In recent times there seem to be a number of companies reproducing classic audio gear, but how do these units stack up to their ancestors in terms of sound and quality. The big question that often comes up when talking to a customer about this type of purchase is whether they should be spending the extra dollars for an original unit, even though it is often much more expensive than the reproduction.
For this Blog Post I’ll keep solely to hardware reproductions – Software repo could consume another full blog on its own. I’ll also do my best to refrain from mentioning the B word, because as you know not all reproductions are made equal. I will focus on what I believe to be “good”, if I may use that term "Reproduction".
There are certainly a few reasons to choose a reproduction Compressor, EQ or Microphone over the original unit, but I would have to say that cost is probably the biggest deciding factor. Other factors include availability and reliability. In reality, some reproductions cost as much as or more than the original, look at the ADL 670 Fairchild reproduction for instance - at $19000 US that's a lot of coin for a compressor.
You could argue that units made by the same manufacturer, spread over many years, could even be termed reproduction. Let’s take Universal Audio for example. UA as a company has been around since the 50’s when Bill Putnam started the business, however it was only re-founded as recent as 1999. UA themselves even claim that the current 1176 LN Classic Limiting Amplifier (pictured above) “is a Modern reproduction, remaining faithful to the original designs”. The original Black Face 1176LN REV C compressor will fetch high dollar prices now as many engineers claim this to be the best sounding variation. Each revision has a different sound and personality. Can I hear the difference between a Rev C 1176LN and the current modern UA 1176LN? - to be perfectly honest, no! I have heard and used both but not enough to really gauge the subtleties.
Do we know why vintage gear sounds different? I don’t really know for sure. It could be different transistors, different circuits - It could be that the old circuitry has mellowed over time. Much the same as why a vintage U87 sounds different to a modern Neumann U87. I hazard a guess that wear and tear on circuits over time can have a major contribution to this. People buy a U87 for its stunning high frequency detail and sound continuity, but does a vintage one sound “better” because it's a bit mellower? That's very subjective. I would say most people would say yes, but why not make it duller to begin with?
Vintage really does hold a lot of romance, and I totally understand this love of old technology, but what about these new companies reproducing old, or current units under their own name?
I often wonder how modern companies like Warm Audio,and Golden Age get away with copying well known audio devices from the past when some of the companies they copy are still in existence today. Maybe they pay a licensing fee, maybe they really aren’t exact copies but are just marketed as such.
Lets look at the Warm Audio WA76, a reproduction/copy of the classic 1176 compressor from Universal Audio. At $890 the WA76 was probably our biggest selling compressor in 2015 and continues to sell well now. So what makes this unit so desirable when compared to the UA 1176LN (which we still sell now for about $3699)? It’s pretty clear that cost is the determining factor here! A UA 1176LN is no less desirable, but in this case Warm Audio are trading off the 1176 legend and making it accessible to a broader range of people by dropping the price. So how can they make it at such a reasonable price?
When you look at these 2 units side by side, what strikes you is that even though the WA76 looks like a UA 1176, it just isn’t built as nicely. The UA just feels more solid, which suggests that you may get more longevity from the unit. The internal parts such as the VU meter are better quality, the knobs turn more sweetly, and the buttons do seem to kick-in with more certainty.
OK, so the build is better but what about the sound? To someone who doesn’t work with an 1176 all day every day like professional studio engineers, the WA 76 will sound and operate fairly similarly - but this doesn’t mean they will sound the same. On the contrary, a skilled studio engineer should be able to tell the difference between the original/repo without much difficulty - but we are talking about the last 10% here. So, when you consider that the repo holds about 90% of the “sound quality and functionality” of the original with a cost that can be up to 70% cheaper, you can see why the reproduction is such a popular option, and certainly applies for reproductions like Warm Audio's great Pultec EQ reproduction the EQP-WA.
However with all of the above in mind, when considering the sound quality/characteristics of classic hardware, it's that last 10% where the magic often happens, and this magic is what people some are willing to pay a premium for. That magic could come from a slightly different transformer, different power supply or even a slightly different circuit design.
So, is it really worth buying a copy over the original? In many cases, yes! Not everyone can afford the big dollars that Vintage and current original units fetch. It’s definitely nice owning an original piece of gear – it has longevity and tends to hold it’s value over many years (sometimes even increasing in value). But, if you can afford to have racks of LA2A’s, 1176’s, Pultec EQ’s and vintage U47’s - you might just find that magical 10% that you were looking for!
Analog Synths have also had a spike in reproductions recently with companies like Korg making really good reproductions of their iconic MS20 mono-synth and the ARP Odyssey. Both repos look and sound great, and given that it’s really hard to find original working models, it is a smart move by Korg. Moog Music has made a reproduction of their famed MiniMoog under the name Voyager. I totally get this - people love analog synths, yet parts are increasingly hard to find and repairs are expensive.
Roland offer up an interesting approach with the current reproductions of their classic Jupiter 8, Juno 106 and JX3P under the monikers JP-08, JU-06, JX-03 – Boutique range of synths. Roland has decided to make these synths in miniature and (GASP) Digital (not Analog) like their forefathers. Initially there were a mass of complaints in forums about this - people wanted analog! Yet, when the units finally hit market the skeptics were silenced – they sounded great, were reasonably priced, reliable and really fit well in the market. Sales have also been really high, so people are obviously starting to buy into the Roland legacy by getting themselves a digital reproduction that sounds so good that it doesn't matter if it's analog or not!
Reproduction is nothing new and will continue to be viable. It’s not exclusive to Audio gear either, just look at furniture reproduction! Sure this is more about style, but it does play with our subconscious much like audio gear. Do you want to buy a cheap $1000 Matt Blatt (classic piece of 50’s furniture design) knock off, or do you want the original design made and designed in the 50’s that is now worth $5000?
The same could be said if someone made a reproduction of a Ferrari. The list goes on, and it’s a question we have to ask ourselves as project studio boffins - can we live with that reproduction that will probably do most of what we need at a much lower price, or are we willing to pay a premium for that hidden magic underneath the hood. Whether it’s pro audio gear, mid century furniture or classic cars this is the decision you will need to make - hopefully this article will help you in that process!
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