As musicians or music addicts, it’s hard not to fall in love with the unique sound of the ‘50s. Thanks to the introduction of electric guitars, electric bass guitars, and other instruments, the ‘50s have defined music in their own way.
Thus, it’s natural to be curious about how artists like Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry managed to record their music without today’s technology. In this article, we’ll be your guide to the ‘50s recording techniques.
Let’s dive in!
Overview of Music and Instruments in the ‘50s
A lot of things have changed in various industries after World War II, including the music industry. People started to embrace and appreciate art and entertainment more, especially that the tough reality of war was over. As a result, Rock and Roll was born.
The appearance of this beloved genre along with many new inventions have helped create the unique sounds that we love about the 50s. For example, that decade gave us Fender Strats and Teles, the forever-worshipped Les Pauls, and many more remarkable instruments.
The P-Bass was also first introduced in the ‘50s. Then, the Fender Tweed amp came out afterward. As for the microphones, Electro-Voice’s collection of mics, with model 950 being the flagship, were the rage back then.
As you can see, the ‘50s were a turning point in the world of music. Now, let’s take a look at how the top artists of that period recorded their unforgettable songs.
The 50s Recording Techniques and Gear
Ever wondered what makes the sounds of the ‘50s unique? Well, it all depends on the gear and recording techniques that were used back then.
Defining ‘50s Gear and Sound
A lot of musicians, including Ricky Nelson, recorded their music using all-tube mics, recorders, and mixers. Even the routing technique had a major effect on the resulting sound. In the 50s, it was as simple as going from the mic, to the mixer, then straight to the recorder.
Today, artists have a huge variety of routing possibilities thanks to DAWs. They can spend days at the studio to perfect their music by adding effects, enhancing different sounds to match their liking, and so on.
We can’t say the same for the musicians of the ‘50s. Because of how short their routing process was, the artists could perform minimal changes on the sound. As a result, their music had more of a natural and raw touch to it.
Another thing that had a huge impact on the Rock and Roll of the ‘50s is the fact that compression and EQ weren’t often used. This gave room for the records to have a large dynamic range, not to mention that the sounds stayed true to the original frequency spectrum.
Quite the opposite, music recorded in modern studios doesn’t feature latency or any other issues. In other words, the nuisances that today’s technology easily gets rid of are what gave ‘50s music its flavor.
Proof of that last statement is the Ampex MX-10 tube mixer. This preamplifier was used in that period to increase the level of the microphone before it reached the tape. Back then, sound engineers didn’t like how it seemed to oversaturate the sound.
However, musicians today would go to incredible lengths to put their hands on this classic mixer to reach the desirable ‘50s vibes.
Understanding ‘50s Recording Techniques
Throughout the ‘50s, tape machines were responsible for recording music in every studio. Two of the most popular choices back in the day were the Ampex models 200 and 600. Although, some artists, like Ricky Nelson, chose the Ampex-C set.
Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley used a recording approach that defined music in that era. These artists used to Scotch tape a mic to each musical instrument to catch the sound, including the drum kit. That technique was later used by the Beatles, too.
Another thing that makes the sound of this decade unique is the effects that were used. For example, echo was achieved by using units such as the Tubeplex Echoplex. Reverbs were also quite the discovery back then, created using the EMT 140 plate reverberator.
These units tended to weigh up to 600 pounds, and they usually required entire rooms to keep them in.
Tips on How to Recreate the 1950s Sound Using Today’s Equipment
Just admit it, you’ve thought about emulating a ‘50s-sounding song at one point or another. Well, in this section, it’s time to channel your inner rocker and learn how to make that happen!
Step 1: Recreate the ‘50s Recording Atmosphere
The first thing you should do is try to focus on recording your band live instead of recording individual tracks to fuse them later on. Next, you’ll have to follow the same steps that musicians of the ‘50s made to make their music.
For example, the top studios back then, including Sun Studios and Abbey Road, hired top-notch artists who helped their songs become hits. Therefore, you’ll need to ensure that your musicians know exactly how to play and sing according to ‘50s standards.
Step 2: Choose Your Instruments Carefully
It’s a good idea to go for highly sensitive condenser mics, even better if you get your hands on classic tube amps. As for the guitar choice, we advise you to pick flatwound guitar strings. These should easily capture the distinctively smooth vibes of the ‘50s.
A lot of experts recommend using as few mics as possible when the band is playing together. This can help you achieve that scratchy sound quality that we all appreciate in a ‘50s song.
Step 3: Don’t Overproduce Your Song
Pay attention to record only one or two tracks to stick to the original recording techniques of the ‘50s. When the tracks are ready for post-production on your best DAW, be careful not to polish them too much.
Instead, add only the effects that were popular back then, including reverbs and echos.
Despite how primitive the musical equipment was compared to today’s technology, we all appreciate a good ‘50s song. The ‘50s recording techniques play a major role in that decade’s much-loved sounds.
If you want to recreate the sounds of the ‘50s in your home studio, it may be easier than you think. Just focus on the live recording of your song, leave plenty of room for mic bleed, and keep post-production to a minimum.