Aquaman’s Lenses – Deep into the pandemic I saw a post from Jason Momoa showing off his vintage collection of Leica camera lenses. He paired them with modern large sensor RED cameras to create a mind blowing video hybrid. These were 70 year old lenses designed for still photos, but now are finding new life with a modern video camera sensor. It’s now commonplace for major Hollywood movies to use this hybrid, rather than using modern “perfect” lenses, but it made me think – how can you assemble the best traits of analog and merge them with the best parts of digital? And how does this apply to making music? Can you extract the best parts of analog and leave behind the pain points?
For decades people have argued about the superior results of analog film or recording to tape, or hardware vs plugins, but that gap has narrowed substantially in the past 5 years. Modern converters and cameras can achieve the same look and feel as their analog counterparts by creators simply adding treatments and changing their workflow. It’s no longer a binary approach having to choose between analog and digital. You can use both, taking the strengths of the analog world and pairing it with the control and recall of the digital tools. Just find the right combinations of tools that work well together.
Much like agriculture you can selectively breed out the undesirable traits and pain points – tape is expensive and difficult to maintain, so use it as an external effect routed from the DAW rather than recording and multi tracking the entire album. Take advantage of the bias bump, harmonic distortion, natural noise, and built in compression.
Vintage cameras don’t have auto-focus, but old fast (large aperture) glass has incredible image quality resulting from the imperfections. These imperfections add a certain mojo to the image that is hard to quantify: distortion, resonances, swirls, and color rendition create an image much less clinical than a modern lens. Layers of micro mojo combined with a large hi-res 4k, 6k, or even 12k sensor add up to amazing end results. Now you can add control with modern inventions like DJI’s 3D follow-focus. It uses LIDAR to add autofocus to once manual-only lenses. As manufacturers like Sony, Canon, and Nikon race to catch up to Apple and Samsung camera development – they’ll need to incorporate more AI features to improve the workflow and not fall behind.
Control and ergonomics are a major factor, but vintage audio and camera equipment adds a subliminal effect – it captures emotion in a way that is subjective and difficult to explain. The randomness of film grain and the blurry edges capture moments in time differently. Tape adds different harmonics to audio enhancing the emotional impact of instruments. This can be achieved with emulations or the actual hardware, but it’s important to try merging these two worlds. You don’t have to choose just one. What treatments will take your songs to the next level and make them stand out?
My favorite method for blending these two worlds is parallel processing. Route tracks from a DAW like Ableton out to an external compressor or effects box, and bring it back through your converters into the DAW at 50% processed. This can achieve a punch, stereo width, and harmonic saturation that can’t always be achieved by plugins alone. Something about the analog world provides a 3D feel when it’s blended with digital. This is great for bussing out samples and giving them a new feel. The culmination of randomness works as well in audio as it does in video – maybe because there’s aren’t digital copies of sounds phasing each other out. Analog synths achieve great results through subtle detuning alone, but it’s also a layered stack of elements adding up – analog filters, oscillators that change over time and temperature, slightly unstable LFOs, pre-amps pushed hard, and converters clipped. Push your sounds to the extreme, but dial them back by just adjusting the parallel processing blend and split the difference.Try bussing your sounds out to a Tascam cassette Portastudio and processing sounds from your DAW through the tape heads. Try touching the tape with your hands to warp the pitch, and “perform” the wobble like vibrato, or slow down for pitch effects. You can always try plugins like RC-20 but there’s something different about the real thing.
There’s something really satisfying about taking old gear and giving it new life. It’s crazy to think that the tools can outlast their creators and owners, whether it’s an old piano or an old lens. The build quality and simplicity of design in early audio and camera gear is a major reason the equipment isn’t obsolete and can continue to operate. One of my favorite ways to bring old gear back is to record old instruments and simply Melodyne them. Older instruments are often difficult to keep in tune and play in time, so Melodyne can be used to tune and quantize them – especially now that it allows polyphonic tuning and processing. This also works for toy instruments that were often never in tune.
Pushing The Limits:
While the limits of the analog world helped with narrowing down decisions and committing ideas to tape, rather than the modern issue of “overlayering” or “fear layering” which is the biggest problem in mixing – you don’t have to live with these constraints. Take the best parts of analog and modernize them. Push your hardware to its limits to enhance the emotion and then dial it back. Breathe new life into your gear with modern control for timing and tuning. Add randomness and flux by searching for imperfections that will catch the ear of the listener, rather than looking for digital perfection. Use these sonic cues to guide their subconscious. Don’t be afraid to clip the audio to achieve the results you want (just don’t clip the master). Experiment and enjoy merging both of these amazing worlds – remember you can always use both!