If it ain't broke... 5 artists making music with old-school technology

akai s950
(Image credit: Future)

Music Tech Showcase 2021: Producers and musicians are constantly looking to the future, searching for the newest synth, the most advanced drum machine, or the next piece of equipment that could change up their sound. 

Our focus on the future can sometimes make us forget that great music is made with older technology, and in many cases, couldn't have been made without it. 

With that in mind, we're rounding up five artists making quality music with old-school tech, outdated software and vintage equipment.

1. Burial

Perhaps the most legendary example of a producer using outdated equipment to produce something brilliant is Burial’s 2007 album Untrue. Piecing together samples from video games and films on an ancient version of Sony Sound Forge running on a “rubbish, dying computer” that intermittently leaked smoke, he produced what’s been unanimously declared to be one of the most important electronic albums ever made.

In a rare interview with dubstep producer Blackdown, Burial opened up about the reason he favours software that many might consider obsolete. “I’m not a ‘musician,’ no training, nothing. So I was always scared of people who had studios”, he said. ”So I thought to myself fuck it I’m going to stick to this shitty little computer program, Soundforge. I don’t know any other programs.”

Many producers might see Sound Forge’s lack of sequencing capabilities as a drawback - but for Burial, it compelled him to write music in a new way, arranging samples on a blank timeline to produce the uniquely off-centre rhythms that define his sound. “I can only see the waves. So I know when I’m happy with my drums because they look like a nice fishbone. When they look just skeletal as fuck in front of me, and so I know they’ll sound good.” he continued.

“Because I don’t have a sequencer I can’t really mess around. I can’t noodle, at all. I got to shove it together and vibe off it. I make the tune, fucking quick. Not a single tune on my album took more than a few days to make. They come together real quick and then I spend some time on the details so they’re alright to listen to.” If we ever needed proof that it’s not what you’re using that matters, it’s how you use it, this is it. 

2. Fatboy Slim

It’s widely known that Norman Cook is a fan of old-school equipment - he produced his hugely successful debut record You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, on an Atari ST and an Akai S950, and has been somewhat reluctant to transition to a fully digital workflow ever since.

Speaking with MusicRadar in 2012, he discussed his adoration for the machines: “I've been making music on the Atari for over 20 years. Most electronic musicians of a certain age probably started in exactly the same way - the Atari and the S950. With just those two bits of kit and a mixing desk, you could make a tune. [...] The Atari and the Akais bought this house. They changed my life.”

Cook went on to compare the Atari with the Telecaster in its significance for music makers: “Bits of gear like the Atari, the S950 and the 303 are just as ground-breaking and important as the Telecaster and the Vox amp”, he said. “I don't think that the Atari and the Akai are the only legitimate tools to make music. Ableton is a fantastic piece of kit. I just haven't found a way to link my creative urges to working with a laptop.” 

3. Bibio

Bibio’s music has drifted between sprightly indie-folk and pastoral electronica, but one constant has remained: the unmistakably warm, saturated tone of reel-to-reel tape recorders and cassette machines. The sound of tape is all over his discography, from the ambient tape loop experiments of Fi and Phantom Brickworks through to the reversed guitar figures of tracks like Curls and Petals. 

In a recent interview with Rupert Neve Designs, Bibio confirmed our suspicions: “I’m fairly well known for lofi and saturated recordings, especially with guitar tracks. I use cassette, reel to reel, old samplers and vintage FX pedals to get certain sounds.” He went on to discuss his preference for authentic tape machines over software emulations: “I don’t use tape emulation plugins, if I want a cassette sound I use cassette, if I want a high end reel to reel sound, I use my Nagra IV-S.”

It might be quicker and easier to record straight into a DAW - and there may be more than a few ways to achieve a tape-esque effect without using tape itself - but we’d argue that Bibio’s sound wouldn’t be quite the same without the authentic warmth, warble and flutter of his trusty Nagra IV.

4. Metronomy

Another chart-topping album made with vintage equipment, Metronomy’s Love Letters was recorded at Toe Rag studios in Hackney, a veritable time capsule kitted out with a Studer A80 tape machine and ‘50s EMI mixing console plucked from Abbey Road itself. It may have been quicker and easier to record in a fully kitted-out modern studio, but the vintage gear in Toe Rag undoubtedly contributed to the retro tone of the record, which then reached No 7 on the UK album chart and became their most commercially successful record to date.

In an interview with The Guardian, drummer Anna Prior said that recording to tape in Toe Rag Studios was a totally different experience in comparison to a modern, digitally equipped studio, giving them less room for error, but bringing a more authentically “live” feeling to the recording session. “Recording in Toe Rag was so magical. We were all in one room together with very few mics, singers in one corner, a brass trio in the other, and we played it all live knowing that would be the finished product.” she said. “I got quite romantic about it.”

5. Legowelt

An unashamed synth geek, Danny Wolfers’ studio contains a boatload of equipment, both new and old - one of his albums is even named after the Amiga 500. In addition to ancient computers, he’s been known to value the sound of old samplers, using them to imbue his recordings with a specific sonic character. “It’s amazing how these samplers can affect the sound, all that talk about DA converters and the warmth of old samplers, that’s not just mumbo-jumbo gear-dork talk. It’s all true for sure.” he said, speaking to The Ransom Note.

Wolfers treats the samplers like effects processors, with each lending a different tone to the input: “The AKAI S900 is just instant fuzziness, not so tight but nice especially if you set it on the lowest resolution. The X7000 and S612 transpose everything in a shadow of our reality. The MKS100 is just like a blanket.” 

Does older equipment produce a more interesting sound? Wolfers wonders whether if by capturing and processing sound in the highest definition we can, we lose something of its essence. “This thing with digital lower bit resolutions also exists in effects processors, these old 12 bit reverbs and delays make everything nice. I am not too much into the new reverb processors which sound super perfect, it’s just a bit creepy. It’s like this uncanny valley of sound, it’s too perfect.” 

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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