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The interest in neon sounds found in retro pop has had a resurgence much like how Stranger Things reminded us of freewheeling through the neighbourhood on an 80’s summer evening.

Music recording has changed a lot over the past century, and many elements that became synonymous with these eras of time have been lost to advances in recording methods. As a result, there is a huge amount of cutting-edge tech dedicated to replicating these sounds without the need to acquire any old gear.

We’ve previously touched on some modern artists known for their vintage sound, but what makes music sound vintage? 

To answer this question, we have to touch on how music is recorded in the digital age.

Digital Audio

Before digital recording became the standard in the music industry, most music of the 1950s to 1990s were produced using multi-track cassette recorders.

These came in the form of large desks with gauges and sliders galore, as well as a slot for a tape to record sound onto. A microphone plugged into the tape recorder would record each track onto a different area of the tape. Producers combined the recordings together to create the finished product.

As audio technology progressed through the Digital Revolution, studios began using increasingly high-tech methods to capture musicians’ vibrations.

This culminated in cassette recorders phasing out favouring computers with a program known as a “Digital Audio Workstation” (or DAW for short). The process of capturing sound remains similar but with huge improvements in cost and versatility. 

Sounds could now be edited in ways which were previously impossible due to the limitations of cassette recorders. DAWs use VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins – these are digital effects that distort your sounds any way you like. This could be adding echoes, delays, reverb or synth.

Now with context established, let’s go through some ways in which studios use plugins to replicate cassette recorders.

Tape Delay

One of the more notable subtleties saved by the magic of plugins is the sound of tape delay. Adding a delay to a sound makes it echo and repeat itself.

Tape delay has a different sound to the digital delay due to the wear on the tape, causing slight pitch changes. Before the tape delay, musicians would have to record in a naturally-echoing area to capture any delay sound. This was not cost-effective, hence tape delays being developed.

A physical tape delay unit would essentially record a sound onto a tape (for example, the sound of a guitar coming through an amplifier) and play it back alongside the live sound.

“EchoBoy” is an industry-standard plugin that recreates the sound of a tape delay. It features ready-made presets which replicate the sound of many of the most famous tape delay units of the 1950s to 1980s.

Wow and Flutter

Wow is a subtle pitch variation heard in music played on cassette. Tiny changes in the recording speed causes the pitch to change. This results in the classic, warbling sound of a vintage cassette.

Flutter is a similar occurrence, but at a higher frequency. The perceived pitch of the sound changes faster and can cauae vocals to sound more shrill. A worn capstan most often causes flutter in the tape machine itself.

Tech-drenched studios can recreate this sound with a plugin called “Wow Control”.

This plugin lets you adjust the amount of flutter and the speed of the “tape”. There’s even a randomisation button if you need some inspiration!

Record Scratch

What? You thought we’d do the entire article without mentioning the glorious vinyl?

Impossible.

Arguably the most iconic “retro” sound is the subtle crackling of a dusty LP. Static buildup or dust and dirt in the vinyl’s grooves causes the crackling sound heard on a vinyl record.

Of course, there are many plugins striving to give producers the option to add this iconic crackle to their tracks in the digital age.

However, there is only one plugin that does this and much more – iZotope Vinyl.

iZotope vinyl is a vintage sound titan. This plugin produces vinyls’ crackle sounds, the audio cutout caused by big scratches in a record, and the pitch wobble of a record warped out of shape.

Prefer your vinyl artefacts a different flavour?

iZotope Vinyl can even switch its entire sound to resemble LPs from the 1930s, ‘50s, ‘60s, 70s, 80s and 2000s!

With complex yet affordable technology, even a beginning bedroom-producer can create vintage music straight with digital plugins.

Of course, nothing beats the real thing, so why not use the UK’s number 1 media digitisation service to get your classic audio tapes/reels converted to digital!