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What limited audio quality in the early years? Saturation Plugins
Old 1 week ago
  #1
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adamd1008's Avatar
 

Thread Starter
What limited audio quality in the early years?

Hi,

I've been wondering what limited the quality of recordings back in the day. Something unmistakable about recordings from the 60s-70s is that the fidelity is poor by modern standards. (No doubt some like this, but stick with me here.) Listen to a Beatles record and you'll notice the difference when compared to a modern album.

I'm not entirely sure what I mean by quality, but the following spring to mind:

* Low signal-to-noise ratio
* High dynamic range, with most of the "space" not being used (not necessarily a bad thing)
* Hampered frequency spectrum (of individual instruments/voices and overall)
* Distortion

I think I can narrow the causes down somewhat, but I'm probably wrong about some of this:

* Tape was used at some point in the process; had issues with variable speed, interference and noise, and mixdown reduced the quality even further, I believe
* Production techniques are different now; the "loudness war" results in crushed dynamic range as standard practice
* Max signal level for analogue devices works differently, so there was less overhead available (not too clear on this; something to do with dBu/dBV?)
* Vinyl had to have special treatment to make it sound acceptable (the first 3 harmonics were boosted or something)

All this aside, what were the state of microphones and pre-amps back then? Did they have a very good SNR (like today), frequency range, etc.? In other words, back in the Beatles' days, were the main limitations of recorded music the recording media (tape, vinyl, or whatever)? If I were in the studio in the 60s monitoring a recording, would it have sounded pristine?

I can imagine that mics were pretty much as good as they are now. I think I read that it was the Neumann U87 that was used by the Beatles, and is still used today, if I'm not mistaken? Or at least, not much has changed in the latest versions of it.

Thinking about this is odd, because although I tend to notice worse quality to older music, there are some exceptions; the most notable that comes to mind is The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The quality of this album is outstanding given it was released in 1973. And I don't mean in terms of dynamic range, but there's no noise, and the instruments sound full and present, if you get me. It sounds vintage, but without the low vintage fidelity.
Old 1 week ago
  #2
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BillSimpkins's Avatar
The number of tracks. 1,2,3,4 tracks versus 8, 16, 24.
Old 1 week ago
  #3
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It is somewhat a variation on vinyl limitations. Change that to perceived market limitations. That being plywood record players and teenie boppers.

Listen to recordings of the Chicago Symphony by Fine made in the fifties for what could be achieved regularly. Microphones by this time included U47s, U87s, and C12s. One of standard preamp series were the V72s and V76s. All of these units are still in production or "recreated" today.


andre
Old 1 week ago
  #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by adamd1008 View Post
Listen to a Beatles record and you'll notice the difference when compared to a modern album.
Old 1 week ago
  #5
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There’s a lot of sonic variation just within Beatles records. Abbey Road sounds miles apart from their second album (which sounds worse than the first).

But to answer your question, the difference can be chalked up to information loss. More tracks and better recording and mixing media means more information is retained. 1s and 0s don’t degrade with multiple passes like tape does.

There is a noticeable difference even between contemporary sonics and high quality analog sound from the 1990s.
Old 1 week ago
  #6
Gear Head
 

In the early years, audio quality was limited by human beings’ primitive ears. Through the process of natural selection, only those strong enough to survive listening to the early recordings were able to reproduce and evolve better, hi-fi ears.
Old 1 week ago
  #7
Different mix style/years of experience with audio engineering makes a huge difference as well. If you made a record now with exactly the same equipment as the Beatles it would sound very different probably.
Old 1 week ago
  #8
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Due to the use of tape in every step of the process (and having to dump lots of tape tracks down to more tape tracks) and lots of commitment decisions (tracking destructively with major eq/compression/effects decisions), sometimes things just got really degraded and saturated even before they got to the mixing process. We're pretty spoiled now days in that we can take a DAW session with over 100 tracks, press play and everything is still pretty quiet and linear. That just wasn't possible back in those days, and most engineers would have given their left nut for a few solid state Rode microphones and a cheap DAW interface (and we saw a lot of those studios and production companies dumping "classic" tube gear and ribbon mics in the trash when the solid state stuff came out).

What seemed like a problem and a hurdle at times ended up coming full circle back to being "desirable" when digital became practical because it was so honest and "sterile". Most of us spend more time adding back all those saturation and distortion characteristics that guys like Geoff Emerick were trying to mitigate as much as possible. Bands like The Black Keys are throwing the SoundToys Decapitator plugin on every track on some songs. I can tell you that it's not necessarily a limitation in early microphones and the gear, they can be surprisingly full range. I just got a 1932 RCA PB-90, it predates any of the 44 series. It's the first year RCA made ribbon mics (literally one of the first ribbons made), has some pretty "horrendous" specs if you look at the published frequency response, but it still sounds really good aside from being a little noisy. Here's something I recorded yesterday when it came in, I just did a really quick acoustic guitar and vocal take to make sure everything was working. A little bit of EQ and compression, nothing too major. It's almost 100 years old and it still sounds good enough to keep up, pretty amazing!
Attached Files

PB-90 NEW TEST.mp3 (2.81 MB, 488 views)

Old 1 week ago
  #9
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Swurveman's Avatar
I know you are using the word "noise" in a SNR sense, but if I had to listen to one song, I'd rather listen to Judy Garland's "Over The Rainbow"-recorded in 1938- than 99% of the music recorded today.
Old 1 week ago
  #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Swurveman View Post
I know you are using the word "noise" in a SNR sense, but if I had to listen to one song, I'd rather listen to Judy Garland's "Over The Rainbow"-recorded in 1938- than 99% of the music recorded today.
Hey, I'm right there with you. I've had artists want to hear more "noise" as well. I had one mix session where I had to throw a UAD Studer on every track and keep the noise on before they were happy, some people actually want it now! Speaking of Garland, here she is singing through a PB-90 like mine:

Old 1 week ago
  #11
Gear Maniac
 

It is pretty astonishing that the recordings were so much worse sounding up until the 70’s than now, especially when they were using fantastic gear for the most part.

I get that there were only so many tracks and that made engineers do bounces and thus quality loss.. but where are all the Singer and Piano or Acoustic guitar recordings from back then that sound as good as anything today? Surely there should at least be a whole bunch of “remastered” versions of great performers taken from the original tape that sound as good as anything.
Old 1 week ago
  #12
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vernier's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by adamd1008 View Post
Hi,

I've been wondering what limited the quality of recordings back in the day. Something unmistakable about recordings from the 60s-70s is that the fidelity is poor by modern standards. (No doubt some like this, but stick with me here.) Listen to a Beatles record and you'll notice the difference when compared to a modern album.

I'm not entirely sure what I mean by quality, but the following spring to mind:

* Low signal-to-noise ratio
* High dynamic range, with most of the "space" not being used (not necessarily a bad thing)
* Hampered frequency spectrum (of individual instruments/voices and overall)
* Distortion

I think I can narrow the causes down somewhat, but I'm probably wrong about some of this:

* Tape was used at some point in the process; had issues with variable speed, interference and noise, and mixdown reduced the quality even further, I believe
* Production techniques are different now; the "loudness war" results in crushed dynamic range as standard practice
* Max signal level for analogue devices works differently, so there was less overhead available (not too clear on this; something to do with dBu/dBV?)
* Vinyl had to have special treatment to make it sound acceptable (the first 3 harmonics were boosted or something)

All this aside, what were the state of microphones and pre-amps back then? Did they have a very good SNR (like today), frequency range, etc.? In other words, back in the Beatles' days, were the main limitations of recorded music the recording media (tape, vinyl, or whatever)? If I were in the studio in the 60s monitoring a recording, would it have sounded pristine?

I can imagine that mics were pretty much as good as they are now. I think I read that it was the Neumann U87 that was used by the Beatles, and is still used today, if I'm not mistaken? Or at least, not much has changed in the latest versions of it.

Thinking about this is odd, because although I tend to notice worse quality to older music, there are some exceptions; the most notable that comes to mind is The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The quality of this album is outstanding given it was released in 1973. And I don't mean in terms of dynamic range, but there's no noise, and the instruments sound full and present, if you get me. It sounds vintage, but without the low vintage fidelity.
Superior, not inferior. Analog tube gear of the day is one reason. And several others.
Old 1 week ago
  #13
The tube gear and microphones was very good quality!
Far exceeded your typical WARM Audio clone

Most of the issues came with the recording medium. (Tape)
Running tracks through multiple generations of tape added noise and lost overall fidelity.

A big part of it was also the distribution medium (Vinyl)
Printing to Vinyl typically meant having to cut low-end below a certain frequency and adding additional noise to the playback.

Finally, when you hear older recording....(I would think) alot of times you are not hearing the Master Tapes dumped to 2018 latest-gen digital converters. You are hearing the playback of a vinyl recording that was captured digitally. Keep that in mind.
Old 1 week ago
  #14
Wanted to also add:
To me (analog) distortion of tube gear (mics/preamps/lineamps/etc) does not necessarily mean low-fidelity.....
I think a U47 hitting a Siemens Tube Preamp into a vintage Vari-Mu compressor distorts in the most beautiful hi-fidelity way.

Much better than distorting something by crushing it through Ozone 8 and posting it to Soundcloud
Now that's what I call lo-fi!
Old 1 week ago
  #15
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Ornette Coleman's "Something else" '11 remasters sounds like it was recorded today, just as "the shape of jazz to come" do. Brubeck's "Time out" is another good example, just as remasters of "The piper at the gates of dawn" by Pink Floyd, and many more records.
Old 1 week ago
  #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Singlecutz View Post
In the early years, audio quality was limited by human beings’ primitive ears. Through the process of natural selection, only those strong enough to survive listening to the early recordings were able to reproduce and evolve better, hi-fi ears.
Then we must be going back in time since things have regressed quite a bit since the late 90 productions. I don't I've heard a good (new) recording in 20 years.
Old 1 week ago
  #17
Gear Head
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by chrischoir View Post
Then we must be going back in time since things have regressed quite a bit since the late 90 productions. I don't I've heard a good (new) recording in 20 years.
Haha, then you must be like a prehistoric fish that luckily escaped extinction when the meteor called “D.A.W.” hit.

In all seriousness I don’t think audio quality was limited in the early years, if by quality you are referring to musical performances that people enjoy listening to. The gist of the OP’s question has more to do with technological advances than creative, artistic, or musical advances. New technology may or may not result in a “better quality” final product. I think the other posters had it right by pointing out that people inevitably react to whatever medium they are working on (trying to reduce hiss and increase dynamic range and brighten when working on a tape system, trying to do the exact opposite on a digital system). Being able to hear +1,000 tracks of full range audio in pristine high fidelity is not better quality audio if what you’re listening to sucks. Many singers strongly benefit from a signal chain that doesn’t capture every nuanced detail of their voice. Human beings generally look prettier when you look at them from medium distance, squinting a little bit. Even the best looking people start showing blemishes when you get closer or more detailed. Haha.
Old 1 week ago
  #18
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chrischoir's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Singlecutz View Post
Haha, then you must be like a prehistoric fish that luckily escaped extinction when the meteor called “D.A.W.” hit.

In all seriousness I don’t think audio quality was limited in the early years, if by quality you are referring to musical performances that people enjoy listening to. The gist of the OP’s question has more to do with technological advances than creative, artistic, or musical advances. New technology may or may not result in a “better quality” final product. I think the other posters had it right by pointing out that people inevitably react to whatever medium they are working on (trying to reduce hiss and increase dynamic range and brighten when working on a tape system, trying to do the exact opposite on a digital system). Being able to hear +1,000 tracks of full range audio in pristine high fidelity is not better quality audio if what you’re listening to sucks. Many singers strongly benefit from a signal chain that doesn’t capture every nuanced detail of their voice. Human beings generally look prettier when you look at them from medium distance, squinting a little bit. Even the best looking people start showing blemishes when you get closer or more detailed. Haha.
I love the DAW, There were many records done with them in the 90s, even 80s to a very small degree
Old 1 week ago
  #19
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Having lived through most of the changes described in this thread I am in total agreement with part of avare's thoughts in post #3 : studio Mics and pre amps of the 60's are still considered world class. However post capture DAW processing has blown away the best analog efforts of the old days.
I find it interesting that the best old recordings were single takes up until Les Paul took us into the multi track world. Dolby and DBX noise reduction became ubiquitous compromise fixtures when multi-tracking and dubbing with tape. We were able to layer and dub individual performance however processing artifacts were generally accepted unlike the clinically clean capabilities of todays binary technology, regardless of the number of passes made.
If we are totally honest yesterday's talent was far superior to most of todays pretty face, piss ant talent, electronically manufactured recordings. It is clearly apparent that digital processing has enabled a video world to get by with singers that have very little vocal skill or talent.
Hugh
Old 1 week ago
  #20
Gear Addict
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by chrischoir View Post
I love the DAW, There were many records done with them in the 90s, even 80s to a very small degree
You could barely call what was available in the 1980s a DAW. State of the art was computers clocking in at 50 MEGAHERTZ, with 4 MEGABYTES of RAM being the most you could get. A 200 MEGABYTE hard drive was huge. Rendering a stereo sample could take 12 hours...
Old 1 week ago
  #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by UKMK00 View Post
You could barely call what was available in the 1980s a DAW. State of the art was computers clocking in at 50 MEGAHERTZ, with 4 MEGABYTES of RAM being the most you could get. A 200 MEGABYTE hard drive was huge. Rendering a stereo sample could take 12 hours...
I was referring stuff like OPUS in the 80s but there are literally 100s of thousands of DAW recordings form the 90s. I did my fist ITB mix in 1995. Specifically 32 tracks of audio and a few midi. The system worked fine believe it or not. By 1998 I was doing 100 tracks of audio on P3 machines. It worked really really well. The only complaint I had was the quality of conversion.

When the 9652 came out in 2002, I was slaving 3 P4 computers and had no limitations at all. Used one for audio with 15k SCSI, used another for effects and the 3rd for midi. Never ran out of power. I don't feel like what I'm using now is any better other than I have more RAM for VIs these days. Keep in mind back then you didn't need more than 4 gig of RAM. For one the OS couldn't address it. Also VIs were not around.

One thing I notice even here on this forum is people always claiming how you need the latest great system to record. I laugh.. since people have been making albums with the DAW for 25 years now. The new systems are great but you don't necessarily need them. In some way they hold you back. Juts a couple days ago someone here posted how they were having a problem getting a god vocal sound. They were using 8 plugins. um yeah that would be a problem.
Trust me less is more, less tracks, less plugins , less VI will mean a bigger mix, a faster mix. And we all know a super computer cannot arrange and write good songs
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