Analog In The Studio: Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

Longing for the oxide scented days of yesteryear has become a near obsession for many practitioners of the audio arts.
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Many of us dream of vintage consoles and recorders in our studios, but reality takes over when we realize that we don't have a place to put them or can't even get one through the door. Studios used to be large: not just the recording space, but the control room as well. Consoles of that era were all hand-wired, built to order one at a time, and few were made in any significant quantity. A recent tally of the Trident A Range consoles from the mid 1970s—much revered for their EQ—shows that about 13, in total, were ever built. Many of these consoles were constructed on-site with chassis wiring often done by studio engineers in between sessions and were truly one-of-a-kind. Few of these consoles survive intact today; those that escaped cannibalization or the wrecking ball generally reside in the few remaining high-dollar studios or in personal studios of wealthy artists.

The cost? Initially $60,000 to $100,000, which, in today's dollars ($250k-450k), is in the ballpark of the cost of a new large-frame SSL or API console, so there isn't a big change there. And, like in the heyday of large studios, only a handful of these large-format consoles are being sold and installed today. Such consoles were originally mated with 16- and 24-track analog recorders from Ampex, 3M, Studer, and later MCI and Otari. Today's studios sporting a large console usually have an analog recorder the size of washing machine to go along with it. A two-inch analog recorder typically cost in the range of $1,000 to $1,500 per track—comparable to a modern Pro Tools system with high grade A/D and D/A converters.

What Has Changed

So have things really changed very much? Of course they have. The majority of today's studios are built on a totally different scale. Now $20,000 can equip a reasonably highly capable DAW-based system, and minimalist personal studios—which represent the largest market segment—can be productive with an investment of 1/10 that amount. Endless Analog's CLASP—an interface linking DAWs and classic analog tape machines—is a testament to the evergreen desire for analog processing in the studio.

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The console and recorder of the 1980s control room were accessorized with little more than a reverb plate and a few compressors. A studio chose its console based on its designed-in characteristic sound. If you were a Neve-based studio, you attracted clients who preferred that sound over the sound of the studio across town with the API or Harrison console.

Downsizing, personalization, and changes in the way most studios operate today contributed to the manner in which "basic" studio equipment has evolved and how it is accessorized. With few studios physically equipped to track a full band or orchestra playing together in a room, the demand for a recording console with a large number of inputs has greatly diminished.

A taste of "the warm analog sound," even when working with just a few inputs, resulted in clever engineers and entrepreneurs packaging input channel modules from decommissioned large-format consoles into convenient rack-mounted signal processors, bringing characteristic sound of a vintage console to the modern digital control room. Most of the available genuine console modules have been racked up and sold, so a plethora of new and fairly accurate replications of the older console modules appeared in rack-mount format.

In addition, we now have many new products from companies such as Great River, Millennia Media, and Tonelux that carry on the tradition of high-quality design and manufacturing, but with more contemporary sound and features. Old school console survivors—such as API, Solid State Logic, and Focusrite—are now also offering new modular processors and preamps with one foot planted in traditional design and the other in modern manufacturing and interfacing methods.

Compressors and limiters used in studios of the 1980s were borrowed from related industries. The limiter was a staple in the broadcast studio, primarily to prevent overmodulation of the transmitter. As a standard component in a disk mastering system, the limiter was used to prevent the cutting stylus from jumping out of the groove, ruining the master and perhaps damaging the cutter head while allowing a higher average level to be cut on the disk. As multitrack recording became the norm in the studio, the desire to compress individual tracks to fit them into a complex mix as well as to keep the signal as far above the tape noise floor as possible sent new customers into the broadcast market for their UREI LA2 limiters (as well as dumpster-diving for the hard-to-maintain Fairchild 670 limiter that was being replaced in mastering labs). There's still a demand for the many new analog compressors in the marketplace—some re-creations of the classics of the '70s and '80s, and some new designs.

One problem that has flummoxed a lot of digital studio owners who crave the traditional analog compressor or a classic equalizer in line when tracking is this: Where the heck should you plug the darned thing in? The configuration of a mic preamp integrated with a digital-toanalog converter—often incorporating a FireWire or USB computer interface—leaves no opening in the line level signal path for an analog processor. Manufacturers of these front-end boxes have finally caught on, and today we're seeing devices such as the Mackie 1200F (recently reviewed in PAR) or the Focusrite Saffire Pro26 with normalled insert send and return jacks immediately following the preamp, at least on selected channels.

On Analog Recording And Tape

What We Do With Analog by EveAnna Manley

"Since the (unfortunate) replacement of analog tape with computer-based recording solutions what we have seen is the spread of the hobby of recording music because now any kid with a computer and some simple gear can start recording his dream at home. Coupled with that rise in accessibility is the decline in the public's audio quality playback, down from what some still believe was the best sounding — the vinyl LP format — to Compact Disc in the 1980's, further sliding down the pit filled with a host of badly compressed audio formats such as mp3 or HD radio or satellite radio, all of which are infected with horrible audio artifacts. Convenient and portable, yes, but sometimes not as good-sounding as a decent cassette tape! So, as folks rediscover that they are missing something in their recorded and stored sound, they eventually find their way to high-end analog (and vacuum-tube gear) companies such as mine, searching for that magic that we lost years ago.

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"Manley Labs attacks from both ends, with our pro audio recording equipment starting at the microphone, through the pre-amplification, equalizing, and dynamics control up to delivery into the workstation. Then in the mastering and audiophile playback side of things, we manufacture a whole range of vacuum-tube phono stages, preamps, and power amplifiers. None of this gear is inexpensive; those who desire the fast, clean, and soulful realistic sound that high-end analog equipment can provide are who we are here for." One retro area that's been neglected is analog recorders. It's not that nobody wants one, but nobody's building them any more—though ATR Service's Mike Spitz says he still has plans to do so. On one of the audio forums I frequent, hardly a week goes by when someone doesn't ask about using an analog recorder to "warm up" a digital recording. What they often don't realize is that the sound that they're dreaming of isn't as simple as using tape as a signal processor; it's a product of the entire recording process of the era. There's a sometimes desirable sound quality associated with tracking particularly drums and bass on an Ampex MM-1200 or Studer A-80, but you won't reach analog Nirvana substituting a wellused but more accessible TASCAM 80-8 or your grandfather's TEAC rescued from the attic. That approach will only serve to remind you of why people were happy to move away from analog tape.

Analog tape is still a viable recording medium. Spitz overhauls classic broadcast and studio recorders and is probably more committed to the preservation of analog recording than anyone else today—so much so that he built a factory in the USA to manufacture analog recording tape after 3M and Quantegy (Ampex) stopped production. Mike will tell you that, depending on the tape you choose and how the recorder is adjusted, tape is capable of providing a wide sound palette, not just "warmth."

For those willing to take the plunge, there are still plenty of two-track Ampex AG 440s available. These are built to last a lifetime, can be had cheaply, and all but the worst of them (if not stripped for parts) can be put into good-as-new condition for under $1,000. In Europe, a Studer — because of the better parts availability over there — might be a smarter investment. Two-inch 16- and 24-track recorders are cheap as dirt these days. Unlike much of today's digital gear, there's more to using an analog recorder than simply buying it and plugging it in. You'll need some basic test equipment, a calibration tape, and the willingness to learn to keep it in adjustment. With quarter-inch tape selling in the ballpark of $50 and two-inch tape at around $250 per reel, feeding these beasts is a serious commitment.

Lots of what was good in the 'Good Old Days' is still available as genuine vintage gear, modern vintage recreations, and newly designed analog gear designed to integrate nicely with today's digital systems. You don't have to be nostalgic for the old gear and the old ways — those options are still available.

Mike Rivers has a long list of engineering credits with the Smithsonian and is the author of the last Mackie HDR manual.