Debate: Vintage vs. Re-issue

Last week I was sitting in on a mix at the world famous Chicago Recording Company — an enormous studio that has been used to record tons of hit records and has become a favorite workspace for both seasoned producers and budding engineers alike. During a break from my session, Bruce, CRC’s head tech, came in to calibrate the 1/2" mix down deck, and I decided it would be a great time to pick the brain of a studio vet about a subject that has been the basis of great debate in our little trade: Do vintage predecessors really produce better sounds than their re-issued brethren?

Back in the Sept ’06 issue of EQ, I sat down with Chris Lord-Alge and got his take on this very matter. I’d always been impressed with the vocal sounds that he achieved in his mixes, so I asked him what compressors he suggested in hopes that I could go home and apply the knowledge gained to my own projects.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t so much of an option, as while I have my own 1176s, his arsenal was a bit more, shall we say, customized. “I have a couple old blue face 1176s,” he told me. “One in particular is wired all wrong inside. It’s perfect.”

But surely there is some way to emulate that sound, especially with all the technological leaps and bounds that have occurred since that particular unit first came out of the box? “It’s not about kHz and bits,” he concluded. “It’s about distortion, bending and rounding, and character . . . and tinted windows.”

So is it the imperfect nature of vintage gear that produces the sonic qualities that lead many people to conclude that they are just plain better? What about the fact that a lot of the re-issues of famed gear are meticulously crafted, oftentimes molded exactly after the original’s specs? Is it the years of wear, tear, and abuse that changes the character of the units into something so incredibly desirable?

One factor to consider is how the role of the recording engineer in regards to the tools he/she uses has changed over the years. Forty years ago, an engineer’s job involved just as much tech work on the actual gear as it did hitting the record button. In today’s world, studios have changed from having a fleet of full-time techs on staff in their engineers to many more “passive” soundsmiths. Why is this? Because the availability of gear is much greater (as it’s produced in higher numbers) and the relative price of gear is lower. If your $800 compressor starts to experience problems, you are probably more likely to throw it out or simply return it to the manufacturer with your warranty card than you are to crack open the box and get to work on it yourself.

So maybe the lack of these “unconscious upgrades”, of having our gear constantly manipulated, is what makes the difference? Does every replacement, every pass of the soldering iron, make a unit that much more special?

There are certainly signs that point to that. In my personal experience, having heard the sounds of the components wearing in and out every time an old console I once owned got worked on by a tech, I have learned that the capacitors and transformers passing audio sounded their best right before a “fry.” And not only that, the board itself sounded completely different than the same model desks I’ve encountered. Perhaps it’s because these consoles were “hand made by a bunch of drunken Brits in the ’70s.” Or maybe it’s a combination of both: Just as a tube on a guitar amp sounds better burnt in and running hot, so do the little errors and inconsistencies brought by the hand of man result in the subtle changes that really make the tone of a piece of equipment special.

Even if that’s the case, today’s manufacturing technology produces some incredible results when it comes to reissued units. Oftentimes being made to the exact specifications of the originals, reissues reproduce intended sounds very accurately. Also, one thing reissues absolutely trump their original counterparts on is that they tend to be much more consistent — you know exactly what sounds to expect when you plug a reissue in, and that can definitely be an advantage in formulating your own signature sounds. Plus, reissues tend to be much less finicky, and having solid components in your studio can make your life as an engineer much less dramatic.

So when the question arises as to whether or not that “new” addition to my studio is going to be a vintage piece that may, or may not, produce the sounds that I’m looking for (or may totally fall apart a week after it arrives to my studio) or if it will be a reissue that comes with a much more solid guarantee and allows me to feel confident and secure in my decision, which am I going to opt for?

That depends, because while there are pros and cons to both types, they each make sounds that are unique to one another. What is going to work best for you is contingent on what sounds you are trying to get, and there are often many ways to achieve those sounds outside of simply getting a magic box that was once used on your favorite album. Recording equipment is just like the recording process: Once you come to a certain point, there really is no right or wrong way to do it. As long as it sounds good, then that is all that matters.

That, and for the life of me I just can’t find Chris Lord-Alge’s blue faced 1176 on eBay.