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Looking to add grit, warmth or character to your otherwise sterile mixes?
Check out these 5 tape emulation plugins/VSTs
In Search Of Warmth
Much fuss has been made over the need for analogue emulation plugins. It goes something like this: digital audio is too precise and lacks a certain charm, character and…wait for it…warmth! The truth is that digital audio isn’t inherently cold or boring and there are plenty of ways to create movement and warmth entirely in the box.
As you know, magnetic tape was the default recording medium for decades. Although popularity dipped as digital tech took hold, it never fully went away and even experienced a strong resurgence in the last decade or so. Much like with tubes, the sonic characteristics are highly celebrated as ‘warm’ and ‘musical’.
Why Does Tape Sound SO Good?
Obviously this is subjective, but there are a few possible reasons for this. One simple answer is that imprecisions are natural. How many things in our environment can be considered truly perfect? Another answer lies in the tonal characteristics – subtle harmonic enhancements add just that extra bit of colour, and we often exaggerate this effect by overdriving the input for even richer results. Tape saturation is one of the most cherished forms of distortion with few detractors.
While some may find the idea of digital emulations to be paradoxical, the fact of the matter is plugin manufacturers have put a hell of a lot of effort into studying the various idiosyncrasies of magnetic audiotape and tape machines in general. Simply put, if audio from an actual tape can be captured digitally with all these characteristics intact, then we know representing analogue signals with digital technology isn’t so far fetched. In this round-up, we look at 5 top quality tape simulation plugins that are guaranteed to bring the warmth.
Inside are emulations of three different machines, each with their own tone-shaping characteristics.
Positioned front-and-centre is the ‘Amount’ control, which is where the saturation happens. Below this is an amusing inscription: “WARNING: HIGH AMOUNT CAN LEAD TO DESIRED DISTORTION”. Softube is clearly not shy about Tape being a saturation machine.
If this were a ‘shoot out’ to crown the meanest tape sim in the west, Tape would be the clear winner despite tough competition.
The sound is instantly impressive, it coaxes so much character out of your sounds. It seems contradictory that the results can have so much clarity and detail even with the boldest levels of saturation.
At first glance, it looks like there are just three controls, but if you click on the right side you open up a ‘remote control’ which gives you further options including a ‘stability’ knob for Boards of Canada style wow and flutter. This is a pleasant surprise but easy to miss, a good reminder to always read the manual even for your plugins! To top things off, there’s a ‘Stop’ button for – you guessed it – classic tape stop effects which can be automated.
Developed alongside veteran recording engineer Eddie Kramer, this plugin is modelled on a rare tape machine that was used in London’s Olympic Sound Studios which has been graced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and a small cult band called The Beatles.
Kramer Master Tape does a fantastic job of glueing everything together with a light magnetic sheen. Like all good ‘subtle’ effects it is not necessarily noticeable until you turn it off, and then things sound just a little boring without it. But subtlety isn’t its defining trait, there are also a number of ways to get crunchy tape distortion. You can do this the traditional way by turning up the input gain, or you can reach for the ‘Flux’ knob which will make things real dirty real quick. There’s also a handy slapback delay effect for retro vocal takes. Kramer Master Tape is – unsurprisingly – designed for mastering, and this is probably just as well considering it is heavier on the cpu than other options.
3. BeatSkillz REELight
REELight – which presumably rhymes with delight – is a tasty offering from BeatSkillz with ‘reel’ character (please punch me for that one). REELight seems to be designed for hot, overdriven tones with a lofi feel rather than for subtlety, though it can be dialled back when needed. The mix control (which is annoyingly obscured) defaults to 50% wet, seemingly to encourage parallel distortion. The ‘Noise’ control is also engaged by default and it’s worth noting that the plugin outputs a steady hiss as a result. There’s nothing really wrong with this, but I can see how using it across multiple tracks without accounting for it could prove problematic.
The tone is thankfully very warm. It sounds great on vocals, synth pads and drums. The ‘Low Boost’ control is handy for basslines and 808 kicks but if you’re not after bass tones you can engage a ‘Low Cut’ switch, removing rumble and other subharmonic noise. Unlike the other plugins tested here, the high frequencies weren’t attenuated as expected even with the ‘Air’ control set to zero. While there are certainly a number of controls for shaping the tone, they are best viewed as subtle tweaks on the main sound, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Sonic cohesiveness is handy in this context – it means you know how the plugin will shape the sound and when to reach for it.
4. Analoger by Plug and Mix
Analoger is a comparatively more refined plugin, and the only one in this round-up that isn’t modelled on a real machine (it even lacks the tape animations that are a hallmark of this category). This offering from Plug and Mix is a ‘one-knob’ saturation effect but with two simple tone controls. There are also three distortion modes – ‘tube’, ‘tape’ and ‘mixed’ which combines the two. Also unlike the other plugins here, Analoger is designed solely for distortion and even subtle applications will still produce harmonics.
Despite not leaning into the ‘tape machine’ aesthetic as heavily as other VSTs, testing proved the distortion sound was indeed tape-like, meaning this wasn’t just a label slapped onto Analoger as an afterthought. It’s light on CPU resources and doesn’t fuss around with endless tone-shaping controls, making it easy to reach for when you just need some grit without getting tripped up over the specifics.
5. Tape Cassette 2 by Caelum Audio
This one is hot off the presses and free to boot. Tape Cassette 2 is a pocket-rocket VST effect that isn’t modelled on anything too fancy – just the humble consumer-grade cassette deck. This makes it more explicitly lofi than the other options explored in this article, so if you’re after something to give your sounds a studio polish you won’t find it here. The controls are simple and effective, you get saturation, a filter, noise, wow, flutter and an ‘IR’ switch, which presumably engages an impulse response recording of a cassette tape.
Versatility can be found in the ‘wow’ and ‘flutter’ controls though this is ultimately a glorified vibrato – real tape wow and flutter is much more chaotic. In terms of pure tone colour, it’s a one-trick pony but this is indeed the point. There is an advantage to knowing exactly what you will get from a plugin and any shortcomings are rendered trivial for two key reasons. The first is obvious – it’s free, so who cares where it falls short if it’s ultimately quite useful. The second is that it really does sound like a cassette deck and that’s pretty much all that matters here. There are many emulations of studio reel-to-reel machines, but relatively few plugins that seek to recreate the sound of cassettes. For this reason alone, Tape Cassette 2 is definitely worth a look.
Plugin Audio Demos
All sounds play dry first. You’ll then hear processing from each tape emulation plugin, in the following order:
For this example, the distortion is dialled back and a synth chord is used to demonstrate the Wow and Flutter capabilities of Kramer Tape, Softube Tape and Tape Cassette 2.
Tape emulations are surprisingly versatile. Consider how many different tape machines have come and gone throughout the years, each with their own idiosyncrasies and tone-shaping characteristics. Now think about the things you can do in your DAW that would be virtually impossible on a physical machine, such as tempo-synced tape stops and levels of overdrive that could damage equipment.
Anyone who looks down on tape sims as ‘inauthentic’ is simply missing out. As the old saying goes ‘the proof is in the pudding’ – if you aren’t impressed by any of the plugins in this roundup then your name better be Steve Albini.