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As audio engineers we live in a very exciting time. The capabilities and quality of the digital audio domain continue to expand and improve at unprecedented rates. High quality recordings are more affordable than ever to make. The commercial studio business is on the downfall, while home/project/mobile studio professionals and hobbyist are on the rise. Many audio professionals perceive this as a negative shift due to a flood of amateur quality audio content released across many social media and music distribution platforms. On the contrary, many see it as an opportunity by embracing the competition and starting their own business from the ground up, on a computer alone. These general trends in the audio business have been underway for quite some time now, but as of the last few years the digital audio tech companies have been releasing products that even veteran and old school engineers alike can be excited about. That is, digital emulation of classic analog masterpieces. Tape machines, compressors, EQs, preamps, and many other popular analog tools that were used to make your favorite records are now being released as plugins to be used within the DAW of your choice. The software is modeled to sound like and be controlled in the same manner as their original analog predecessors. In this article, we will be discussing the digital emulation of tape machines in particular. We will discuss a brief history of analog tape, characteristics of analog tape, common parameters of tape, and last, but not least, plugins that can get you started in no time(well, maybe some time)!
In addition to frequency shifts, analog tape introduces subtle dynamic compression to signals. In other words, if we take a signal that was recorded digitally and run it through an analog tape machine (or emulation of it) the transients of the audio waveform will be smoothed out and appear as less sharp than they were prior to tape. The harder we push the input signal into the tapes ceiling, the more prominent the compression becomes. Once a signal is pushed past the dynamic ceiling of the analog tape, the tape saturation point is reached. Saturation is the point of analog clipping/distortion. However, unlike digital clipping, this distortion is unique, pleasant, and often sought after.
Aside form frequency response, compression, and saturation, the sound and character of analog tape is achieves an irreplaceable character because of its elements of imperfection and nostalgia. Analog tape is an imperfect medium in many ways, but in general it is imperfect because it never plays back the same recording the very same way twice. We will discuss further in depth some of these imperfections and irregularities later on in the article, but overall tape machines are subject to amplitude, pitch, and harmonic phase irregularities.
Nostalgia is another essential reason why the sounds of analog tape machines (AND the emulation of them) achieve irreplaceable character. That is, our ears become accustomed to sounds and styles that are familiar. Hit recordings from the mid 1900s that were recorded to analog tap not only established commercial success, but they have stood the test of time and repetition! Thus, the imperfect character of analog tape naturally pleases our ears because it has been commercially fed to us for the majority several decades repeatedly. Acknowledging this is important to do as an engineer because whether analog tape sounds better than digital recording (as a medium) is subjective. Whether analog tape sounds more commercially familiar to the music consumer than digital is not!
In the digital world, we use the DAW to mix down dozens and sometimes hundreds of tracks in the form files. At the end of the mix we typically aim to export all of those tracks down to a singular two channel stereo file. In the analog tape world, it is very much the same concept. However, the tracks are not files as they are physically embedded into the tape upon recording, The track count of tape machines are typically limited to 8, 16, or 2. Also, we have different size tape reels for the multi-track than we do for the 2-track (stereo) reel.
In general, larger track counts require larger analog tape size. A two-inch tape size is typically used for 16 and 24 track tape decks, while smaller track counts would often use a one inch tape size. Once multi tracks are recorded onto one or two inch tape, they are then mixed, typically through a console, and sent to the two-track tape machine. The stereo two-track machine most often uses a half-inch tape size, and some two-track (master) tape machines use a quarter inch tape size.
Bias is a common parameter you will find on analog tape machines and tape emulators. What it does is add a signal that is above the audible frequency spectrum during playback. Humans tend to be able to hear approximately from 20Hz to 20 kHz, and bias signals are over 40kHz and often up to around 100kHz. The general purpose of bias is to increase the audible signal quality by evening out the frequency responses and volume linearit. It also helps reduce distortion. The concepts that make bias work well for tape recording are not easily understood, but the applications of it are very straightforward. Since bias is used to reduce overall distortion levels, a low bias setting will result in more distortion and higher bias setting will result in less overall. The difference in distortion levels will be particularly prominent and noticeable within the low end of the frequency spectrum. A high bias is also known to take off high frequency edge like guitar pick striking harshness. Play with the bias parameter! The differences will be subtle, but have the ability to really bring out the character of bass oriented instruments especially.
Flux is another useful parameter on tape machines and emulators that can more precisely dial in desired distortion and noise levels. Flux is also known as the operating level, and it controls the amount of magnetic force that is coming off of the record head. Lower flux setting will allow the input signal to reach distortion earlier, while higher flux settings allow for more headroom before reaching distortion. Thus, higher flux settings imply the ability to achieve larger dynamic range with lower relative noise levels in comparison to the input signal.
There is a plethora of digital tape emulation plugin options available for those without the funds space, or time for a real tape deck. Waves, UAD, and Slate (plugin manufacturers) all make reputable tape emulation plugins. Try them out if demos are available, and pick one for your needs based on the information above. Although, do not be afraid to experiment with any tape emulator. For example, Waves Kramer Tape plugin is modeled after a vintage quarter inch tube tape machine. The type of tape machine it is modeled after is meant for mix bus, sub group, and mastering applications, but it can achieve great results on singlular tracks of all kinds. In particular, try driving your bass or kick to the point of distortion, or try a subtle tape effect on vocal tracks. Instead of reaching for a distortion plugin, reach for the tape machine and crush it hard and use the tape as the distortion. The options are endless, but be sure to familiarize your self with how the VU meter functions and adjust your input gain accordingly to align with intentional sonic goals.
Modelled on one of the tape machines used at the world famous Abbey Road Studios in London (most famously the recording home of The Beatles, and many others), the Waves J37 Tape hits a sweet spot between authentic sound, highly useful features nicely laid out in an inspiring interface, and, importantly for many, sheer value for money with a price ($35.99 deal at the time of writing) that makes it a quality tape machine emulation for almost every budget. Recommended!
The FG-401 started as a replica of the classic British console duct compressor but has grown to much more with slate digital crack windows. First, we gave it a variable attack and release with an increased range which added more sound options. But then we added an optimal transformer input and not just any transformer, the famous transformer of the British class A console! This gives the compressor a nice warmth and a nice shine. Finally, we have added a second unique circuit path that provides an extra soft and rich tone. The FG-401 is perhaps the most versatile mixing compressor in the world that can sound great on any source you power.
In general, you will have full control over many parameters of the virtual tape machine. Thus, the plugin allows you to recreate your unique version and get the sound just the way you want. All in all, you can either get very subtle effects or achieve unconventional, creative solutions. 153554b96e