How to Get That 1950s Sound on Your Records
Use this cheat sheet to learn how to get that ‘50s on your own productions. We look at how to make a 2016 release replicate that distinctive ‘50s character and vibe, while still retaining all the clarity of modern music production.
Firstly, if you haven't already read it, take a look at our music history article which details the gear and techniques that gave the 1950's music its unique sound.
The key is to use the best of both worlds. Let’s assume you’re recording drums and you want to infuse some of that late 50s Rock and Roll feel to your track – of course you will record them using a modern setup with each element of the kit closed mic-ed because you want them to sound punchy by letting those transients pass through untouched. Maybe you want the same modern sheen on your cymbals, in which case you go for a spaced pair of overhead mics, or maybe XY or even ORTF – whatever you’re comfortable using based on experience and instinct. But on top of that, try to use that old microphone I’m sure each and every one of you have lying around the studio; use it to capture the sound of the entire kit. It might also be worth running it a bit hot through your preamp and then split that into two separate channels – one clean and the other heavily compressed – the classic parallel compression trick. Then, blend the two together and when you’re happy with the sound of the kit coming only from that one microphone, start adding in the close mics. There will always be a sweet spot between the sheen of your regular overheads, the punchiness of the close mics and the vibe of that classic Coles mic over the entire kit. With a bit of tweaking everything will come together as one, having just enough vintage-ness while still retaining a punchy, modern feel.
A similar technique can be applied to electric guitars. Use two microphones, one close up to the amp and the other further away, capturing more of the room sound. By blending the two together in just the right amount, you will start to feel that classic vibe you’re after. Filters will also help tame some of the harsh sounds modern amps are capable of producing – use them wisely, whether they are your stock plugin EQ or a classic analog unit.
Strings & Brass
If your song has more of a Sinatra feel and you’ve written a brilliant string or a brass part, another trick is to re-amp the actual stem and recorded it back through a pair of ribbon microphones, placed at a good distance from the speaker. Apart from imparting a certain tone, this method will also add a sense of depth to your arrangement. And if, by the end of it all, you feel they are too buried at the back of the track, you can always mix back some of the original sound and find just the right balance for your production. And don’t forget the EMT 140 – it will certainly not disappoint when used on a brass or string arrangement, nor would it on a vocal.
Vox & Mix
Speaking of vocals, if you’re after a ‘50s sound, think valves – most equipment at that time used valve tubes which add a soft warmth to anything passed through them. We recommend the Fairchild or an RS124 or indeed a bespoke chain.
Once you have everything together, export stems and process these individually through something like the Ampex 601 or go straight into a tape machine – nothing beats the sound of a classic Ampex or a Studer.
This pretty much sums up our take on The Sound of The '50s. We hope you will find our Cheat Sheet useful for your projects and until next time, when we will be tackling The Sound of The '60s, we wish you all a smashing weekend. Happy hunting chaps!