Tech \ Technique \ Gear Tips

Plugging into the past

Five cool plug-ins for retro sounds

2021 Jul 01     
2 Bit Thugs

Looking to capture the warmth of those old funk and disco records? Our resident studio whizz Chris Lyth has some suggestions for you

Fire up the DeLorean, Doc, because this month we shift our temporal gaze firmly into the rear-view as we go plugging into the past.

The wellspring genres of house music, namely funk and disco, never lose their grip on the imagination and have yo-yoed in and out of the zeitgeist since their inception. But there are practical reasons why modern producers, beyond those seeking simply to emulate retro musical styles, bend over backwards to infuse their work with vintage timbres. Their warm musicality is engaging to listeners in a way that a bright, brittle mix is not: it’s inviting to listen to, and it doesn’t shred your ears over a long period.

So how do we bring some of that stardust into our own productions in this brave new digital world? 

What we're gonna do right here is go back

There are many things to consider when looking to create a vintage sound, but much of it is about mindset and how we approach a session with our modern, shiny new tools. 

For example, it’s very easy to edit out all noise in a bid for clinical audio perfection. However if this is done with too much vigour, especially on vocals, the intimacy of the take can be a casualty. The tools of yore made engineers paint with a much broader palette, so ditch the super-surgical EQ plugins for ones of a more broadband variety and allow your mix to breathe. 

Stacking up subtle distortion throughout your track by using saturators and vintage compressors, as well as careful use of EQ, is the bedrock of a vintage-sounding mix. Tame those cymbals with EQ and saturation, and place them lower in the mix. Also, go easy with the thinning out of the low-midrange, something which is very much de rigueur in modern productions.

Now then, here – to get to the main point of this article – are some great digital tools to help tune up your Flux Capacitor…

1. Softube Tape, €99 (£85 approx)

It’s impossible to hark back to the warm sounds of yesteryear without considering the importance of analogue tape as a recording medium. The sound of tape is hardwired into the DNA of all recorded music made before the 90s, and with all of its myriad inconvenience, if you asked recording engineers what sounds the best, I would wager that many if not most would say they prefer tape over digital. 

Tape has a smoothing effect that adds weight and cohesion to a mix: it subtly adds artefacts like hiss and saturation that glue and connect the individual parts together as a whole. I particularly like the way that, in this plug-in, Softube have implemented different types of tape (tape machines vary wildly in tone) and added practical flights of ingenuity, like being able to use it on each individual track or stem to get that authentic build up of saturation, transient smearing and noise. 

Creating a warm, vintage-sounding mix requires a lot more than simply adding a tape simulator on your master output. Being able to use this on every track – not to mention its low CPU drain – makes it a must-have, and a great start to a vintage processing chain.


2. Soundtoys Radiator, $129 (£93 approx)

The Radiator is modelled on the Altec 1567A tube input mixer from the 60s, which played a big part in shaping the early sound of Motown: all of the Motor City greats will have passed through its unashamedly warm and gritty circuits. 

The Radiator’s functionality is as simple as it gets: you get a bass and treble control, and an input and output for driving the tubes and then backing off the output level. For warmth it’s difficult to beat and it works superbly on thickening bass, vocals and most acoustic instruments. If you wish to take it further than simple warmth, then keep pushing the input control until you hit outright tube distortion. A gloriously simple and effective tool.


3. Valhalla UberMod, $49 (£35 approx)

Chorus, phasers and flangers were all over synth and keyboard sounds in funk and disco, and Valhalla have pretty much covered the vast field of modulation in this comprehensive £50 plug-in.

If you want to recreate vintage sounds or make futuristic timbres, UberMod has you covered. Use it on an electric piano like a Fender Rhodes to get that warm, lush swirl that takes you back to a time when life and recording were a little more simple. As of time of writing, it's available from the Valhalla website at 30% off the price shown above as well, so right now's a good time to get involved…


4. BABY Audio Comeback Kid, $50 (£36 approx)

New York’s BABY Audio have greatly impressed with an affordable range of plug-ins with a modernist take on retro sound. Their Comeback Kid is a delay unit that is imbued with the spirt of much-loved analogue and early digital delays such as the Space Echo, Copycat and Boss DE-200, among others. This Kid is dripping with flavour: engage the cheap switch and the bitrate is dropped down to 11-bit which pushes you right back to timbres of the early 80s. 

The real strength of the Kid, though, is its versatility: it can sound hi-fi and pristine or gloriously grungy, and anywhere in-between. The saturation and filters sound particularly lush, and are calibrated to allow you to dial in the sound you need with speed and ease. 

Delays and reverbs are so fundamental to production it’s easy to think that any old one will do, but to nail a particular era convincingly it’s vital to have access to the repeats and spaces of that time. 


5. Relab LX480, $349 (£253 approx) 

Lexicon’s 480L is still to be found in the racks of many top studios despite coming into the world in 1986. Back, then, it was the Rolls Royce of digital reverb, and here it is re-imagined for modern convenience with stunning levels of accuracy. 

The plate reverbs in particular work wonders on drums, and have a magical ability to let you really pile it on without the source sounding lost or suffocated. The magic of the Lexicon sound is that it’s able to sit beautifully in a mix without eating up all the space: it’s lush, big and swirly, but still stunningly clear. It does have a coarser texture than its newer relatives, but for that 80s aesthetic it’s indispensable. 


Don't over-do it

Please note, I’m not suggesting for a second that you should start knocking out endless soundalike/pastiche tracks – only use these tones and plugins when the program material is suitable. But as stated above, often the reason why we choose to sound vintage is simply because it’s a more human and musical sound, a world away from fatiguing digital purity.

As always, everything has a time and a place. When to deploy the old tone is an artistic decision made by you alone. 

Words: Chris Lyth






Tags: vintage, retro, plugins, plug-ins, studio tips, production tips, Softube, Soundtoys, Valhalla, BABY Audio, Relab