July 1997

Retro this, buddy!
part 1

by Paul D. Lehrman

One day back in the ‘50s, in the Peanuts comic, Lucy announced she had a "hi-fi" jump rope. Charlie Brown silently took this in, but a couple of panels later bawled, "How can a jump rope be hi-fi!?" Several years later, Lucy showed up with a "stereo" jump rope. Charlie Brown, of course, had exactly the same reaction. If creator Charles Schulz had kept this up, in subsequent years Charlie Brown would have been befuddled by a "digital" jump rope, a "MIDI" one, an "interactive" one, and this year, no doubt, a "retro" jump rope. And then Schulz could start all over again.

The retro thing is approaching ridiculous proportions in our field–it seems that no product is going to get out any manufacturer’s door today without a tube, or an analog VU meter, or a set of knobs straight off a Fender guitar amp, or a burnished steel front panel (or if it’s software, then a picture of one). Every new electronic music instrument looks like 1979, every new signal processor looks like it was made in 1959 (and if you don’t "get" it, it’ll have a model number that drives home the point), every microphone looks like 1939. Even the most modern digital editing and processing systems, no matter that they couldn’t possibly have existed just five years ago, are showing up with user interfaces out of a Buck Rogers serial.

Real vintage gear, like Pultec equalizers and Fairchild limiters, is going for astronomical prices, and I’ve heard more than one story about people planning to put their kids through college by digging their old Micromoogs out of the attic and shipping them to Japan. I’m told there’s even a huge market for early digital processing gear, like the foot-operated phaser I have gathering dust in my closet. The damn thing put out so much hum on stage that I had to put my volume pedal after it in the chain, manually gating it so it wouldn’t drown out the singer when I wasn’t playing–but, hey, the first $500 takes it!

What is it about old equipment that captivates us so? Was there really something magical about the gear 10, 20, 30 years ago that caused hit records to spew forth from it? Is today’s equipment so cold, lifeless, and inhuman that no matter how much talent we push through it, the results are guaranteed to be less than wonderful (translated: won’t sell a zillion copies)?

Allow me to propose that, as so often happens in an industry as based on fad and fashion as ours, most of what’s driving the retro movement is utter hype and nonsense. There are lots of reasons why today’s acts don’t have the impact and the staying power of the groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I, for one, believe that the fact that most of our limiters don’t have tubes is not among them.

The retro movement conveniently forgets that once upon a time, as the great Mel Brooks said, things were rotten. But in America (and now, thanks to MTV and other instruments of cultural imperialism, the world), no matter how good we’ve got it in any generation, there is always this streak of nostalgia for previous ones. In World War II, they sang World War I songs (now that was a fun time!). The TV generation’s parents listened to Glenn Miller, the Broadway hit of the ’70s was Grease, and the most successful new radio format of the last decade is classic rock. (In my town, that market is segmented even further: we have stations that play only ’60s, only ’70s, or only ’80s. Choose the time capsule you want to bury yourself in.) And now we’re seeing nostalgia for nostalgia: witness the bizarre resurgence in popularity of the Happy Days TV show, a ’90s audience for a ’70s show featuring a mythical ’50s reality.

Just like our esteemed politicians who advocate returning to an idyllic Norman Rockwell-esque America that never existed in the first place, those who lament that the golden age of recording ended when we left behind tubes and discrete transistors are lying to you. People had to work damn hard to get the sounds they did in those days, and it was largely in spite of the equipment, not because of it.

What constitutes retro gear? I see it breaking down essentially into four categories: analog tape, tube electronics, analog synthesizers, and old guitar amps. Analog tape fans value the soft clipping and high-frequency compression that occurs when you saturate those iron filings, the "virtual dithering" of being able to record a signal below the hiss level, and the relatively gentle roll-off of the frequency response. Tube fanatics swear that the sound caused by the wobbles in the transfer characteristic you get when you shoot electrons through a near-vacuum from one piece of metal to another, is more musical that a straight wire with gain. Analog synth jockeys live for the inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and drift inherent in those ancient oscillators and filters, which they somehow think make the sound more exciting. Vintage guitar-amp aficionados get all goose-bumpy from the impedance mismatches between grossly overdriven output stages and tank-like speakers whose frequency response limits and THD figures would make even a car stereo salesman run for cover.

What’s going on here? In a word, distortion. Coloration of the sound so that what comes out is not what went in. But interestingly enough, except for the ubiquitous post-"Satisfaction" fuzzzz boxes, most of today’s valued old audio devices weren’t designed to do the things we value them for, and in fact engineers forced to deal with these limitations when they were new cursed them roundly. The Nazi forefathers of the tape recorder would have laughed if you told them that overdriving the tape would one day be considered a great artistic tool–they just wanted a gadget that would make it sound like Hitler never needed sleep. Microphone manufacturers wanted something that reproduced Bing Crosby accurately–he didn’t need any added "warmth", he just wanted to sound as good on the radio as he did in person.

Bob Moog, Don Buchla, Serge Tcherepnin, and the other early synth designers hated the fact that their oscillators couldn’t be counted on to stay in tune. They included crummy spring reverbs not because they contributed so delightfully to the sound, but because most of their customers couldn’t afford EMT plates. When I was in bands playing clubs in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we didn’t use Sears Silvertone, Ampeg Rocket, and Fender Princeton amps cranked up to 11 because we loved the sound–we used them because we couldn’t afford the Dual Showmans that we really wanted, which would let us play nice and loud, and clean.

Of course, finding defects in a tool and turning them into virtues is an age-old practice, and much of the music of the early rock era is defined by this. And perhaps that is what people are really missing in today’s gear: the serendipity of finding something weird and figuring out how to exploit it artistically. A piece of modern digital equipment is its own self-contained universe; you can’t, as Dutch pioneer Michel Waiswisz used to do with analog synthesizers, stick your fingers into the guts of a digital synth and literally poke around until you come up with something you like.

But what we’ve gained, in terms of accuracy, repeatability, and simple ability to get things done, in my opinion far outweighs what we’ve lost. Next month, I’ll take you on a real retro journey, back to a famous studio where I got my first formal instruction in how to make electronic music. And we’ll see just how much fun retro can be. We’ll also see what real lessons–if any–there are to be learned from the retro movement.

Paul D. Lehrman constantly looks back, but so far can’t tell if anything is gaining on him.

These materials copyright ©1997 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing