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Universal Audio Studer A800 Plug-In

May 1, 2011

UA_Studer_A800Not just virtual tape—a virtual tape machine

Did people like analog tape recorders because of tape stretch, alignment issues, head wear, window splices, demagnetizing, rewind/fast forward times, high-frequency self-erasure, head “bump,” wow, flutter, oxide sheds, and replacing capstan motors? No. They liked analog tape recorders because tape is a signal processor. For proof, feed in a sine wave higher than –20dB, and listen—yes, you’re hearing distortion that only increases as you hit the tape harder.

So now Universal Audio, keepers of analog mojo in a digital world, have done the right thing by divorcing the sound of tape from the mechanics of tape—I didn’t have to clean the plug-in’s heads once!

All That Really Matters

First, does it sound like tape? Second, what kind of tape does it sound like, how was the deck calibrated, what was the tape speed, was the bias tweaked for minimum distortion or minimum noise, etc.? To that end, UA has modeled the recorder’s entire signal path, and includes adjustments for both the repro and sync head high/low EQ, bias, highfrequency EQ (pre-emphasis), NAB or CCIR response curve for 7.5 and 15ips (30ips invokes the standard AES curve), and the option to add hum and/or hiss.

The front panel includes controls for tape formulation (four types, including 3M 250 and Ampex 456), IPS (7.5, 15, and 30), tape calibration standard (four choices, from +3dB to +9dB), and input/ output controls to trim the distortion. Interestingly, there’s a button to calibrate these according to Studer’s original specs as you change tape speed, formulation, or EQ, but half the fun is tweaking the trims yourself. You can even switch the “input” among bypass, input electronics, sync head, and repro (playback) head.

A new option, “Gang Controls,” is brilliant. UA presumes you’ll be instantiating a lot of A800s within a project (however, an equally valid application is eschewing multitrack and inserting the A800 in the master bus to give the sound of mixing to tape) so when you adjust any control in any instance, the same control in all other instances matches the new value.

The Tape Factor

Having logged multiple thousands of hours with multitrack analog tape, and knowing how to align and calibrate them, I was curious if UA “got it right.” Simply stated, they did. Bull’s-eye.

But remember that this requires a UAD-2 DSP board (or the Satellite external DSP farm for the Mac)—sorry, UAD-1 owners. The latency also seems significant, but as I see this mostly for mixing, it isn’t much of a problem.

Universal Audio has specialized in imparting analog qualities to digital audio with their plug-ins. Their projects have become increasingly ambitious (e.g., Manley Massive Passive), and the A800 is arguably their most ambitious yet. What makes this emulation particularly successful is because it’s not just about the tape—but gives equal weight to the elements accompanying it.

Universal Audio Studer A800 (VST, RTAS, AU) $349 MSRP

STRENGTHS: Nails the tape sound. Models the recorder’s signal path as well as the tape itself. Includes multiple tape formulations, default level calibrations, and speeds.
LIMITATIONS: Runs only with a UAD-2 card. GUI takes up a lot of screen space.
www.uaudio.com

TIP Tape sound with real tape

So maybe you can’t afford a 2-inch 24-track just to get “the tape sound.” Although there are some fine tape emulation plug-ins (such as the Universal Audio Studer A800 reviewed in this issue), if you don’t want anything but the real deal, here’s how to get reel—I mean, real—tape sound.

1. Comb the online classifieds for a two-track recorder with separate record and playback heads.
2. Find tape for said recorder.
3. Read “The DAW/Hardware Connection” section above to fi nd out how to treat the tape recorder as an external effect.
4. Send the signal you want to “tapeify” into the recorder input.
5. Set the recorder output to monitor the playback head (i.e., repro mode, not sync mode).
6. Load tape, put the recorder in record mode, and roll tape.
7. While listening to the tape recorder output, set the input record levels for the desired amount of “crunch.”
8. Once levels are set as desired, return to the track’s beginning, and start recording the tape recorder output into a DAW track.

As mentioned regarding using external hardware with DAWs, you’ll get latency—but it’s the mother of all latency, due to the delay between the point when the signal gets recorded at the record head and the point when it moves past the playback head. This varies from machine to machine, but it will likely be below 100ms at 15 ips. You’ll need to slide the recorded track from the tape output forward in time by this amount of delay to have it line up with the other tracks. As mentioned previously, a click reference can be tremendously helpful.

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