Rimshot Studios’ Mike Thorne explains why using a combination of vintage and modern gear can be great for your music.
As computer recording has progressed, there are many good reasons why you might not use vintage gear in a mixing session. At the recording stage, however, there are many equally good reasons (beyond offering artists cool sounds) to combine vintage with modern gear.
Over the years I have found that a mix of both vintage and modern gear has certainly helped my recordings.
Musicians “step up” and give their best
With computers offering playlists, tape modelling plugins, excellent AD/DA converters and almost infinite noise floor and headroom, why would anyone still record on tape? I begin about 60% of projects on tape because of the vibe it brings. It feels like an event and I’ve found that, without exception, musicians step up their game. If the guitarist wants to have another crack at the solo, he’s got to really believe he can play it better. If we’re punching in the entire band at the end of a section, everyone is focused on giving their best, knowing that we risk destroying what we’ve got if we have to do repeated punches. Adrenaline and excitement is inherent in the process – on both sides of the glass – and this contributes to the excitement of the performance. There are plenty of downsides: the noise-floor, changing reels, lining-up, losing HF response with repeated playbacks and print-through, but the increased commitment in the musicians’ performances often outweighs these. Plus, you get re-wind time … those beautiful moments of quiet that let you re-focus.
Using hardware offers a lot that plugins don’t – vibe
Vintage outboard offers the potential for collaboration and fun. I’ve got a Binson delay that has loads of cool dials and lights. It sounds great, but the important thing is that artists love using it because it’s tactile and fun. To simultaneously operate the vari-speed (on the back) and the swell and feedback controls (on the front), you really need two people, working together. This has led to some crazy and unique effects that wouldn’t have happened dragging a mouse over a computer screen. It’s also a great ice-breaker during a long day if people are tired or tense and it’s often a fun thing that artists remember years after the session.
The limitations of vintage gear are great for your music
If I’m recording to tape, I have limited tracks available. I might want to record the kick with two or three mics. Committing to a blend of them (bussing them to a single track) means that everything else that comes after is informed by decisions already made. Similarly, committing to a guitar sound (bussing mics together, printing effects) will affect the way the guitarist plays in a positive way, plus, when I mix, I’m not building the track from scratch. Being forced to make decisions means knowing where you are in the process and brings clarity to the production which makes for a better recording. It’s also quicker.
Patching gear in, finding the sweet spots for levels etc., means that cool things can happen that inspire other people in the room – maybe I cranked the gain too much initially and the snare is distorting in a cool way that we decide to keep. Maybe the compressor I patched in wasn’t zeroed out and so the room mics are pumping like crazy which the drummer hears and she adjusts her feel and the track is all the better because of it … happy accidents! This just doesn’t happen with plugins.
Working in a hybrid studio (with tape and Pro Tools) I use the computer mostly for overdubs, editing and mixing. It’s at this stage that the limitless options the computer offers really are useful – especially as I’ve narrowed down the available choices at the tracking stage.
The world doesn’t need another 1176 emulation, but tools that increase workflow, or do things that aren’t possible in the hardware domain, are invaluable. Being able to quickly and easily time-align drum mics, or see the dynamics of your mix in real-time, or use a pitch-tracking EQ on a vocal or bass means I’m able to work quickly and that helps me keep perspective – which can be just as inspiring as any piece of vintage kit.
I can do most of this in the computer so why does it matter?
The best recording studios are temples of sound where magic happens. The rooms and equipment they contain are not just about capturing performances, they’re about inspiring performances. For me, a combination of both vintage and modern gear is a big part of this. Anything that helps lift the artist to give a great performance means we’re serving the song better – and that’s what we’re there to do.
Mike Thorne is the owner of Rimshot Studios and also works as a recording engineer, producer and professional drummer.