Danny Echevarria - October 11 2020

Great Tape Emulations from Retro to Sci-Fi

FFor all of the convenience and flexibility of digital recording, there remains a solid contingent of die-hard fans of tape. Few of them will claim to enjoy the aspects of tape recording that make it an inherently slower process, but the sonic qualities that tape imparts are enough to justify endless rewinds, or edits that involve a razorblade.

Fortunately for those of us who don’t have the patience for working with actual tape, there are a ton of great tape emulations out there that let us capture some of that undeniable vibe that comes from driving those VU meters into the red. This list is far from a complete account of the options that are available, but here are a few of my favorite tape emulations, and the applications where I like them the most:

1 Waves Kramer Master Tape

Waves’ mastering tape machine emulation is modeled after a machine in Olympic Studios in London that reputedly captured The Beatles, The Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. Though providing warmth and glue across a 2-buss or in a mastering session is its stated purpose (and it excels!), Kramer Master Tape comes with enough features to make it work for plenty of applications. Wow and flutter, along with dialable tape noise can add authenticity, tape delay provides a readily accessible vintage slapback, and flux and bias allow you to add some heat to your tracks.
A major perk of the Kramer Tape plugin is that the controls for all those features are pretty idiot-proof. This plugin allows the user to dial in some killer tones - from subtle to overt - with a couple minutes of knob fiddling.

Mix Tips:

If you’re looking for lift, glue, and polish across your 2-buss, Kramer Master Tape is a great option that will deliver what it promises with pretty minimal fuss. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try adding some wow and flutter in combination with delay for some wobbly, retro-far-out tones. This plugin is also great for simple saturation, as an insert on a track with the input cranked - and be sure to play with that flux control for best results.

2 UAD Studer A800

Based on a 2” 24-track machine introduced in 1978, modeled after one in LA’s legendary Ocean Way, UAD’s Studer A800 emulation captures a sound that graced numerous classic recordings through the 80s, 90s, and beyond.

The A800 has a slightly steeper learning curve than Waves’ Kramer, with controls for numerous features that can initially seem subtle, but have tremendous potential to transform source material. Users can pick from four different types of tape at three different speeds, and dial in bias and tape hiss. The UI also includes controls for EQ at various stages of the machine’s signal path.
All that can be a lot to juggle for the uninitiated, but fortunately this plugin comes loaded with some great presets. UAD’s A800 can really do it all - from hi-fi tone shaping to grungey audio torture - though it really shines in its more subtle applications.

Mix Tips:

I love using this plugin as a drum buss “finisher” - just slap it on towards the end of the plugin chain for some crispy, well-defined highs and thundering, powerful low end. It’s also a great choice when a mix needs to reflect the tone and style of a distinct period or genre. Find a preset that suits the style in question - new wave, hip hop, classic rock, vintage, the list goes on - and tweak to your satisfaction for some instant time-hopping mojo.

3 Fuse TCS-68

This gem by Fuse Audio Labs is a tape emulation that I’ve really fallen in love with, based on the Tascam 688 cassette 8-track recorder. Though there are probably more than a few of you who recorded on these machines before computer recording was commonplace who might roll your eyes at the idea of paying for a plugin to make a DAW sound like a cassette 8-track, I was ecstatic when I learned this plugin existed. The TCS-68 lovingly recreates the sound of the Tascam machine that inspired it in all its brittle, fizzy, gluey glory.

Given the fact that many users were happy to escape the sound of machines like this Tascam, it might be easy for some to dismiss this plugin as something of a novelty or a one-trick-pony. Maybe there’s something to that criticism, but I don’t see too many ponies doing this trick, and the TCS-68 does it incredibly well. With real units going for $500 and up, this $59 plugin is a welcome addition to the tool kits of those of us looking for lo-fi character without the price tag or technical issues that come with the cultishly sought-after vintage piece of hardware.

Mix Tips:

Try cranking the trim, and compensating on the fader, for some instantly recognizable golden-era indie tones, straight from the bedrooms of the 80s and 90s. Even if your aim isn’t an entire mix with that sound, the TCS-68 can be a great tool to radically transform a sound for a drop, or some added dynamism in a song. I also really enjoy the way this sort of tape machine reproduces high end, brittle as it is. Try using the EQ controls to thin the track out, and then spice to taste with some extra gain on the trim knob.

4 Wavesfactory Cassette

This plugin sits somewhere between UAD’s Studer A800 Eulation and TCS-68, applying the nuanced controls of the former with the quirky cassette medium of the latter. Like the UAD Studer, Cassette includes emulations of four different tape formulas, though it also adds three options for different tape machines, ranging from a multitrack deck to a portable handheld recorder.

The main appeal of Cassette is that it captures just about every quirk of cassette recording: wow and flutter (with tweakable rate), erasures and tape degradation, tape head angle (azimuth), crosstalk, and a “re-cassette” option that emulates stacking multiple instances of the plugin. All those features make it a bit of a bear on DSP use, but a deep dive into the (somewhat hidden) settings menu reveals why.

The variety of machines and tape types available means that Cassette is more than capable of hi-fi polish and glue you’d expect from higher end machines. However, where it really shines is in producing supremely tweakable tape effects, honoring the quirks of our favorite pawn shop pieces, but adding a level of control that the hardware could never offer.

Mix Tips:

With some of the crisper tape options, you could absolutely use Cassette for “polish” purposes like gluing together a drum bus. A more interesting application, though, might be to use the wow to add wobble to a pad, or to increase the erasures to transport a track through time with the sound of degraded tape.

5 Fabfilter Saturn 2

Fabfilter’s Saturn 2 is not strictly a tape machine emulation in the same sense the rest of the plugins on this list are. Rather, it’s a multiband saturation plugin that features emulations of tape saturation that come in a few different flavors. It earns a place on this list for bringing some of the most desirable elements of the sound of tape - like saturation and dynamics sculpting - into the 21st century, with unique controls and features that warrant a very deep dive.

Saturn 2 is not the easiest plugin to master, but controls are relatively intuitive for how complex its functions are. The tape options range from warm glue to complete sonic destruction, and the saturation can be dialed separately for multiple frequency bands, and tweaked endlessly from there.

Mix Tips:

One of my favorite features of Saturn is its mid/side functionality. Try using it to widen stereo tracks: spread out an airy pad or choir vocal by driving the high end and panning that band to the sides. Its mid/side features also make it an excellent choice across the entire mix buss, centering low end saturation while giving sparkle and width to higher frequencies.

Though this list doesn’t even include all of my go-to tape emulations, it’s something of a snapshot of the variety of tape plugins that are available. Whether you’re somebody who drools over vintage analog gear and the tones of classic records, or are a space explorer in search of ways to destroy sonic boundaries, these tape plugins are worth a look.

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