Walk around any pro audio/MI convention, and you'll see lots of vintage gear — or vintage-looking gear. Some of it is close to the real thing, from museum-quality, custom-shop reissues of older Strats and Les Pauls to meticulously hand-wired Vox AC30s or Universal Audio 1176LNs. Other stuff has a vintage style or flavor, putting modern components into a retro package like Shure's 55SH “Elvis” mic. At the same time, you can see a lot of gear with a classic appearance — at least in onscreen emulations of huge bakelite knobs, rounded VU meters, etc. — in the form of plug-in software. In fact, with a little careful editing, a video tour of this month's NAMM show could look more like 1966 than 2006.
We audio types are all tire-kickers at heart. When checking out a new console, the first thing we do is move a couple faders or knobs to determine their feel. In fact, years ago, a young Greg Mackie was disappointed with the gain pots on his Tapco Model 6100 mixer design and experimented by squirting various types of goop into the controls to give them a smooth rotation. It worked, but over time — or in colder climates — turning those knobs became a real chore.
Ironically, if feel is so important, then why are we so willing to give it all up when we substitute a control surface for a console or a mouse for a fader? If feel meant nothing to guitar players, then companies such as Benedetto, D'Angelico and Paul Reed Smith would cease to exist.
I was recently watching the (highly recommended) DVD Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, a brilliant documentary on the career of one of the industry's legendary engineer/producers. In the film, Dowd recalls the experience of working with rotary controls and how he was liberated by the transition to linear faders, which allowed him to create a dynamic, fluid mix as nimbly as a conductor works an orchestra.
These days, with the availability of automation on every console parameter, creating a mix can take weeks rather than minutes, especially when each cowbell clank can be tweaked to absolute sonic perfection. Certainly, nobody wants a bad mix, and the ultimate power of automation can allow the creation of works that previously would have been impossible, but when you're running 80 inputs on a metal power trio — or a cappella madrigals — maybe something's wrong. With all the tools at our disposal, technology can sometimes get in the way. All too often, a little time spent on non-technical attributes — such as re-examining the lyrics, reworking a bridge or polishing the arrangement — will make a far greater contribution to the song than four hours of editing a hi-hat pattern.
But let's not toss out the technology with the bathwater. Sure, I wish I had a 9-foot Bosendorfer Imperial Grand in my studio; however, it's nice to know I've got some affordable (virtual) options. And a walk down the floor at this month's NAMM show will demonstrate that there's room for both emulative and actual products in our musical lives. Yet, somehow, a little more tactile reality wouldn't hurt at all.