You can do a lot of things in-the-box to make your plugin synths sound vintage and interesting, but sometimes there’s just no replacement for real analog grittiness. Sometimes you just have to do a little work. So I decided to put Phonec through a real-world signal chain, essentially pulling it out the box, running it through unlikely old machines and routing it right back into Ableton. I’m going for a lofi sound, so in this example, I’m using a vintage tape deck. I’ve actually tried this with several different signal chains, and I’ve realized that the longer the signal chain, the more distinct the character. Longer signal chains introduce lots of artifacts along the way, whereas short signal chains, or more commonly straight, in-the-box routings, will result in a typical clean, modern sound. But for this tutorial, I’ll keep it simple and use my Akai stereo cassette deck.
This is easily done if you have an audio interface with multiple inputs and outputs. I’m using a PreSonus AudioBox 1818 with Ableton Live. Basically what I’ve done is set Phonec’s output to a spare stereo channel, 3/4. I then routed that output into the tape deck. The output of the tape deck is being routed back into Ableton through a spare stereo input. For this I’m using inputs 7/8. To hear the output signal, I’ve set up an audio track and assigned the input to channels 7/8. You can see how to set this up with Ableton in the image below.
So now when I play Phonec, I should hear the signal passing through the tape deck. But we’re not done yet. Most tape decks will only allow play-through while recording. To bypass this I’ve simply pressed Pause on the tape deck (with a tape inserted of course), then pressed record. Viola, now the signal passes through in real time!
If the signal sounds weak or boring, try turning up the input gain. This will drive the signal into a nice warm distortion.
You can, of course, take this even further by actually recording the signal to tape, then recording it back into Ableton. It’s an extra couple steps, but all that effort pays off.
Try this with various other devices. I’ve used a Tascam 4-track, a VCR, and even a broken tape recorder (tapes won’t play, but the preamp still works!). Go hit up some thrift shops and see what you can find. The results can be very inspiring. Have fun!