While there were a few manufacturers making professional tape machines in the so called Golden Age of analogue multitrack recording, the Swiss Studer A800 is one of those pieces which has attained legendary status. While Otari and others were extremely successful, making extremely well regarded machines, a studio having a Studer makes an impression on me that other makes simply do not.
Introduced in 1978, the A800 was the first microprocessor controlled professional tape machine and during its ten years of production it established itself as a preferred choice in music studios, particularly in the US. Although quite complex it has a reputation for reliability, apparently they don't like being moved but weighing in at over 400Kg I doubt many people moved them around unnecessarily!
For a tour of the meticulously modelled UAD version of this monster see the video below with Will Shanks from UAD demonstrating the A800 plug in in use.
Cumulative Effect Of Tape
I've been a longtime user of Slate's excellent VTM plug in and while I'm very happy with that, for good tape modelling to really work satisfyingly I think it's important to let the effect of the tape do its cumulative magic. Lots of people (myself included) have been left feeling disappointed by tape plug ins because when they are being used properly their effect is subtle. The best tape machines were very, very good and if properly set up and used with care they were supposed to be as close as inaudible as was technically possible at the time.
The temptation is to overdo the effect on one or two plug ins on submasters or the master buss and that isn't how a tape machine would typically be used. To get the full effect it is preferable to insert one plug in on each source track (or combination of related tracks, just like we did on real tape machines) and to let the, individually tiny, contributions of each tape emulation combine to produce the magic cohesion of a recording made to a tape machine.
Letting The DSP Take The Strain
Tape emulation is exactly the kind of thing I like to use the DSP available to me on my UAD system for. In the past I've found that balancing the load incurred by native plug ins and virtual instruments can lead me to make native tape plug ins inactive when my machine gets sluggish, after all, usually the effect of an individual plug in isn't a deal-breaker. However the point of tape emulation is to mix through it.
Offloading to DSP works for me. Even on a modest Apollo Twin Duo I can run 17 instances (lets make it 16 for the sake of emulation!) The UAD instance chart gives a maximum of 20 but the mixer always consumes some resources so this figure is more theoretical than real world. With an Octo card running 24 of these would leave plenty of DSP for all the other UAD plug ins without having to commit any processing.
Distortion And Compression
Many people have studied exactly what it is that magnetic tape does that we like so much. There are differences of opinion but clearly lots of people do like it and ignoring the people who romanticise tape noise (thankfully the tape noise can be switched off here) the main contributors to the sound are a series of peaks and dips in the bass response (head bump), the well known compression effect of driving tape so hard that it begins to run out of magnetic flux and distortion effects. Being the curious type I thought I'd take a quick look at the distortion effects introduced by tape modelling.
In the slideshow below I show the effect of the plug in on a 1kHz tone at 0VU. Autocal is off and I'm not showing the different tape formulations at peak performance. However I am showing the differences introduced by the different heads and the changes in tape formulation. I could have done far more but for the purposes of this article I decided to limit myself to a single set of parameters. It's a very interesting exercise though. Try it!