“Vintage sounds in a DAW? Are you fukken crazy?!” – yelled the purists. And indeed, for most of those bastards, it’s nothing but sacrilege. If they deem something impossible, no one will be able to convince them otherwise. But for you, my smart friend, it’s very well possible.
Vintage sounds in a DAW
But what do those vintage sounds have in common? We are talking pre-90s stuff. They were captured to tape, mostly through outboard analog (and towards the end, some pricey early digital) gear. So if you don’t have a Studer A800, a couple of LA2As or a Trident A Range console, you can still get in the ballpark. How?
Get the kind of sounds you want during recording. If you are after a guitar sound that needs some space and “bounce”, don’t automatically go for the SM57 on the grill thing. Place that microphone out at a distance. If you want 70s style, dry drums, dampen the top heads, and remove the bottom ones. Also remove the resonant head from the kick. On the vocals, comping is allowed, tuning isn’t. Careful with the click track, depending on the era you want to sound like. Make sure you have enough bleed, too. Yup. Bleed sounds awesome once you stop fearing it.
Set up a virtual chain in your DAW that simulates the real thing. Use good emulation EQs, or at least look up the Qs and center frequencies of the vintage equalizers, and use only those settings on your generic EQ. There are many plugins out there that do pretty much the same as those big old console EQs. At least if you listen with your ears, and not your eyes. If you don’t happen to have an API or a Pultec at home, use those. Good emulations of vintage compressors are out there as well. Oh well.
Roll off at the bottom and top of the frequency range is a usual thing when it comes to vintage sounds as well. You just couldn’t get the clarity of the digital era back then. Even though you can do this with EQ, it’s kind of lame to do it, when you have some great tape simulation plugins out there that will do it as close to the real thing as possible. Bootsy’s Ferric TDS is one of them, and it’s free.
What all the real gear have in common is they usually add some subtle distortion, i.e. harmonics to the signal. If you want to get vintage sounds, you need to do the same. Many EQs and compressors distort just like their real counterparts, but you can find plugins that do the distortion thing separately, so you can fine tune this part of the whole. They simulate all kinds of shit from germanium transistors to transformers and tape.
Vintage sounds in a DAW
If you want to go real nuts, you can even add some vintage noise to your vintage sounds. Tape hiss, hum, buzz, there are all kinds of things that most of the pros don’t really miss, but you can add them just for fun. (Please don’t.)