared computer-based software to his own equipment:
I’ve only ever used it [the technology in Evangelist studios] because of the sound. If they brought out a computer system that sounded as good, I’d go for it. If it sounded better, I’d do it in a blink. But I haven’t found it yet. I don’t think I will, because this equipment [the technology in Evangelist studios] will surpass anything that’s built. They can’t make this stuff [the technology in Evangelist studios] anymore because it’s far too expensive to manufacture and no one could afford it. This tape recorder [Ampex 5258] cost the price of a house when it was brand new. What studio is going to buy that? No one. You can’t build that anymore. You can hear the build quality in the sound. You can hear those transformers, those massive pieces of iron pulsating in that sound. (Durham: 2011)
Durham’s argument as to his choice of technologies is one of build quality and he disagrees that plug-in appropriations can replicate the sound to any real extent, as he goes on to say:
I’ve compared this stuff. The only reason I use it, is because I have compared all this to new stuff, I’ve got in good transistor amps and compared them to the older amps. It’s not just about ‘old’ it’s about the good, professional ones. And these ones [transistor amplifiers] pissed over anything, it’s like ‘Wow, I can hear the whole sound, the dynamic range is there – everything! The reason I like this sort of equipment and I knew it was superior to anything produced after the period of really sort of the British Empire and the US stuff after the mid-1960s, was because of the build quality. When I was tinkering with stuff, for example that limiter down there, those transformers are huge pieces of iron. It weighs a fucking ton. I knew that – even if I wasn’t into audio – that these are better quality made than your modern equivalent, which is ‘this thin‘ [gesticulates] and light as a feather. That’s surely just common sense! But people don’t necessarily get it. People do half get it. They say ‘Yes, that’s true’. But when they get to the studio, all that goes out of their head and they say ‘Yea, lets just bring up these plug-ins. (Durham: 2012)
Durham expresses frustration with recordists working in the digital age in the sense that he knows his opinions are shared widely, but do not necessarily translate into practice. This highlights some of the key arguments for the use of computers and plug-in appropriations of analogue tools: software based technology is smaller, arguably more convenient and easier to maintain, cheaper and more practical. Such benefits have, over the last 2 decades in particular, outweighed the limitations in terms of the arguable difference in sonic character. However, as Durham rightly points out – and as I have previously highlighted in papers (2009, 2010, 2011) it is problematic to compare or ‘pitch’ the analogue and digital domains against each other as being ‘black and white’ – there are all too many shades of grey, as Durham goes on to say:
There is not ‘one’ analogue. Analogue spans over 100 years of technology and all those decades sound completely different. There tends to be this thing where analogue sounds one way and digital sounds another, but that doesn’t really mean anything. (Durham: 2011)
Identifying the sonic difference of ‘analogue’ sound recording equipment as opposed to digital is an ongoing area of discourse both in academia and in the sound recording industry. Marco Pasquariello recognised that clients seeking to record at Snap! are perhaps in the minority, as he stated: ‘There will always be a hardcore set of people who don’t want a ‘vintage’ sound. They just want a quality sound.’ [Pasquariello: 2011] Lewis Durham also recognised a difference between sounds that are aesthetically ‘vintage’ or ‘old’ and sounds that are ‘quality’ as he states:
People think this stuff has an ‘old sound’. They only say that because they are completely used to the new sound. To me, this is the original sound. With the studios now, that [current, computer-based sound recording and processing] is a tainted version of what is going into the microphone. (Durham: 2011)
Once again, Durham’s technological choices are wholly indicative of the original meaning behind sound recording equipment; to capture a true performance.
Liam Watson has differing viewpoints on the aesthetics of analogue and digital recording technology. Watson has recently decided to increase the number of track recording capability at Toerag Studios. However, he has decided against purchasing a 16-track or 24-track analogue tape recorder and has instead opted for a second-hand Otari Radar II, a 24-track hard disk recorder originally released in 1999. Interestingly – and somewhat surprisingly, considering the aesthetic choices he has made in the past – Watson maintains that no real difference between analogue or digital recording technology exists, as he states:
It’s frustrating, because these people [bands/ musicians] think there’s some sort of difference between recording on analogue or digital. Well there fucking isn’t. If you’re going to record like that, why not use a machine that has 24 tracks on it? The Otari [Radar II] sounds really good. Some people have said, ‘Why don’t you get a 2” 16-track or a 2” 24-track?’ But I’d rather not. I’ve had a 2” 16-track and I don’t really like 2” tape; it’s too expensive, the machine is much more fussy to align – it can be aligned, but it goes out of alignment quicker – the azimuth is a bugger, you never get the tracks at the top… they’re never really in phase with each other, so I’d rather just have a fucking hard disk recorder! I don’t have to line it [the Otari Radar II] up; it’s just there. I’m not someone who sees a lot of difference between analogue and digital. Fuck it. If it sounds good, it sounds good. (Watson: 2012)
For a recordist and studio owner renowned for their use of vintage, analogue technology, Watson’s viewpoints are intriguing. However, there are a few key points here: firstly, he cites purely practical and processual reasons for opting against a 16-track or 24-track tape recorder. Watson’s intention is to increase the number of track recording capability only; from there on, his main concerns are costs, upkeep and ease of use. This viewpoint is common amongst professional recordists who tend to view technologies as ‘tools of the trade’ or as a ‘means to an end’ and not as systems that will ‘colour’ or ‘alter’ the sound captured at source. These attitudes are again inextricably linked with a largely ‘performance capture’ approach to recording. This will be discussed further in the next section.
Issues of romanticism, authenticity and performance
It may appear that three separate topics are being broached in this section, however, upon discussing such matters with the recordists and practitioners in question, it appears these three notions of romanticism, authenticity and performance are somewhat linked. Having earlier discussed the cultural concept of ‘technostalgia’, it was important to ascertain the extent of nostalgia, romanticism, ‘retro’, or similar aesthetics, as influences on the case study subjects and their working practices. In the section on technological iconicity, Marco Pasquariello recognised that ‘romance’ was involved ‘to an extent’ where clients record to analogue tape. He went on to say, ‘Dealing with the client, you can hear the romance in their voice, there is a romance about working with tape.’ [Pasquariello: 2011] But what about romanticism on the part of the recordist? Lewis Durham recognises romantic notions tied to vintage technologies, as he suggests:
I’ve never worked in a proper recording studio. But if a studio has a couple of old bits, it makes them different to everyone else. And I guess people do get romantic about that, ‘Oh, I’m using this special piece of equipment’, but I’ve never thought that way. (Durham: 2011)
Durham’s choice of pre-1960 recording technologies is entirely due to the records he has listened to and the sound he wishes to achieve. Durham recognises the systems upon which pre-1960s Rock and Roll and Blues records were made and has meticulously acquired, integrated and maintained a set-up largely similar to a professional studio of that era. However, Liam Watson notes common misconceptions amongst clients for whom recording on analogue tape is driven by a ‘rebellion’ against computer-based methods, as he states:
A lot of people in the last 2 years or so, you’re getting people come here – musicians of a certain age – because it’s ANALOGUE! – they’ve got a little bit ‘too cool for school’ with it all. It’s typical of people of a certain age – I’m sure I was like it when I was a teenager, dismissing all the modern stuff – but they dismiss stuff without really understanding it, in the same way that they’re answer to it is something they don’t understand either. So I’m getting people who say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s ANALOGUE, so it must be better!’ Thinking there’s some kind of magic box, which is just stupid. But people really do think like that. And you can tell they haven’t thought it through because they haven’t really realised that for one, the multitrack machine here is an 8-track. So they haven’t really thought about what that means. They haven’t realised that there aren’t separate tracks for everything. So they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, great, cool, we can just drop in…’ ‘No, it’s not cool. He just fucked up there and this guy dropped a beat here and this guy here did a bum note here.’ ‘Yeah, but you can just correct that.’ So, they’re still thinking in terms of ‘Oh, it will be alright, it will be corrected, it’s only a little mistake.’ But how? They haven’t quite got it yet. This is a completely different world and I’m noticing that more and more. (Watson: 2012)
Once again, substantiating Marco Pasquariello’s point, Watson recognises the perceptions of analogue tape as ‘cool’, but only on the part of the client. Watson points out that whilst the technological attributes of analogue tape are recognised by clients as being a desirable alternative to working in the digital domain, the processual attributes of tape recording are not fully realised by the client until they find themselves part of that process. This sort of perceived ‘glamour’ of tape recording has presented Watson with a problem, in that the very processual attributes of 8-track recording demand a level of performance on behalf of the client that is becoming more and more rare. Lewis Durham also cites experiences where his clients have misunderstood the processual aspects of the recording, as he states:
Nowadays, a lot of studio tools are used to compensate for bad performances. So if a drummer’s slightly off the beat, they’ll use the computer to make it in. If you were around before that, you’d have been kicked out the studio because you can’t drum. And if you can’t drum, then you shouldn’t be drumming! But I don’t cater for those types of people. That’s why no one would come to me to make a number 1 record for a major label, because I couldn’t do that. I’m not interested in that because it’s not music to me. The music I like is performance-based. It’s about what the band do, how well they can sing. It’s interesting watching other bands come in because you do the recording and they’re like, ‘Is that it, are we done? I didn’t know we’d even started!’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s it. It’s been recorded.’ And they’re like, ‘Ok, so I guess we’ll mix it now?’ And I say ‘No! It is mixed! There is no mixing – it’s done! Listen to it!’ Because that’s how I’ve always done it, I’m used to it. But when people hear you record live they say, ‘Oh really? You mean, like, everyone playing together?!’ And I’m like, ‘Er, yea… isn’t that how music should be recorded?’. But it doesn’t happen. People don’t play together and record. Everything’s done in parts. (Durham: 2012)
Here, Durham’s intention to capture an authentic performance, as true to the musicians in the live room as possible, is exemplified. However, such has been the extent of technological change in the last 3 decades that an entire generation of musicians have now grown up without ever experiencing or knowing a recording process that involves a full, live performance coupled with the mechanical aspects of analogue tape. This, it seems, is the biggest problem facing recordists working within the limitations of 8-track recording.
So far, there is very little evidence that recordists and practitioners using vintage technologies or precursors do so due to fashion, trends, nostalgia or sentimentalism. Whilst romanticism is acknowledged, as part of what a musician or client may perceive from interacting with vintage systems, it is not evident on the part of the recordist. Indeed the attribution of vintage technology usage to nostalgia alone is deeply flawed and ignores more important factors such as musical and recording aesthetic intention on the part of the musicians and recordist(s), sonic characteristics of chosen technologies, client expectations as well as time and budget constraints. Furthermore, vintage technologies, such as the consoles, processors and tape recorders made pre-1980s, are synonymous with quality, fine engineering, sonic character and lasting value. Precursors, such as systems of the 1980s, are associated with ‘The Golden Age’ of large-scale console and multi-track Anglo-American pop and rock record production. Recordists and practitioners working either mostly or wholly in the analogue domain or with vintage technologies do so for many reasons; high quality sonic characteristics are a recurrent argument. Additionally, the reasoning is one relating to process: fewer tracks create limitations, which in turn demand ‘whole’ performances from the musicians. Certain technologies have become iconic and, as a result, ownership can attract clients.
However, the use of precursors and vintage systems remains problematic for many reasons. Firstly, with no in-house maintenance, recordists and practitioners are reliant upon their own skills or those of a small network of individuals. The practical use of certain technologies – particularly from the 1950s and 1960s – is in danger of disappearing altogether, due to the aging of maintenance engineers from the original era. Additionally, few outlets retail specifically in vintage technologies and precursors; such systems will ultimately become harder to source. Sought-after systems such as the Fairchild limiter will continue to be a ‘draw’, although their scarcity will ultimately push their value higher.
But there is something else going on: in today’s DAW-dominated workplace, from ‘in the box’, laptop practices through to large-scale professional studios, ownership of precursors and vintage technologies ‘distinguishes’ practitioners and separates them out from their DAW-based peers. Ultimately, these technological anachronisms work as important sonic differentiators in an industry dominated by standardised, computer-based technologies.
Many thanks to Lewis Durham, Liam Watson and Marco Pasquariello for their time and fascinating discussion.
1 At the time of writing, one Fairlight CMI was advertised for sale on eBay for $7000AU, approx. $7200.
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