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Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines

December 5, 2012
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Fig. 1. Virtual Tape Machines emulates two tape decks, each using alternate tape formulations and operating at different speeds.

THERE ARE quite a few tape-emulation plug-ins for DAWs, but most fall short of glory. The new Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines (VTM; see Figure 1) sounds like the real thing.

VTM alternately emulates a 2-inch, 16-track Studer A827 and 1/2-inch, 2-track Studer A80 RC tape recorder operating at either 30 or 15 ips (inches per second), using either Ampex 456 or Quantegy GP9 tape. The cross-platform plug-in is available in AU, RTAS, and VST formats and requires an iLok 2 dongle.

Non-linear Response Like analog tape, VTM produces a more saturated and compressed sound the harder you drive the plug-in. The 30 ips setting extends the high-frequency response, and moves the head bump (bass-frequency boost) to a higher center frequency compared to the 15 ips setting. 456 tape sounds more colorful but less detailed than GP9 when driven equally hard. Choosing VTM’s low bias setting better preserves a track’s dynamics; high bias saturates high frequencies more readily and rounds off transients smoothly.

I generally preferred the 16-track machine on individual tracks and the 2-track deck on the master bus. For mastering, the 2-track deck and 30 ips setting provided the airy detail I usually wanted, with the tape type based on whether I desired more color (456) or punch and detail (GP9).

On snare, the 16-track machine, GP9 tape, 30 ips tape speed, and low bias setting enhanced the attack and compressed the instrument’s body beautifully. The 2-track machine also sounded flattering, but made the snare sound a hair less compact. On drum room mics, over-biasing the 16-track machine, slamming the input, and using 456 tape created a highly colored, compressed sound that was awesome.

On DI’d electric bass, I loved running the 16-track machine at 15 ips, set to high bias. Using 456 tape and lightly pinning the input meter boosted the bottom end, broadened the mids, and rounded the transients beautifully, creating a lush, fat, and burpy sound. The same general treatment sounded fantastically lush on double- tracked electric guitars; however, changing the tape speed to 30 ips moved the head bump and created better separation in the mix.

Beware the Pitfalls VTM robbed Digital Performer 7.21 (DP) of its keyboard shortcuts. (This is also an ongoing problem with Slate’s long-established FG-X mastering plug-in.) Regaining control of DP’s transport requires clicking outside the plug-in’s GUI. Slate reported a similar issue in Pro Tools, although I didn’t notice it in Pro Tools 9.0.6. The company expects a future update to fix the problem.

Even with its input and output controls set to 0dB, VTM often added a bit of gain to the processed signal. VTM lets you link the I/O controls so that boosting the input causes the output to dip by the same amount, which is intended to preserve unity gain; unfortunately, any existing offset between the controls isn’t preserved when you click the link button.

You can group multiple VTM instances so that adjusting a control in one instance similarly changes the others. When you assign VTM to a new group, all of its controls return to their default settings, so make sure you assign it to the group before making any adjustments. (Assigning additional instances of VTM to an existing group makes their controls mirror the settings common to the group’s other instances.) Bypassing any grouped instance of VTM—using the plug-in’s bypass switch, not your DAW’s— bypasses all other instances in the group. This is a great way to compare the effect VTM has on multiple tracks to their unprocessed sound.

Roll Tape! VTM is the most authentic and best-sounding tape-emulation plug-in I’ve heard. The GUI strikes the perfect balance between flexibility and speedy operation— there are enough options to shape the sound of the tracks without encumbering your workflow by offering too many variables. Just be forewarned: VTM is a CPU hog. Each instance consumed around 5% of my 8-core Mac Pro’s CPU resources. A good conservation strategy is to add VTM to auxes for subgrouped tracks.

If Slate Digital can’t fix the aforementioned keyboard-shortcuts problem, I suspect some users will find it an unacceptable workflow tradeoff. Not me. VTM sounds so awesome, I’m willing to put up with the handicap—I’ve gotta have that sound! 


SUMMARY
STRENGTHS:
Sounds fantastic and authentic. Offers calibration controls and grouping.

LIMITATIONS:
CPU hog. Robs DP’s (and possibly Pro Tools’) keyboard shortcuts. Linking I/O controls eliminates their offset. Assignment to a new group nulls controls.

$249(direct)
slatedigital.com 

Michael Cooper (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording) is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording and a contributing editor for Mix magazine.

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