In the early days of our industry, equipment was made to serve the user’s needs. Many of the original studio owners came from a radio background. They built their own equipment, from consoles to compressors to equalizers, etc.
They didn’t have cost-effective manufacturing in mind when they created this equipment. They built it in order to make superior-sounding recordings.
At some point, other people in the audio community asked these pioneers to build equipment for their studios. The world of professional recording equipment manufacturing was born.
While much of the original research and development was carried out by Bell Labs, many of the early studio owners took these designs to the next level for their own purposes.
For many working in recording today, vintage equipment helps them to realize their goals. But the term “vintage” is seriously overused - it applies very well to wine and guitars, but not so well to pro audio hardware.
Whereas a ‘62 Château Lafitte-Rothschild is a dream to behold, and a ‘60 Stratocaster (the first year they made the fret boards in rosewood) can very well change your life, I ‘ve never heard of anyone who would consider a ‘74 Neve 8014 desk superior to the ‘72 version (or vice versa).
Although a Neve desk may be identified as “vintage” by its owner, “old” is often the more descriptive (though arguably less flattering) term.
The mere fact that something is old and has tubes doesn’t necessarily make it good. Transformers, Class A amplifiers, big knobs, faded paint, inability to pass a square wave, excessive second harmonic distortion or the need of a forklift for installation - none of these features necessarily makes a piece of equipment good.
What does make it good is its usefulness in a given application.
The humble tube, object of much discussion and debate.
Though I am a sales weasel by day, I am an engineer on nights, weekends and other days off. I’ve done major label work and have a few Gold/Platinum records on the wall, and so have chosen to approach this overview from the point of view of my recording engineering practice.
What follows is a list of a few of my favorite things, and why.
A caveat. The history of the earlier days of the recording industry is under-documented. In putting together this article, I went through piles of manufacturers’ original spec sheets, old advertisements, etc., and found them to be almost completely useless. Most historical knowledge is passed on verbally and may be distorted along the line.
With that in mind, I recommend that you take the following with great big handfuls of salt. Articles are no replacement for experience.