When it comes to music production, vintage sounds are often the ultimate goal.
Vintage. It’s an exciting word for us music types, isn’t it? It conjures up visions of the great days of rock and roll’s past, where enormous talents made landmark recordings with gear that’s now worshipped and outlandishly expensive.
Getting those sounds isn’t always about the year or the gear, however. Today, we’re going to talk about 10 old-school recording techniques you can use to add some of the magic of the past to the recordings you’re making today.
Sure, you can spend big bucks on mics, guitar amplifiers, drum kits, and studio hardware from the Golden Era but those things are only part of the vintage sound recipe. You also need to think like a recording engineer from those days. Learn the proper recording techniques and how to capture the spark of great musical performance and you’ll get the kind of sounds money can’t buy.
Ready for a ride on the time machine? Here we go!
1 – Track everything live!
Modern recording frequently comes down to making music one track, instrument, or vocal at a time. Tracking into a DAW on a computer lets one or two musicians build a song like a sculpture, which is amazing, but won’t necessarily lead you to that old-school sound you desire.
The quickest way to a vintage sound is to record all your musicians playing together live.
The great records of the past were made by capturing a few minutes of something happening, not by gluing parts together bit by bit. Catch some of that human feel by having everyone go for it live. If space doesn’t let you, at least get the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar tracks down that way.
There’s no better path to vintage nirvana than recording the heart of your song live right off the floorboards. It might require a lot of takes if you’re shooting for perfection but that’s just part of the vintage game.
2 – Bleed all over!
Modern recording techniques are all about keeping each instrument perfectly isolated. Ditch that thinking for true vintage tone and attitude.
If you’re tracking live, your drum and guitar microphones are going to bleed over into each other. You can’t avoid it so you need to learn to use it.
When mixing, listen for what your mics are picking up besides what they’re aimed at and use that extra material to give your song the warm, round sound of years gone by. You’re already doing that with the drum kit so just extend that approach to the rest of the band.
- Set your levels and equalization with the big picture of your song in mind. It’s the end result that counts.
- Use a high-pass filter on kick drum, tom tom, bass, and even guitar tracks that rumble to keep your mix free from mud.
- The creative and artistic use of mic bleed will prevent your recordings from sounding lifeless and sterile. You’re not going for perfection; you’re going for excitement.
3 – Create limitations and expand creativity!
In our present DAW-based world of unlimited tracks and levels of undo, it’s easy to forget how many important records were made with just a handful of tracks. This forced everyone involved to be extra creative and max out the tracks they had available.
- Try limiting yourself to four, eight, or 16 total tracks for all vocals and instruments. You’ll be surprised at what can be done and it’ll make you a better recording engineer.
- Learn to bounce tracks and commit to takes. Record the drums on Track 1 and Track 2, put the bass on Track 3, and then bounce all three down to Track 4. Pay attention to performances and levels because you won’t be able to change them later.
- Go back and record your guitar and keyboard on Track 1 and 2 and bounce them down to Track 3.
- Now, you have two tracks available for vocals or lead instruments that won’t be bounced and are the top of your mix. This is how you make a complete song with only four tracks. When you jump up to eight or 16 tracks, you’ll do less bouncing and be able to create a more detailed mix.
- Try recording your band circled up around a single mic like a bluegrass group. You’ll create your mix with your playing. Step closer to the mic to get louder and back to turn down.
Giving yourself fewer options to work with will make you think harder, plan better, and find artistic solutions to technical issues. It’s a real challenge if you’ve never done it. Go hardcore by getting an old cassette four-track machine and learn to do this on tape, where copy/paste doesn’t exist. It’ll make you invincible.
4 – Out of tune isn’t out of bounds!
In decades past, musicians tuned up to each other or to the piano in the recording studio. There were no electronic tuners and they did it all by ear.
Now, everyone has a clip-on tuner on their guitar or bass, which makes being in perfect tune a snap. Most of us are also in the habit of tuning up between takes, as well. If you only tuned once before the session, your pitch would certainly drift some by the time you were done. This was accepted way back when and actually creates a kind of natural chorusing that can be cool.
Let your tuning slip a little to add some vintage grit and color to your song. If you’re concerned about it, go listen to Bob Dylan’s iconic “Queen Jane, Approximately.” Every single instrument is out of tune and it’s magnificent. Trying to make it squeaky clean would destroy it.
5 – Find the sweet spot, part one!
Take the time to find the best-sounding spot in your room to record vocals. It’s worth it!
No matter what kind of space you have, different parts of it will have different sounds. When it comes time to do vocals, do your best to figure out what area of it sounds the best.
Have your vocalist sing in different spots and listen. Try each wall, the corners, closets, even the bathroom. Record a sample of each and evaluate. A great-sounding room can’t be beaten and you just might have one.
6 – Find the sweet spot, part two!
Put your ears where the microphone will be to find the perfect vintage tone!
This is the oldest trick in the book but has been almost forgotten due to modern recording techniques and digital modeling.
- Get down and put your best ear up to the drum, amp, or acoustic instrument being tracked. Move it around.
- Put your mic where you think it sounds right. That’s what the microphone will hear. The best engineers still use this method and it still works.
- The bonus of doing this is that your ears will get smarter and you’ll soon be able to find your spot quickly and efficiently.
7 – Always record complete takes!
Nothing screams “old school” like a killer performance of your song done start-to-finish.
Train yourself and your band members to be able to deliver full, coherent takes in the studio. Full-length takes contain the most expression and emotion because the player naturally ebbs and flows with the music. They also give the player time to develop the character of their part. Finally, a group recording full takes as a unit will give you a human feel no computer will ever match.
The modern method of putting parts and songs together out of sections in a computer will never deliver the vintage payoff you’re seeking. It’s the difference between a photograph and a jigsaw puzzle.
8 – Slap your singer!
One outstanding way to add a Golden Era vibe to your song is to use some slap-back echo on the lead vocal.
Slap-back echo is a very short delay of about 120ms. Listen to some 50s Elvis or early Beatles to get an idea of how it sounds. You will most likely get your slap from a plug-in but it was done in the old days by running a signal through a tape machine in “record” mode. The distance between the Record and Playback heads created the echo. Score extra vintage points by using hardware and doing it just like the King.
9 – Focus on textures and sound qualities!
Old records have an undefinable x-factor to them that was created by the technology of their times.
Tape saturation, old condenser and dynamic mics, tube-driven gear, and analog circuits were never sonically neutral. They all had dramatic effects on the music being recorded that were so distinctive that we’re still chasing them today.
To get a proper old-school sound, focus on the character of each sound you’re working with and what it means to your mix. Be bold and add some dirt to your bass or horn tracks. Overload your main guitar part with amp reverb. Pan your tracks hard left, hard right, or center, nowhere else. If you really want to get down, mix in mono.
Listen to sides from the 1930s to the 1960s to get the scent. Contemplate why old Django records are still so satisfying. Hint: it’s not because of a ton of tracks piled up in Pro Tools.
10 – Remember that the music matters more than the details!
Ever wonder why so many famous old recordings have obvious mistakes in them? It’s because energy, groove, and feel matter more than mechanical perfection.
In the old days, everyone was making records however they could make them. They had the gear they had and they made the best of it. They also had a limited amount of time to catch some lightning in a bottle, so to speak, so decisions had to be made. If a small mistake happened in an otherwise rocking take, it usually got overlooked in favor of the track’s energy and vibe.
We moderns have come up in a world where making perfect music is totally possible but there was a time when ragged-but-cool was all good. It was expected. It was the way things were. The Rolling Stones and Neil Young are both fine examples of this method of working. You can get away with letting some looseness creep in as long as the fire is there.
Worry too much about isolation and perfection and you’ll end up sounding like Def Leppard: boring and cold. Nobody wants that. Maybe turn the click track off and see what shakes out.
We hope this article about old-school recording techniques has been entertaining and inspiring.
All those classic songs and sounds of the past were based on the sound of people playing together mostly live. Commit yourself to that idea, listen more than you look at waveforms, and learn to love happy accidents and your music will always connect to the hearts of your listeners and of the best recordings ever made.
Isn’t that the whole idea?