I listen to music on many different and subjective levels which is often key to employing various ideas and devices when I go into the studio to work on my own or someone else’s future masterpiece. One thing I enjoy immensely is listening to the oldies station, the real old stuff from 40 -50 years back. Yes I know, I am old but I compensate for it by being a nerd. So you might ask “what is the world does this have to do with me old, nerd man?” and here is the uptake on that. You can learn so much from the classic era of recording, I would say from the early 50’s to about 1975, before they got too flashy with the technology.
A person might immediately say “I don’t want to sound old I want a fresh modern sound.” I get that but what you should be going for is a universally great sound, regardless of the time. Yeah and also I know that you don’t care about “old grandpa music” but let me point out that they were playing these songs on the radio when I was a lad and they are still playing them, that should tell you something, great music is timeless. And you are not always necessarily listening for it because you like it, you are studying it to see what they do that sticks out as great.
What many of the mid 20th century studios lacked in equipment they more than made up for with experimentation, mic placement, and just raw, pure talent, which is the beginning of any serious recording endeavor. Or, if you really take the time, listen to some classic albums or recordings, then research the setting they were made in, you can get a great idea of the conditions and contributions which spurred these jewels into creation. Sometimes it was a little talent invested with a huge amount of work that produced a hit and just the opposite, huge talent and quick, hardly more than one or two takes that produced not only a hit but whole albums at times.
I will use examples which, if you ignore or do not take the time to listen, then it is your loss. Basically anything from the Beatles can teach you a great deal, from their first album, which was recorded, I believe, in one, long twelve hour session, to their last works which had grown sonically and thematically from their early efforts. If I had to pick one, and this is by no means my favorite or one I think is the best example but Revolver would be a prime candidate. It is first a supremely well written album, succinctly deft is how I would describe the musicianship and vocals, and the whole thing just sits so well in your ears. This is just one example.
Anything by Stax and Motown are also good places to start as you are getting hundreds of ideas to add to your creative palette as a musician, producer or both. It also is important to note that the equipment used on Stax early recordings, which are great, was nothing short of archaic and limited even for its time. Again the overall sound can be attributed to proper microphone placement and as always super good talent hit on all cylinders. Same in regard to Motown.
Classic music is classic for a reason. Great albums are called that for a reason. They all contain elements which have to be present. If you are a musician who writes and records their own songs the lesson is great songs make great music. If you are a recording musician with limited gear remember that talent can overcome any gear, a groove captured on the most basic setup can cook many years after it was made, but never has even a million dollars of equipment made something great out of something mediocre.