Op Ed: Three Reasons Audio is Stuck in the Past

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Is the audio industry too obsessed with nostalgia?

What are your most coveted pieces of audio gear?

For many engineers, key vintage units like 1073s, U47s, and Fairchilds (or is it “Fair-children”?) would probably make it to the top of the list.

Yes, they all sound great, but they also have something else in common: They’re old. In fact, the older they are, the more we’ll often pay.

Today, there are plenty of other ways to get by in audio without maxing out your credit cards on these historic pieces.

Sure, a decade ago, digital emulations couldn’t hold a candle to their authentic counterparts. But we’ve come a long way since then. In a world where a $100 plugin is within a few degrees of quality of a celebrated piece of vintage gear that costs thousands of dollars, why are we still so obsessed?

I’m just as guilty as anyone of scouring the internet to find the most expensive vintage pieces of gear and thinking, “if only I had that, things would be so much better”. It’s an obsession.

Our love affair with real vintage gear comes in part from a love of collecting, and in part from the assumption that getting our hands on the right old pieces of gear going to advance our craft.

But deep down, every engineer knows that the latter just isn’t true. So why do we do it anyway?

Love of the Past

This kind of obsession with the past is not unique to audio. It’s a phenomenon that applies to all aspects of life, especially among creatives, and it’s certainly not new. In the 1920s, dozens of American writers fled to Mexico in search of “lost authenticity”.

In audio, this is way of thinking is especially pervasive: The perception is that vintage gear—and older music—holds some sort of authenticity, richness, and purity of spirit and sound that is missing today.

There’s an argument to be made that older manufacturing processes, the limited numbers of tracks and takes, and the clunkier, more deliberate recording process of yesteryear can all lead to a better product.

But that’s largely a fallacy. The progress we’ve seen in audio doesn’t make music any less creative or authentic in and of itself. Sure, it allows us the ability to do inauthentic work more cheaply, more quickly and in greater quantity if we are inclined to, but it doesn’t guarantee that our work will come out that way.

Can “New” Mean “Authentic” Too?

Let’s take a look at other industries: There’s little cry left in the film industry, for example, that the progress in cameras and the editing process is making movies and TV shows worse or less “authentic”.

Those last few holdouts who shoot on film are part of a shrinking minority, and their industry is very much embracing of new technology that pushes the craft forward. At the end of the day, the product is still just capturing and presenting images and stories.

Do those images get any more expressive and authentic simply when they are harder to make, thanks to retro technology? Or does the newfound affordability and ease of workflow make it even more possible to capture candid and authentically spur-of-the moment images when that is what’s desired?

The same type of quick acceptance of cutting-edge technology can be seen in the visual arts: Graphic designs, painters, and illustrators overwhelmingly have a copy of Photoshop and a drawing tablet at their disposal. When it comes to making a commercial product for others to enjoy, there’s little argument about how graphite and colored pencils are somehow better than digital art.

In both of these fields, there has been a ready embrace of new technology. Even in the audio broadcast and post-production industries, there is a greater and more ready acceptance of the new than there often is in music production.

This leads to a synchronous relationship between professionals and product manufacturers that pushes the envelope of what’s possible and, arguably, brings the quality of the art up overall.

But what does the studio world have? The products that really push the envelope are few and far between, with the innovations in quality mainly seen in converters and the odd next-gen plugin.

Instead, we often get a rehash of vintage hardware products that are cheaply made so we can finally afford them, eventually sell them on eBay, and still covet the “real deal” vintage gear that we may never own.

Authenticity comes from your hands, your head and your ears, not from a piece of gear that has become personified and deified over the decades.

Yes, there are fair arguments to be made in favor of high quality vintage gear. Yes, the exact manufacturing processes of yesteryear aren’t always possible today due to safety issues and lack of certain resources. And yes, there is something to be said about how those idiosyncrasies affect the sound.

Still, it doesn’t make much sense to obsess. Too many in our industry are willing to spend thousands of dollars to repair a vintage piece of gear that only works half the time, but write hate mail when a plugin has an intermittent bug.

Think of how far off those values are from reason:

There is often more hate directed at a $100 plugin that allows you to get within a few degrees of a vintage piece of gear when it exhibits a slight bug—that will likely be patched within a few days for free—than there is at old gear that constantly needs major and expensive repair, and can only be used for a few months before breaking down yet again.

In many ways, we’ve got it better than ever. So why don’t we act like it?

Reason #1: Nostalgia Goggles

The decisions we make in the creative world aren’t based purely based on logic and reason of course. (I’m not sure they really are in any part of the world for that matter.)

Research does show that many of our purchases are made out of an emotional response rather than a rational one. In any industry, our sense of nostalgia can drive a lot of revenue. And it’s no secret that music especially can trigger tremendous levels of nostalgic feeling.

You know that song you were listening to when you first got in your car at age 16, or when Sally McGee first kissed you. For these reasons, the tracks we discover in our teens and early twenties are the ones we inevitably consider “best” as we age, even though that isn’t necessarily true on any objective level.

For audio people, this effect is pushed even further back through the production chain: Through our nostalgia goggles, we perceive older, more familiar songs as being better, and thus, their productions as “better” as well. While nerding out over our favorite records, we make a point to figure out the gear that was used and make the logical association that the unique quirks of the gear must be part of the reason for the emotional response that these songs gives us.

We listen not only to the music; we listen to the impact of the finished production and consider everything that went into it. When you first heard that song, the crack of the snare or the smoothness of the lead vocal is part of what hooked you. That initial impact had nothing to do with the knowledge that the snare was smashed through a Distressor or the vocal being recorded on a U47 with an LA2A. That information came later.

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  • Brian Moore

    Thanks for the article Jacob. What would you say is the future of audio production? More/better plugins and converters? Anything new on the horizon?

  • Shane McGill

    The only reason the film industry ’embraced’ video is because of perceived savings (which aren’t that big after all) but much more in my mind because of the ‘instantness’ of video compared to film. Certainly not because of better quality – still a far cry.

  • Greg Strickland

    Passage of time brings perspective and often a consensus. Only a few have the gift of knowing a classic the day it is made.

  • Nick Ananas

    You forget to say that the basic of the old technology was for the NASA and government. So they were top of the line products made by teams of scientists. Quality wise you can not compare plugins, a new technology, to companies like Western Electric, RCA and Siemens. It is not psychological they were very good products and they do not break, they need repair because they were never serviced because of their reliability. How are you suppose to repair or service a plugin ? Of course you should not stop yourself over products for creation, but they are really worth it over plugins, that is why people still use them today. People threw tube gear in the 80’s until they missed it, then wanted it back…