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These days, it’s easier than ever to get your hands on the sought-after tools that were once beyond the realms of possibility for non-professional musicians to use. In this feature, our resident hitmaker Marc JBexplores the most effective gear, in both software and hardware, to use for a wide range of genres and approaches – the same gear that was used to build the hits of yesteryear…


Image © Joseph Branston

Get ready to dive deep into the world of legendary pro-studio gear and the modern emulation software that’s shaped the sound of many of the key genres in popular music. In this feature, we’re essentially going to show you how to recreate various ‘sonic signatures’ from music history. Throughout the next few pages, we’re going to be exploring some key pieces of technology and highlight just what they do, how they have been and indeed still are being used – and how you can now use them yourself in software form to get that genre-specific hit sound for your own productions, more conveniently and at a fraction of the cost.

Now is an exciting and somewhat boundary-free time to be a producer of music. We have the means to achieve the ‘big studio sound’ in our own homes, and with minimal outlay, by using authentic emulations of classic studio equipment. There’s a colossal array of classic studio-gear emulations on the market, though, so to avoid being overwhelmed, it’s better that you have some understanding of each particular piece of gear’s history and what kind of music it was primarily used for, before you decide whether you need it for your production.

Many companies model classic gear to bring us coveted sonics. Music software giants such as Universal Audio (whose hardware-DSP-powered UAD plug-ins feature heavily in our rundown), Waves, Softube, IK Multimedia, Steinberg, Slate, Eventide, Lexicon, Soundtoys and Plugin Alliance have music laboratories full of white-coated geniuses (we imagine), reverse-engineering gear for our benefit.

There are two basic ways in which a plug-in designer can analyse analogue and digital gear to create a software emulation. Firstly, they can run different audio signals through the unit (such as Sine sweeps and wide-band signals at various levels) and capture the output for all front-panel settings. The resulting signals are then analysed for changes in factors that include EQ, distortion and phase change to create a mathematical DSP model that can be then used to emulate the hardware unit.

With the second method, the unit is taken apart component by component. Every capacitor, valve and stage are analysed for their behaviours. Mathematical models are built up and the resulting ‘super model’ is tweaked until the software exhibits the closest sonic behaviour to the hardware. Many emulations use a combination of both methods to create the truest representation. Of course, this is all within the limits of development time and available software DSP. Some emulations, such as the AMS RMX16 reverb emulation for UAD, even use the software algorithms from the original unit.

Of course, we’re not disparaging hardware purists here. If you can get your hands on them, we’d always recommend that you go with the real-world kit to truly capture that authentic sound, but it’s not always convenient in terms of size, cost and weight – some hardware units could weigh up to 600lbs and took up an entire room! Software emulations have been progressively improving over the years and even in A/B shootouts, it can be virtually impossible to discern the difference between hardware and software.

So let’s look at some key hardware, grouped by relevant genres, sonic flavours and time periods, as well as the best modern software emulations of it, to help you whittle down your potential choices…


Roller discos, punks and flares… the 70s provided a surge of new genres and subcultures. Technology moved on during the decade, with more advanced analogue circuit boards and the world’s very first digital processors. With this evolution in electronics came a host of new innovations for music technology. Some of the brightest minds in the world were pushing the boundaries of sonic manipulation.

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About MusicTech

Emulating the artists that inspired us in our many music-making ventures is as much about rekindling those feelings as it is knowing how the sounds were created. In our cover feature this month we show you how to get impossibly close to the sonic signatures left by your musical heroes. Continuing the theme we present our newest feature ‘Recording Spotlight,’ where we speak to Peter Franco, engineer on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and gain insight into the complex, painstaking work that went into creating this modern classic. Additionally, we sit down with dance-music producer Stefano Ritteri and rising UK production star Rhiannon Mair, get into the meat of Cubase 9.5 and get hands-on with all the latest gear, tech and software. We hope you enjoy the issue…