How to Get that Retro Sound in the Box!

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Isn’t it simply amazing to observe how the music industry and recorded music in general surf the tides of trends? At times, it can feel like we’re being showered with ultra-processed and electronic sounds.

It’s as though every artist, from our beloved Dua Lipa to the iconic Lady Gaga, is dishing out dance music. Then, suddenly, it seems like everyone’s taken a nostalgic trip and we’re grooving back in the 60s!

What’s especially captivating is how swiftly listeners’ preferences adapt when the waves of electronic music take over. It’s as if their tastes morph within just months of the trend making a splash.

But when we hear the echoes of the 60s and 70s retro sounds stitched into today’s pop hits that rule the airwaves, it doesn’t seem to irk our ears as much.

Let’s examine the proof: Harry Styles is basically giving us Beatles and Elton John vibes, while other artists like Bruno Mars are reminding us of Zapp and Roger. Even some of Taylor Swift’s tunes give off that chilled-out Fleetwood Mac meets The Carpenters vibe.

And don’t even get me started on Lana Del Rey…….

Many of the instruments from those golden times, like mellotrons and wurlitzers, have remained forever fashionable. Acts like Silk Sonic, the dynamic duo of Anderson.Paak and Bruno Mars, truly deserve a round of applause for reviving the retro sound.

Just take a peek at the video for their hit single. It’s as if you’re witnessing a recording session in a vintage mid-century studio.

So, what makes this style so timeless? And, more importantly, how can you weave it into your music without it sounding cliché?

As a producer, this is key. You may have a client who wants to sprinkle in some of these retro sounds, but also keep it fresh and exciting.

So, here are a few plugins and techniques I’d suggest to recreate this sound anywhere, even on your trusty laptop.

Plugins and Tricks to Get that Retro Sound

Vintage Compression

Isn’t compression an interesting effect? Its magic lies in the fact that, in many ways, it’s not meant to be heard.

Originally, compression was just a handy tool to control peaks without needing four mix engineers hustling on the faders while bouncing down to tape.

But then, the Beatles and George Martin happened. They noticed that the distortion and grit they loved so much in the microphone signal came from the preamp and compressor section of the console.

That’s when the brilliant engineers at Abbey Road studios started crafting portable, standalone units that could be patched in anywhere, giving you that deliciously compressed, gritty, distorted vibe.

What’s even better is that many plugin companies have gone above and beyond to meticulously model these fantastic vintage compressors, both tube and solid-state. Some of my favorites include the Waves Abbey Road Collection and the Universal Audio Chandler Series.

The Chandler stuff? It’s like a modern twist on the exact units that the Abbey Road engineers crafted, but with improved specs and more tolerance so they don’t thin out and store like the old units.

Craving that gorgeous crunch on drums, the kind you hear in Beatles, Beck, and Antonoff’s productions? Look no further than the UAD Chandler Zener Limiter. It comes loaded with some fantastic presets that give you that retro sound almost instantly.

For a real treat, I like to add a preamp and Eq before compression. This lets you get some frequency compression going, which means you can dramatically increase highs and lows, and then have the compressor tame them or distort them in a really cool way.

So try out the Waves REDD preamps, followed by the Chandler Curve Bender EQ. What’s great about this chain is that it doesn’t sound like you’re trying to copy the Beatles (unless that’s what you’re going for).

It offers so many more options and can also be quite hi-fi if you’re not trying to sound retro, but just want some of that grit. Give it a whirl!

Vintage Eq

Vintage EQs were absolutely vital back then. Much more than just compression, there was a unique way that engineers of old tidied up the low end that gave a beautiful, old-timey yet crisp sound.

It’s almost a challenge to put into words, but I’m sure you all understand exactly what I mean!

A lot of it came down to the fantastic high-pass filters that designers began to include in EQs and preamps. One of the most amazing examples is the legendary Neve 1073 and 1084, which could be used as a preamp or simply a standalone EQ.

UAD has really knocked it out of the park with their modeling of these units. I have to say, they’re nearly identical to my custom rack-mounted units in my studio, about 85% to 90% match.

Then, we have the beautifully crafted Trident strips by Arturia that give you that charming retro sound. These had a slightly cleaner sound, but they had a truly unique way of boosting and cutting certain frequencies at the same time.

The Trident EQ played a major role in shaping that distinctive Queen, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd sound. They don’t sound as distorted and thick.

That’s more like the signature magic of the Neve or Chandler EQ.

Tape Effects

The Roland Space Echo is your speedy ticket to retro land! This clever device uses a never-ending loop of tape, and by varying the speed and choosing from multiple tape heads placed at different distances, you can adjust the delay.

What makes it really cool is its trippy sound. Plus, some of the earlier models added a spring reverb, giving it an even more unique sound.

It was especially popular for vocals because it created a warm, unusual sound that wasn’t quite a reverb, but not exactly a straight delay either.

When it comes to echo emulations, I recommend the UAD Galaxy Echo and the Soundtoys Echoboy. Echoboy offers a variety of delays, while the UAD is a bit more faithful to the original model.

But both can quickly transport you to that retro realm!

Transformer and Harmonic Circuits

Oh, let’s not forget about that often-overlooked preamp section of the console! Believe it or not, it’s actually responsible for 80% of the vibe to many signals.

Most folks think it’s all about the EQ and compression, but a lot of the harmonic content comes from the transformers in the preamp adding gain to the signals.

In the last decade, plugin companies have really started to appreciate this unsung hero of the gear chain. I reckon it all kicked off when Slate released his VCC collection, which beautifully emulates the gain and preamp circuit of some of the most iconic vintage consoles.

So, if you’re hunting for that retro sound, don’t overlook the preamp. My top tip?

Crank up the harmonic content and gain using plugins like the Slate VCC, the standalone UAD Neve and API Pres, and Waves Abbey Road RS units. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make!

Vinyl (Phase Distortion)

I had the opportunity to watch someone cut lacquer for Vinyl, and oh boy, was it an eye-opener! I learned you could shape the sound beautifully by gently pushing the vinyl cutting machine a bit more than usual, kind of like you would with tape.

This effect tends to give the sound a deeper hue because it swiftly snips off the highs. Some machines even let you control how much of the lows you want to cut to fit the groove in the vinyl.

The result? A dreamy, nostalgic, mid-range distortion that’s just cool. It’s called Phase Distortion.

If you’re looking to replicate this, I recommend the Waves Abbey Road Vinyl Plugin. It’s incredibly detailed, almost like it’s a mini vinyl-cutting machine.

And as you start fiddling with it, you’ll see that it’s quite lenient and won’t distort immediately, unless you really crank up the input. In many ways, it’s like having your own little vinyl machine.

Abbey Road Effects

I’ve touched on a few effects from the Waves Abbey Road Collection, but did you know their full range is actually quite a treasure trove? They teamed up with Abbey Road Studios to craft authentic emulations by getting up close and personal with genuine units, reverb plates, chambers, and even unit schematics.

Now, not all reverbs are created equal. The unique reverb plates and chambers from Abbey Road play a huge part in creating that timeless, iconic sound we all love.

Waves modeled them both as separate plugins.

One standout retro unit you’ll find is the RS 124 compressor. A step up from the older REDD units, this baby is a tube unit that the Beatles used for some of their most famous hits.

In short, you can’t go wrong with anything in this collection – it’s all golden.

Retro Virtual Instruments – Make them Sound Authentic!

Reason Abbey Road Keys

If you’re on the hunt for authentic retro keyboards like those played by the Beatles and Pink Floyd, I truly think you’ll find your heart’s desire with Reason Studios.

For their Abbey Road Keyboards Refill, they made a special trip to Abbey Rd. Studios in London and sampled some of the legendary instruments that are unique to that studio. Imagine playing the same pianos Paul McCartney and John Lennon used for “Lady Madonna” and “Hey Jude,” or getting your hands on the exceptional harmonium and organ that feature in many 60s and 70s classics.

It’s like a musical time machine!

I can’t recommend these enough. What’s super cool about these instruments is that they come decked out with lots of producer presets and added channel strips, all neatly packaged in a user-friendly preset style called a Combinator.

The best part? These layouts are a dream come true for folks who might not be seasoned engineers.

If you’re ever unsure about how to bring out the room sound in certain scenarios for authenticity, or if you find yourself wrestling with vintage EQ and saturations, these presets will have you sounding like a vintage master engineer in no time.

Give them a try, you won’t regret it!

EastWest Fab Four

Doug Rogers, a huge Beatles fan and one of the owners and producers of East West, as well as the Quantum Leap series, had a vision. Instead of heading to Abbey Road like everyone else, he decided to bring Abbey Road to his studio, in a bit of a twist of irony given his love for Beatles instruments.

What he ended up doing was going to great lengths to acquire any gear used by the Beatles for their iconic albums at Abbey Road. He exhaustively bid at auctions for equipment sold by Beatles members themselves or by Abbey Road studios.

Not all the equipment from those days is still around, so Doug has built up a unique collection of rare tape machines, compressors, consoles, and even instruments that were used for the legendary Beatles Abbey Road recordings. It’s quite a story, the lengths he went to acquire this gear! Check out this great video on the process.

Of course, all this gear was then deeply sampled and transformed into Virtual Instruments for their Fab Four collection. Isn’t that something?

Addictive Drums Vintage Dry

These drums aren’t tied to the Beatles, or any specific genre or era. They’re just fantastic drums, recorded with a retro, vintage flair.

Sure, there are other drums out there, but the Addictive Drums Vintage Dry pack might just be the punchiest and best-sounding of the bunch.

They’re like a modern spin on vintage kits, recorded in a vintage style. This can be a real asset, so you’re not just imitating the Beatles or Pink Floyd.

It’s in style, but updated – think Harry Styles or Beck’s recent records.

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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