Vintage Gear: Top Engineers on Favorite Equipment and Recording Tips

Engineers embrace the special qualities of classic hardware

IN THIS era of hybrid analog/digital recording (and full-blown retro analog-only projects), vintage gear has never been more prized—or more expensive. It seems as though engineers and producers of every age group today, enamored of the warmth and power of classic recordings of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, are still looking to capture that mysterious, hard-to-define, sonic je ne sais quoi that gives old recordings by The Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Aretha or Pink Floyd or John Coltrane so much life and presence. Was it the medium itself—tape, a rarity these days—or the lovingly crafted consoles and all those simple-looking metal outboard boxes with names and numbers so familiar to recording aficionados: LA-2A, 1176, Pultec, 670, 1073, 140? Then there are the truly obscure vintage pieces known to and owned by only a relative few—rare compressors from Eastern Europe, EQs plucked from aging radio station consoles, one-off or limited hand-built items that have some special quality and function.

The last thing we want to do here is promote Gear Envy—we know how hard it is to find and buy vintage audio tools and instruments. But engineers dig this equipment for a reason. Part of it is familiarity, of course—they get used to a sound that a particular box or console or old amp offers. However, many have also A/B’d their vintage gear with modern plug-ins (or even hardware recreations) and found the newer pieces lacking in one area or another. We spoke with six farflung engineers—all of whom have embraced analog/digital hybrid recording—to talk about some the vintage pieces they still turn to in their day-to-day work, and get tips for readers who want to emulate these sounds at home. (For the purposes of this article, we are not talking about vintage mics which, let’s face it, everyone loves and covets.)

Jim Scott Scott’s star-packed resume includes the likes of Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wilco, Sting, and Tedeschi Trucks. He works out of his own analog-heavy Plyrz studio in Santa Clarita, near L.A.

The Putnam console, 1957 “My thing is the mighty Neve console. I have three—one is a stunning 8048, from RCA Records in New York, built in 1975, and then I have two Neve BCM 10 sidecars I’ve been dragging around town with me for years. I’m old as a tree and I grew up on consoles, and some consoles just sound amazing. The Neve consoles of a certain vintage—like the Sound City movie says—just do a wonderful, great creative rock ’n’ roll thing. I grew up on them in a way, once I figured out what things sounded like, as soon as I heard a Neve, I knew that was my thing.

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“I have a little trick for your readers. I didn’t invent it, but I sure use it. I use a compressor almost like a reverb. You can use whatever you’ve got. I use Neve compressors—2254s in the console—and also use Blackface 1176s in my rack. I designate a send to a compressor and return it to the console like you would any other effect; like any other reverb or delay or anything. So I can send anything I want to any compressor at any time, instead of putting a compressor directly on top of a certain thing. I can send it to a compressor left or right or center and it gives it a little bit of that effect, but it maintains the dignity of the original recording. I’ll use it on simple things—like, putting the kick drum and the bass guitar on the same compressor does really lock them together and [unifies] the low end.

“Here’s another trick. Rock ’n’ roll is big on distortion, and there are a million guitar pedals and all sorts of boxes that distort things, but another great distortion device is a Neve mic pre. If you send a line signal into a mic pre, it’s going to distort and you have control over how much and how little. It’s in a channel, so you can EQ it, you can turn the mic pre up or down, you can turn the fader up or down. You can do so many things to it to make it Cream-y or like Sly & the Family Stone or Creedence or whatever you’re looking for. Or if you want a really gnarly bass sound, send it something like that, that’s all blown up. It adds so much excitement and edge and you can just tuck it right in there underneath the pure signal, and it gives the pure signal some teeth.”

Dave Tozer Jack-of-all-trades Tozer—a New York-based musician/producer/engineer/mixer/programmer/songwriter—is best known for the multiple projects he's worked on with John Legend during the past decade-plus, as well as work with Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Kimbra, and Natasha Bedingfield. He has his own Manhattan studio and also frequently works out of Germano Studios.

“I use a lot of the usual suspects when it comes to vintage gear, and that’s because a lot of the gear you hear about became common because they’ve withstood the test of time and are great,” he says. “Saying you love LA2As and 1176s is like saying ‘I love The Beatles.’ It sounds obvious, but it’s for a reason.

“One of the things about vintage gear in terms of hardware is that people find unique, unexpected uses for them. With the 1176, for example, there are buttons on them that have the compression ratio—4:1, 8:1, 20:1—and some engineers along the way figured out you could mash them all in together and make them go, as George Bush said, “nucular.” Tube gear is also like that. You hit these things at levels they weren’t designed for and it gives you very cool distortion.

“In the digital world, software companies will try to acquire a ‘golden’ unit to model, because they want their software version to be the best model possible. With the nature of hardware units having their own little anomalies from unit to unit, they’re going to possibly sound a little different from each other. In some ways you can see that by going to the different manufacturers of software plug-ins as well—the Waves version of the Fairchild 670 does, in fact, have a different tone than the Universal Audio one. And some of that could just be the nature of the different hardware units they modeled.”

Justin Lieberman As chief engineer and co-manager at San Francisco’s Studio Trilogy, Justin Lieberman gets to ply his trade on a remarkable range of projects, from commercials to film, TV, and game soundtracks to popular rock, jazz, and acoustic music artists.

He notes that he and Studio Trilogy engineer Willie Samuels both like to use the studio’s two Pultec EQ P1s: “If Willie and I are in Studio A mixing, those live on the stereo bus. Everything rides through the Pultec, even if we’re not really doing that much with them—there’s a little presence, there might be a tiny bit of distortion or transformer sound running through the tubes. It’s a glue that he and I have really grown accustomed to and depend on at the mix stage. It’s nice to have just a little treble or bass at the end. We love them because you can’t get too picky with them. If I had something too controllable, I’d probably mess stuff up. That’s the number one thing we’re really relying on where there’s nothing in the software world that can come close.”

Sylvia Massy: “Here is a photo, from my rack, of an original Gates Sta-Level (below) next to a modern reproduction by a company called Retro. The modern version is also good and maybe a bit more stable than the original ’50s version.” “We also got two old UA175 compressors that are totally weird. One of them we got from [engineer] Mark Linnett and was allegedly used by Brian Wilson, and I’m not sure where the other one popped up from. They’re totally quirky—even from day to day, they might be a little different. I think it’s a function of old circuits that have been maybe repaired or modified through the years, and they’re the furthest thing from ‘matched’ ever, but it’s super cool, because if we want to get something weird going on, stereowise, you can use both of them; I tend to use them a lot [in] parallel. If I want something pretty drastic, I’ll hit ’em real hard, or if I just want a little saturation and distortion is happening, I’ll hit ’em a little lighter. They respond really strangely to low end depending on how hard they’re hitting—it can sound really good or completely wrong. If I were tracking a 20-piece string section, I wouldn’t go near the UA 175 at all. But I’m not scared of the Pultecs. We’ve spent a lot of time making sure they’re clean.

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Lieberman shares a tip for getting some “quirkiness” out of plug-in versions of vintage gear: “I’ve had a lot of luck stacking plug-ins. I might make a stem of my snare drum through a couple of plug-ins and then print it back into Pro Tools and then turn off the original and treat that as what I’m working from. Then I find myself kind of adding a few things onto that. Stacking stuff, you can really mess stuff up, but also get something interesting. Printing the stem and saying, ‘Okay, this is where I’m working from now’ frees up DSP and allows you to make a commitment, which is the biggest issue for me in the digital world. There’s such a tendency to second-guess yourself.”

Miles Walker The admittedly “gear-crazy” Atlanta-based, Grammy-winning engineer and mixer has worked with such artists as Beyoncé, Rhianna, Usher, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Wiz Khalifa. He works out of his own mix room at Silent Sound in the ATL, and also travels to work with the production team Stargate and others.

“Other than a few select UAD plug-ins,” he says, “I don’t think in-the-box compression sounds as good as its analog counterpart. Some of the EQs are excellent, and there’s a nicety to having that many flavors very easily in your hand, even if you own all the vintage pieces, which I do in most cases. I love the old 1176s— all of them. To UAD’s credit, that’s one of the plug-ins I think sounds very good—their new reissued 1176 collection is excellent, but I’ll still use [the hardware version] if I can. I also love Summit’s TLA 100. I’m familiar with Softubes’ [plug-in version], and it’s nice—I do like that it has a wet-dry parallel thing on it—but it doesn’t do the same sort of saturation break-up, even though it has a saturation knob on it. It’s not quite like the real one. I used the real one on Usher for a million years, so I’m incredibly sensitive to it. Even if you’re not using the compression circuit—because you can turn that all the way down—the true gain of it has a real nice richness you push right to the top. It’s like, ‘I’m using a lot of energy on this tube,’ which can be really nice.

Sonic Ranch’s vintage outboard gear collection includes API 512 and API 212 mic pre's, API 550b EQs, API 560 graphic EQs, Black-Face 1176 compressors, dbx 165 compressors, Distressors with British mode, Alan Smart stereo compressor, LA2A compressor, Pultec EQH 2 EQs and more. “I also really love old hardware reverbs. And this isn’t to discredit some of the plug-ins, but the truth is, if you’re looking at a [Lexicon] 960 or even a 480, that was a dedicated machine, expensive in its heyday, and it didn’t do anything else. When people went in-the-box, they didn’t want to pay for outboard reverbs and, in turn, reverb fell out of fashion. I think plug-in delays sound excellent and there are some really good model delay plug-ins, but I’m not blown away with the reverbs yet. So because of that, a lot of people don’t like reverb in their mixes and that’s a real bummer. You take a classic record that has a really beautiful ballad vocal and the reverb was almost like the background vocals; the sonics of your reverb supported the lead. I miss the sonics of that. I have a 480 that we use from time to time, and even the old [Lexicon] PCM 91s.”

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Charles Godfrey Talk about a plum gig— Charles Godfrey was a former Guitar Center employee and recording hobbyist who eight years ago managed to land a gig at the splendid five-studio (two studios at the time) recording resort known as Sonic Ranch, a little southeast of El Paso, Texas, Godfrey’s home for the past two decades. Like so many top studios, Sonic Ranch offers an impressive selection of great analog gear—Neve and SSL consoles, preamps, compressors, and mics, as well as scads of digital pieces, for the ultimate in hybrid recording.

Explaining his preference for vintage analog gear, Godfrey says, “To me, it sounds better— it’s analog love; the trained ear can hear what the difference is. It resides in the fact that electrons moving at the speed of light encounter resistance and slow down as they run through copper connections and specifically tuned transformers. The slowing and characterizing of these electrons will never be able to be replicated by the digital world. Say you are in our big Neve room, and you have racks of this vintage [outboard] gear behind you, and you could put a real 1176 on this vocal channel, and let’s throw one on the snare drum as well—that’s fantastic! Then you think ‘Man, I wish I had one for my guitars.’ So at that point I dive into plug-ins. So I use the real vintage outboard gear on the priority tracks. Then to make an awesome mix, it’s important to be able to spread great plug-in versions of vintage pieces across multiple channels.

“It comes down to the feel of it, obviously. It’s hard to describe the subjective differences, but when you can put your hands on the knobs and see the VU bouncing up and down and you hear it responding on the speakers, you know that there’s no digital processing going on.”

“There’s also something about being able to blend sounds in the analog world. Obviously you put your multiple mics on a guitar amp or a drum kit or whatever. But if you’re bringing them into the digital realm individually for blending and sub mixing within a DAW, it doesn’t hold a candle to running it through a Pultec mixer, or running it through the Neve buses. Say I have my three guitar mics coming up on three channels; I’ll bus them out on one or a stereo bus, getting that warm, delicious bus of the Neve, and record a single track in Pro Tools. Obviously this makes it simpler down the road when mixing as well, because you have committed to the sound. I’ve never found anything in the digital world that comes close to analog summing.”

Sylvia Massy Working out of her new, fabulously equipped studio operating out of an old church in Ashland, Oregon, Massy continues to be an in-demand producer, engineer, and mixer. Her credit list includes such notables as Johnny Cash, Prince, Tool, System of a Down, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“One piece I can’t live without,” Massy comments, “is the UA 175B compressor. The sister to that would be the Gates Sta-Level, which is a mono tube broadcast compressor. It has similar characteristics to an LA-2A, but it’s a little ballsier, a little more full-bodied. The fun thing about Gates compressors is that they were never meant for recording studios. My understanding is it was strictly marketed to radio stations and the broadcast world in the ’50s and ’60s.

“What I love about the Sta-Level is it adds color; it’s warm and ‘furry.’ I like to use that word to describe a nice wool blanket you put over things to warm them up. If you push it hard you can hear every intimate part of singer’s performance, and then it softly pushes away the transients without a lot of pumping or obvious compression. But if you want to have the effect of compression, it’s easy to achieve that, too. I’ll often gang together a Gates Sta-Level with another outboard compressor, like a UREI 1176, patched together one after another on a vocal— the Sta-Level takes care of the soft, big control, and the UREI will take care of the little stuff and even it all out. These days you can find a great re-creation of the Sta-Level by Retro.

“Other vintage pieces I use a lot are the 500 Series-sized EQ modules out of an old Aengus console. The Aengus consoles I know about were at Indigo Ranch [in Malibu]. I can’t remember how I acquired these EQs, but I use them on everything—they’re really special on guitars in particular. They’re thumbwheel, graphic-style EQs. If you remember what the first Korn record sounded like—or Korn in general—that sound is due a lot to the Aengus EQs that Ross Robinson used on that record. He changed the face of heavy rock music with that sound, and a great deal was the sound of that EQ. So far I haven’t found any EQ plug-in that I really trust yet, they all have a little tinny-ness to them. ”

Blair Jackson is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician and Mix magazines.