The choice of analogue tape plug-ins available has grown enormously over the last decade. The digital audio revolution in which the DAW became the centrepiece of most studios was the main contributing factors in the growth and rising popularity of virtual tape in today’s modern music production culture. DAWs were the new standard environment for recording, editing and mixing audio compared to how we used to produce in the analogue days, but something important was missing from the overall experience of digital audio, something we didn’t know we would miss it until it was gone.
Engineers used to believe that they wanted ultra clean sound and physical tape wasn’t perfect. The evolution of recorded audio provided this with the advent of digital audio but it was the non-linear, saturated sound and tonal characteristics of analogue that many missed as digital audio proliferated. For those people there was a need to put back the tape sound in their workflow and to meet that demand many of the top plug-in developers responded by developing their own tape emulations. The majority of tape emulations today are either based on a range of real (pun intended) tape formulations and tape machines, others are non-specific effects that reproduce the unmistakable sound of analog tape.
In this article we feature a selection of the most popular tape emulation plug-ins you can buy today to mix and master with. We also talk about tape in the analogue days to help those who have not had the opportunity to experience reel to reel recording, understand the history behind it and to learn how the sound of analogue tape has evolved in modern plug-in emulations.
But before we look at the tape emulation plug-ins, what was it like working with tape and where the undo button was a reel of sticky tape?
How Were Analogue Tape And Tape Machines Used? Mike Reminisces
Back in the day, when I started in the mid 1970s analogue tape was the only recording medium we had at our disposal and my experience was largely working with stereo 1/4” tape, so no multi-track, everything mixed on the fly to 1/4” tape using Ferrograph Series 5 and then Series 7 tape machines.
Production work during the 1980s, as a radio station engineer was a process of having a number of tape machines around me and then playing in clips, music etc from different machines and mixing on the fly, until I made a mistake. The stopping rolling back a bit, having another go and then using a razor blade and editing out all the mistakes on the master tape. With complex multi-layered programmes I could be handling a couple of 1/4” machines, a number of NAB cart players as well as music off vinyl. So making a mistake could only be ‘undone’ with a razor blade and splicing tape.
Once we setup a proper outside broadcast truck, we had 2 brand new Studer B67 recorders for anything going straight to stereo including classical concerts and then a secondhand Studio A80 16 track which transpired to have been Apple Studios first 16 track recorder. At last I could record bands on multitrack and then mix the sessions or live concerts later.
Working With Analog Tape - How This Differs From Modern Plug-in Interpretations - Mike Recalls The ‘Old Days’
As a radio station maintenance engineer through the 1980s a significant proportion of my job was lining up Studer B67 and Leevers-Rich Proline 2000 tape machines to try and reduce the non-linearity of the analogue tape process, so for me the idea of putting the non-linearity back in is an anathema. When it came to noise, the signal to noise of tape, especially in the linear range was around 50dB on a good day. We tended to use a reference level of 520 Nanoweber per meter (nWb/m) with Ampex 406 for day to day work and Ampex 456 for ‘special work’, which meant we weren’t really getting into the tape saturation zone as we wanted to keep the harmonic distortion as low as possible whilst still having a signal to noise ratio of around 50dB. As long as we could achieve this we were still better than the typical signal to noise ratio of FM radio which was around 45dB on a good day with a strong signal, On the edges of the transmission area we were lucky to get 40dB signal to noise ratio off air. All of this meant that we didn’t use any noise reduction systems, like Dolby A or Dolby SR.
Part of the lining up a tape machine meant adjusting the bias. From memory we would go for 4dB or ‘overbias’ at 10kHz. What these means is that recording a test tone at 10kHz, you would turn up the bias level until the playback level of the 10kHz peaked and then continue to increase the bias level until the 10k level dropped by 4dB. That would give the best linear playback. We chose 520 nWb/m as the best trade off of linearity and signal to noise ratio.
Wow and flutter was all about aligning the mechanics, servos and brakes. Wow is the slow change in pitch due to the tape speed varying, usually for mechanical reasons. Flutter was still the variation of tape speed, but with a much faster rate of variation, usually down to the tape catching or the pinch roller wearing out or having something stuck to it, or an issue with a bearing, but all are mechanical-related issues, so you also needed to be a good mechanical engineer as well as a good electronics engineer to keep tape machines in good order.
All of these factors contribute to the tape sound and in my experience were ones, both mechanical and electronic that you worked hard to minimise, but now those limitations like signal to noise ratio, wow & flutter and non linearity or saturation are things that can be put back into the clean digital sound we have with DAWs now.
We talk about the sound of tape, we’re often talking about emulations, the choice is linear recording on real tape or using a DAW. If you want real tape sound in Pro Tools there was a way to have your tape and your DAW. Unfortunately no longer in business the CLASP system from Endless Analog was very much an expensive way of doing things but if you have a suitable tape machine and you have Pro Tools, or Nuendo/Cubase, you can use tape via your DAW. It’s not a cheap way to do it but it is definitely the sound of real tape in your DAW. If you have a Studer lying around gathering dust maybe you’ll be able find one of these systems.
What Are Typical Tape Emulation Plug-ins Applications?
One of the major advantages of using tape emulations in the digital domain compared to recording and playing back on real analog tape is choice, choosing when and where you want to apply the sound of tape anywhere in a signal path. Below are four typical tape emulation plug-in applications:
Single instance on a track: Tape plug-ins don’t always need to be thrown across every channel in a mix, though purists will argue that point. Often a single instance of tape on a key track in a mix will be enough to give the impression of tape. A cool trick is to throw a tape plug-in on lead vocal and drive the input enough to get a nice crispness out of the performance. Many tape emulations also feature some kind of built-in slap back delay effect which is a great way to inject instant retro vibe.
Inserted across every channel in a mix: This way of working may test your computer’s performance depending on how thirsty you tape emulation plug-in of choice is. This method is thought by many mixers to be the most authentic way of getting the full tape sound in-the-box as it can recreate multi-track tape on individual channels in addition to 2 track tape on master 2bus channels.
Sub mixes: Tape plug-ins work very well on sub mixes and 2-bus channels (master tracks). Feeding an entire mix or sub mix through a tape emulation will present your mix in a whole different light. Be sure to experiment with input trim, bias, tape speed and noise controls in order to get the analog effect you hear in your head.
Mastering: If you find your mix sounds too polite or clean then why not try mastering with a tape emulation plug-in? It’s good practise to insert a tape emulation early in a plug-in chain as this will help to minimise the amount of signal hitting the tape. Set the tape speed to a fast setting as this will generally achieve clean sounding results. Also take the time on setting the input trim to avoid your mix sounding too crunchy and saturated. The trick to mastering with tape plug-ins is to present a gentle impression of warmth and tone, not an all out distortion-fest of grit.
Below are two free video tutorials that demonstrate a couple of cool ways of using a tape emulation plug-in in a mix.
Typical Tape Emulation Plug-in Controls You Need To Know
Listed below are common controls you will find in most tape emulations along with brief descriptions of what each control does to help you learn how to dial in the perfect sense of analog vibe in your mixes:
Input and output trims: Input determines the level at which the signal hits the “virtual” tape. Higher input levels increases the amount of audible saturation, harmonic distortion and compression being applied to the sound. Most tape plug-ins offer the ability to link input and output trim controls together which enables users to increase the input level (which increases the amount of saturation) while the UI automatically decreases the output and vice versa.
Meters: The vast majority of tape emulations will display input or output levels, typically on a VU style meter. These will give you a sense of how hard you are driving the input signal to virtual tape.
Wow and flutter: In the analogue days wow and flutter were considered to be unwanted audible side effects caused by tape machine motors as well as tape passing over play heads. Wow refers to the sound of pitch modulation caused by the tape machine motors. Engineers would work hard at minimising this effect but in the digital world this proved to be one of many subtle effects of analogue tape that people missed. Tape vibrating and stretching as it passes over one of the tape machine’s head would cause the effect of flutter. Wow, flutter and depth controls are fairly standard in tape emulation plug-ins, these together enable users to dial in subtle amounts of modulation effects through to extreme wobbly results.
Bias: The term bias refers to an ultrasonic tone that would be applied to improve the quality of recordings to tape. This tone was inaudible and helped to push low signals out of the nonlinear response of tape into the linear zone of tape’s transfer function.
Tape Speed: ips (inches per second) is the speed at which the tape moves across the tape machine heads. Different tape speeds produce different tonal results. Slower speeds around 7.5 ips are great for producing creative warm and crunchy tones that sound more punchy in the low end whereas faster ips speeds around 15 to 30 ips are great at delivering cleaner sounding results, great for mastering applications.
Tape formulas and machines: Many tape emulation plug-ins provide more than one type of tape and machine which all have their own unique characteristics and behave differently depending on what is feed into them as well as the input level, tape speed and bias settings.
Noise: Hiss was a big part of recording to tape considered by many of being a bit of a disadvantage. Noise controls in tape emulation plug-ins enable users to dial in the perfect amount (level) of noise or remove it altogether which couldn’t be achieved on real tape machines. Noise controls offer the best of both worlds, if you are after an authentic analogue sound then dialling in some low level hiss is one way of achieving that old school noise. If you want only the main tape effects of saturation and wow modulation then dial out the noise altogether.
Mix: Mix blend controls are a common feature in most styles of plug-ins these days. Use mix dry/wet controls to parallel process your tape vibe in with the original clean signal if you feel your tape effects are too hot in your mixes. If you have dialled in a noticeable amount of wow and flutter you will hear the effects of tape flanging if you dial the mix control towards the dry value.
Bypass: Use bypass controls to compare the effects of tape emulation against the original unprocessed track.
What Are The Best Tape Emulation Plug-ins To Mix And Master With?
Producers and mix engineers who work in the digital domain have so much choice these days when it comes to choosing a tape plug-in, how on earth do they find the best one?
If you are currently in the market for a new tape plug-in for mixing and mastering then hopefully this list of of plug-ins will help you to find the best one for your needs. This list is by no means complete, at Production Expert we feel that these tape emulations represent the very best in terms of technology, sound and price of what is available to buy today.
Acustica Audio Taupe Analog Tape Emulation Plug-in
Taupe is a fully loaded beast of a tape plug-in. It includes 21 analog and digital tape machines which is pretty comprehensive to say the least. Acustica Audio claim that this isn’t just another regular run of the mill analog tape emulation plug-in as they say it goes above and beyond what you expect from these styles plug-ins.
Giancarlo Del Sordo, CEO of Acustica Audio says:
With this plug-in we have spared no expense, we spent sleepless nights striving for the best results and travelled thousands of miles to get our hands on the most beautiful devices on the planet.
Taupe features a cool magic dial, different from regular dry/wet mix blend controls that you find in other plug-ins of this type. Magic enables users to mix in the desired amount of tape colouration ranging from zero preamp input signal through to 100% tape signal which blends the tonal characteristics of the machine's circuitry with or without the tape component. This magic ability is something you don’t find in other tape plug-ins. Acustica say that with Taupe you are not just mixing in the box, you are in fact mixing beyond the box which is a cool philosophy.
Visit Acustica Audio for more information on Taupe.
AudioThing’s Reels is claimed to produce a Lo-Fi analogue sound. This was based on a vintage Japanese reel to reel that has some interesting characteristics such as during playback or recording the noise from the motor bleeds in with the tape hiss. The effects of this limits the actual bandwidth on the tape which gives the plug-in’s characteristic unique, crunchy sound.
Like other tape emulations, Reels boasts the common control set you expect to find including tape speed, tape type, noise level controls, a delay effects engine and a set of buttons to produce the trendy tape stop effect
Visit AudioThing for more information about Reels.
Avid Reel Tape Saturation
Avid’s Reel Tape Saturation plug-in has been around for well over a decade but it is still well worth checking out especially if you are a Pro Tools HDX user as these are AAX DSP. Reel Tape Saturation comes part of a trio of tape inspired plug-ins by Avid:
Reel Tape Saturation
Reel Tape Delay
Reel Tape Flanger
Reel Tape Saturation emulates the full tonal palette of analogue tape including colour, vibe, compression and saturation effects. This features the sound of a handful of tape machines including the 3M M79 and Studer A800 along with popular tape formulations such as Ampex 456. If you are a Pro Tools Ultimate user then you have instant access to these plug-ins as part of your subscription.
Visit Avid for more information about their tape plug-ins.
Blue Cat Audio Destructor
Destructor is a distortion and guitar amp simulation plug-in. It’s so powerful that it is also capable of producing some fine tape like effects. Destructor is a one-stop-shop for everything distortion related from producing subtle colours of saturation through to all out overdrive. Though Destructor doesn’t shout about its tape emulation credentials, there are some very cool sounding tape presets ready to use out of the box for you to start playing with.
Visit Blue Cat Audio for more information about Destructor.
Crane Song Phoenix II
From the hands and heart of Dave Hill, perhaps one of the smartest and nicest men in the audio industry, Crane Song Phoenix II picks-up from the original Pro Tools TDM version. It offers 5 flavours of tape emulation and does not try to look like a tape machine with its UI, instead the design concentrates on easy to use controls allowing the user to tweak the level dependant processing. Supports AAX Native, AAX DSP, TDM, RTAS, AudioSuite
Visit Crane Song for more information about Phoenix II.
FabFilter’s Saturn is another of those one-stop-shop, all-in-one distortion and saturation plug-ins. It can be set to process in 16 different saturation styles including clean tube, warm tape, screaming amps and more. The UI is based around an interactive multi-band display which makes it incredibly easy to adjust the tone of the tape saturation. The display contrast also changes depending on the temperature or intensity of the saturation applied which is a nice touch. An extended modulation section is useful for digging deeper into the presentation of the saturation, though it must be said the main UI controls are pretty extensive. Like other FabFilter plug-ins, Saturn is a doddle to use and is easy to fall in love with. Instant gratification plug-ins don’t come any better than this.
Watch: Review Of FabFilter Saturn
Visit FabFilter for more information about Saturn.
Goodhertz Wow Control
Most plug-in developers appear to focus their tape emulation efforts on saturation. Goodhertz Wow Control comes at tape emulation from a slightly different approach focusing more on the modulation effects of analog tape, though it of course has saturation controls as well. Goodhertz produced a very informative and somewhat entertaining video that we recommend you watch below that demonstrates the power and capabilities of Wow Control.
Visit Goodhertz for more information about Wow Control.
iZotope Vintage Tape In Ozone
Ozone is one of iZotope’s flagship suites that stands proud alongside RX for audio restoration and Neutron for mixing. Ozone is designed specifically for the application of mastering and it does a very good job indeed. Ozone has grown into quite the powerhouse for mastering over the years with a raft of forward thinking technologies being included such as the smart machine learning Master Assistant. Some old school thinking has also been implemented in recent versions including the Vintage Tape module that is only available as a stand-alone plug-in or module in the top tier Ozone Advanced.
Price: Ozone Advanced $499
Visit iZotope for more information about Vintage Tape.
IK Multimedia T-RackS Tape Machine Collection
IK Multimedia has enjoyed a long and successful history emulating popular analogue studio gear. From EQs to compressors, limiters to effects, IK has covered them all except tape, which up until recently was missing from their portfolio of studio processors. IK’s Tape Machine Collection is the latest addition to IK’s powerful T-RackS plug-in suite. It features four analogue tape machines along with four different tape formulations that IK claim “re-creates the complex interplay of machine, tape and audio to capture even the smallest detail of each machine.”
Four modelled tape machines:
Studer A80 Mk II
Revox PR99 Mk II
Visit IK Multimedia for more information about T-RackS Tape Machine Collection
Nomad Factory MAGNETIC II
MAGNETIC II boasts all the functions you need in a tape emulation presented in a simple UI. Tape speed, tape/tube saturation, tape colour effects, dedicated vintage style EQ, built-in boost mastering section, MAGNETIC II has it all. The results are classic sounding, warm and creamy with plenty of edge.
Visit Nomad Factory for more information about Magnetic II.
TAPEDESK emulates the entire signal paths of three analogue consoles, the S4000, N80 and the T88 consoles. Besides providing the ability to dial in any style of analogue vibe you could possibly want the UI has a nifty little feature called Scribble Strips that enable user to make notes anywhere on the plug-in panel.
Visit Overloud for more information about TAPEDESK.
Slate Digital VTM
Slates VTM models a 2 inch 16 track from NRG Recording and a ½ inch 2 track machine from Howie Weinberg mastering studio. Out of all the tape plug-ins we’ve featured in this list VTM is by far the most subtle sounding. If you are looking for an edgy tape sound that’s distinctive and crunchy sounding then this may not be the plug-in for you as the effects are a bit soft, though if you are after a gentle sounding saturation then this should be considered.
Visit Slate Digital for more information about VTM.
Back in 2017 Softube, the kings of analogue modelling, finally released their own take on the tape plug-in genre. Tape couldn't be easier to use, it features a selection of essential controls such as dry/wet which is great for achieving tape flanging effects and a high freq control which is great shaping the top end of a track or full mix. Tape features three types of tape machine that are quite different in terms of tone from each other. We like type B as we think it sounds the most rounded and punchy of the three. Tape also features a cool tape stop effect which is a great creative addition to the experience. This can be used as a nice production feature... if used tastefully.
Watch: Review Of Softube Tape from Logic Pro Expert
Watch: Review Of Softube Tape from Pro Tools Expert
Visit Softube for more information about their Tape plug-in.
Toontrack EZmix 2
Toontrack EZmix 2 is a preset based mixing and mastering plug-in. Tweakability is limited though the sheer amount of effects and dynamic processors on offer here is simply staggering. There are many focused mixing packs available for EZmix that can be purchased from the Toontrack website, one of which is the mastering pack that includes a preset called Master Tape Simulation. EZmix only provides two controls per preset which you would be forgiven for thinking is limited, but it isn’t. Fewer controls in a plug-in can be quite liberating. The two controls in this particular tape preset are Tape Drive and Tape Speed which are both self explanatory. The effects are predictably tape-esque and are very useable and satisfying to use on a full mix.
Price: EZmix 2 $179, EZmix Mastering EZmix Pack $49
Visit Toontrack for more information about EZmix 2.
UAD Ampex ATR-102 And UAD Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder Plug-Ins
With meticulous attention to detail in both sound and graphics the UAD models are loved by many. The one and only drawback to these tape plug-ins and indeed all UAD plug-ins is that you need to own UAD hardware in order to use them, but in our view a UAD card or interface is money well spent.
Price: UAD 2 Magnetic Tape Bundle $599
Visit Universal Audio for more information about UAD powered tape plug-ins.
U-He Satin Tape Simulation Plug-in
Satin offers not just tape emulation but some nice added extras such as tape delay and flanger effects. There’s also the possibility to both encode and decode old tapes with noise reduction models. Satin is a deep plug-in that can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Through it across every channel in your mix or just on the master and sit back enjoy the amazing analogue vibes of Satin.
Visit U-He for more information about Satin Tape Simulation Plug-in
Waves Kramer Master Tape
Kramer Master Tape models a rare vintage 1/4" reel-to-reel machine and features all the controls you expect in a virtual tape machine including adjustable tape speed, bias, flux, wow & flutter and noise. There’s also a cool sounding slap & feedback delay unit which suits lead vocal mixing very well. For recording, mixing and mastering Kramer Tape maybe all the tape tool you need as it offers all the fatness, richness, saturation and warmth of real reels.
Visit Waves for more information about Waves Kramer Master Tape Plug-in.
Waves Abbey Road Studio J37 Tape Saturation Plug-in
Think of Waves Abbey Road Studio J37 tape saturation plug-in as Kramer Tape on steroids. The J37 features similar controls to Kramer Tape but boasts a deeper control set including three tape formulas, a more comprehensive delay section and wow & flutter controls. If you currently use Kramer Tape then Waves J37 is the natural tape plug-in upgrade you should consider if you require a tape plug-in that can deliver more tonal variations in your mixes.
Watch: Review Of Waves J37 Plug-in
Visit Waves for more information about Abbey Road’s J37 Tape Saturator Plug-in.
Aberrant DSP SketchCassette
With an interface that looks like it’s been drawn on the back of a napkin and a range of old-school recording stylings, Aberrant DSP’s SketchCassette plugin pushes our nostalgia buttons.
It’s designed to add a range of lo-fi cassette tape effects to your mixes: you can adjust the hiss and saturation levels and depth and intensity of the dropouts. There are Wow and Flutter controls, too and you can choose the type of tape you’re “recording” with.
Price - $20
Each of plug-in prices listed in this article are stated on developer websites as of June 2019. These prices may change overtime, or better still, be less depending on future promotions and deals in the future.
What Tape Emulation Plug-in Do You Use?
Are tape emulations a regular or permanent fixture in your mixes? If so, which of these popular tape plug-ins do you use and why? Let us know how use tape emulations in your productions in the comments below. Do you insert tape on every channel or do you use it sparingly on a few key channels? We’d love to know!