I just heard a great quote from Bruce Swedien, something he heard from one of his mentors long ago. "Don't listen to your equipment, listen through your equipment." Just let that wash over you for a couple seconds before you go on.
That statement immediately hit home with me because that's exactly how I've been doing things for as long as I can remember. When I put up a channel and start listening to the sound, be it live or in the studio, I'm sort of picturing my ear out near the source and comparing what the mic is hearing to what I know the source sounds like. The practice assumes that you've had a chance to hear the source yourself but after a while you can kind of fake it, especially if you know your gear.
The key to getting great sound isn't truckloads of expensive gear. It's the ears of the person using it, and what's in between those ears processing the experience. I'm able to make eyebrows go up with some of the stuff I do because people expect high buck gear to be the cause. More often than not it's some hundred dollar mic that I know like an old friend.
It also has to do with a lot more than just the mic and it's placement. Everything between that mic and the final product has an effect on the sound. The cable, channel trim, EQ, fader position, dynamic processing. I remember one time in a studio in college one of the studio guys (I was the one "live" guy in the program, faking my way through) was looking at the meters on my kick and snare channels from a live recording I had done. He couldn't believe the isolation I had gotten and was pressing me for my tricks. My answer was simple, I know my gear and I know where to put the gain to it.
Taking that thought process a little deeper there's so much depth to analog gear but it can also be somewhat of a trap. Many engineers have favorite channels on old analog desks. There were definite practices about what you put on each track of a tape, depending on how close to the edge it was. Room temperature could effect things. Manufacturing processes of mics weren't as tight. One might sound amazing while the vast majority of the same model were only so-so.
You might think that in the age of the plug in a lot of that magic is going away, but I can tell you that the reliability and repeatability that the digital age brings is a huge benefit. Every time you pull up a plug it's going to sound how you know it should sound and that you don't have to worry about tolerances in components, the unit overheating, corrosion on contacts. The magic can happen every time. There's also the ability to push plug ins to places that physical gear could never go, limitations that you never have to worry about.
With that said though you still have to know the stuff inside and out and you can read all you want but the only way to do that is to spend the time with it. You also have to make the decisions about how you use your resources. If you only have one Pultec you've got to think carefully about how you're going to use it. If you can plunk one down on every channel with a plug in, that's great but you still need to decide every time you do it like it's the only one you have. Is it worth it? Will it help? Should I just leave it alone?
It's a lot to think about. To the Brethren of the Knob and fader though it's what's running through our minds day and night. At least for me I know it is.