Tape Simulator Software Showdown - EMusician

Tape Simulator Software Showdown

I’m not necessarily one who worships at the Church of the Iron Oxide. In fact, when the Alesis ADAT was announced, I could hardly wait to get rid of analog tape. The hiss, stretching, modulation noise, biasing, head cleaning, head alignment, head lapping (scary stuff!), demagnetizing, test tone tapes, and all those other “accessories” to the analog tape experience drove me up the wall. So when digital became feasible, and the signal that came out was the signal that went in, I was relieved.
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But . . . tape did have that distinctive sound, and one you could customize by biasing (which affects hiss, distortion, and level). You could bias hot for more “zing” with higher noise, or bias low. Or you could choose an in-between setting you happened to like. Some crazed fanatics (uh, that would be me) would re-bias machines in the middle of a session to achieve, say, a different drum sound compared to the other tracks. You could also alter the pre-emphasis/de-emphasis EQ to change the tonality.

So when I wanted that sound, I’d hook up my venerable TASCAM Model 32 two-track into a mixer’s insert jacks, roll tape in record mode, hit the tape hard, and record the results into a digital recorder. Nor was I alone: Several big-name engineers, like Bruce Swedien, often record to tape—then capture it immediately to digital before it self-destructs.

This trend did not go unnoticed in the software community, and soon, we had effects designed to give “that” tape sound without the hassles and issues. Well, sort of; actually these tape sim products seem to fall into three main categories: 

  • Software designed to simulate particular tape sounds as accurately as possible, where an “Ampex” preset really sounds like Ampex tape.
  • Programs that are more “inspired” by the effect tape has on a sound, and take liberties that go beyond straight emulation.
  • Suites designed for a specific function, where tape saturation is only one of the components. For example, the suite may be dedicated to vintage sounds, or it might relate to mastering tools.

The idea of actually being able to eliminate tape, or in some cases go beyond what tape can do, perhaps sounds too good to be true—but is it? I’ll tell you one thing: The results were not at all what I was expecting.

All products were tested using Windows XP. Those requiring Pro Tools were tested using Pro Tools LE. Signal sources included drums, program material, various synths, guitars, and electric bass. And now, in no particular order, let’s start crunching.

McDSP Analog Channel

Analog Channel is a “mini-suite” for Pro Tools that includes the AC-1, which emulates analog channel amp circuits, and the AC-2—the focus of this review—which emulates analog tape machines. I wish we had the space to cover the AC-1, which is a valuable plug-in in its own right . . . but we must move on.

The AC-2 takes the whole tape thing very literally, giving control over bias, equalization, playback speed, head bump, low frequency rolloff, playback head type (which affects the head bump and low frequency rolloff characteristics), tape formulations, and tape saturation recovery times. (Thankfully, they didn’t take the realism too far—I was concerned there might be a feature where the more you used the plug-in, the more the highs self-erased.) With stereo, each input can be thrown out of phase, and there’s an “auto” output level option that maintains a fixed output level, even if you hit the “tape” hard with the input controls, or push the bias. You can link the in and out controls in stereo.

In use, the AC-2 has what I hear as McDSP’s sonic hallmark: a smooth, musical sound, even when you’re pushing it pretty hard. The bias control reminds me of the trimpots I’d use to underbias a bit to get a brighter response; a helpful, read-only graph shows how changes in EQ, head bump, low frequency rolloff, bias, and tape speed affect frequency response.

Overall, the AC-2 makes the right choices between staying totally faithful to the original and improving on the possibilities, and the sound quality is exceptional. ’Nuff said.

System requirements: Windows XP, Mac OSX 10.4, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows/Mac TDM/RTAS/AU
List price: $495 TDM, $295 Native
CONTACT:www.mcdsp.com

TriTone Digital ColorTone Pro

After installing Pluggo Runtime and ColorTone, you’re ready to get into this convolution-based processor. ColorTone is not just a tape simulator; its 46 impulses include filters, compressors (yes, you’ll find an LA2) and tube EQ. I was also able to load the impulses included with Sonar’s Perfect Space reverb.

For tape simulation, convolution handles reproducing the tonal quality of particular tapes and machines. A Warmth fader generates harmonics and saturation effects, and a Blend control is the key to getting cool sounds but is a bit difficult to explain: It mixes the processed and unprocessed signals based on the input signal’s amplitude, so that a higher input signal means more processed signal (or you can dial in the reverse effect). One particularly handy button, Lock, automatically reduces the output when you slam the input.

None of this is intuitive; don’t expect “turn switch on for tape saturation effect.” Then again, that’s ColorTone Pro’s strength: Once you do start to understand how the controls affect the sound, you can do some wonderful effects. It doesn’t try to add hiss or other undesirable tape characteristics, but instead, isolates particular tape sounds and lets you apply them—but then modify them further, like adding more level, compression, expansion, etc.

Can it make tracks sound better? Yes. Just expect to spend some time checking out the generous selection of impulses, as choosing the right one for the source material makes the difference between “yeah, whatever . . .” and “wow!”

System requirements: Windows XP SP2, Mac OS X 10.3.9; Cycling ’74’s Pluggo 3.6 Runtime (cross-platform, available for free)
Formats: VST/RTAS, AU support via free Pluggo extensions
List price: $145; limited free version also available
CONTACT:www.tritonedigital.com

Voxengo Analogflux Suite

Voxengo may not have major name recognition, but the company makes quality software. Analogflux Suite contains four programs designed to give the analog feel: TapeBus (the subject of this review), Delay, Impulse (simple convolution processor), Insert (simple modulation noise “warmer”), and Chorus. The Chorus is outstanding, by the way.

TapeBus has eight controls, all with obvious effects on the sound. There are also seven convolution-based tape options (along with off, leaving only the other processors) that provide different sonic characters.

In addition to a Rec Gain function to set the amount of crunch and a control for Saturation amount, there are pre-saturation Low and Hi EQ, with high filter center frequency and gain. A Curve control changes the saturation curve, which alters harmonic content.

All the “science” in TapeBus is transparent: This is one of those rare plug-ins where you can insert it on a track, put all the controls at 12 o’clock, and it just plain works. Audibly, it sort of combines compression, an “exciter”-type sound, and EQ; it can give huge presence to drum tracks, and if you don’t go too crazy, even works with program material. The included presets provide an excellent idea of what to expect. In fact, they may be all you need . . . although it’s well worth experimenting with the controls, as they can make a big difference in the overall sound.

If you want a plug-in where you don’t have to think to make it sound good, but if you’re willing to think you can make it sound even better, you’ll definitely appreciate TapeBus. It hits the sweet spot between ease of use and serious processing.

System requirements: Windows XP or better
Formats: VST
List price: $79.95
CONTACT:www.voxengo.com

PSP Audioware MixPack2

Garrett Haines reviewed PSP’s Vintage Warmer 2—which is more than just a tape emulator—in the 05/07 issue, so there’s little point in re-hashing that info. However, PSP also makes a cool bundle called MixPack2, which includes the MixSaturator2—and it’s most definitely relevant to this roundup. (The rest of the bundle includes a low-end enhancer, high-end enhancer, compressor, and noise gate.)

MixSaturator2 has three main elements: A bass section with Frequency, Warmth, and Level controls, a high frequency section with Frequency, Level, and Softness (high-frequency compression), and a sort of “master” section that chooses one of seven non-linear algorithms (3 tape, 3 tube, 1 digital) and dials in the amount with a Saturation control. In addition to buttons that enable these various processing sections independently, there’s also a mix control. This allows changing the balance of distorted to dry signal.

What surprised me most was how effective this is with program material when used subtly. While the low-end “bass bump” is outstanding, I preferred using the high frequency section to add clarity rather than doing the most accurate possible tape simulation (although you can compress the highs if desired). The mix option is also welcome as you can set up a really dramatic effect—then dial it back so it supports, rather than overtakes, the program material.

MixSaturator2 by itself is impressive, in large part because it can go from barely noticeable to Godzilla-level smashing. But when you consider the other tools in the bundle, it becomes extremely cost-effective as well because you’ll likely use the other processors. For bundle value, this is tough to beat.

System requirements: Windows XP SP2 or Vista, Mac OSX 10.4/10.5, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows VST/RTAS, Mac AU/VST/RTAS
List price: $199
CONTACT:www.pspaudioware.com

DUY DaD Tape

Here we have yet another approach, as the effects are subtle and sweet; there’s no way to get a “caricature” of tape with DaD Tape, and in some ways, that’s a good thing. Options are limited, but realistic: a choice of six tape recorder types (including vintage tube, solid-state, and op amp-based) at three tape speeds (7.5, 15, and 30). DaD Tape is also unique in that it models noise reduction types, from noisiest (noise reduction off), to two noise reduction types, to noiseless. This is very effective, and really does produce the character that noise reduction added to the “analog tape sound.”

That’s it, except for the obligatory input control that determines how hard you’re going to slam the tape (short of internal overflow, of course), and an output control for overall level.

DaD Tape is all about generating harmonics from the original signal, although there seems to be an element of tape compression: When setting the output level for what I thought was about the same level, the output meter definitely hit lower peaks than when bypassed. It’s hard to do “wrong” settings or get an ugly sound; usually, a little experimentation will produce a gently enhanced sound, with a bit more sparkle and girth. In addition to individual tracks, I tried DaD Tape with program material, and it even rocked with that.

Despite the current Euro-to-Dollar exchange rate, which should have put the price at around $450, DUY has held the line at $349. And that’s a good thing, because this is a plug-in with grace and subtlety.

System requirements: Windows XP, Mac OSX 10.3.9, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows RTAS; Mac RTAS/AU/VST/MAS
List price: $349
CONTACT: www.duy.com

VirSyn VTape

Here’s another vintage-oriented suite (with Delay, Flanger, and Saturator). The Saturator is a subset of the other programs, providing Hiss, Flutter, and Bias controls, along with a low/parametric mid/high EQ. And while this article is about tape simulation, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the VTape Flanger is the closest I’ve ever heard to true, ’60s-style tape flanging—right down to the motor inertia. Brilliant. The delay is fantastic too, 1with multiple taps, and filtering in the loop. Both of these include the Saturator “module.” But I digress.

Saturator is designed to sound like a real tape recorder; for example, it’s one of the few sims that lets you dial in hiss, and the only commercial one that offers flutter. As a result, just as some plug-ins let you take pristine audio and make it sound like it came from a scratchy record, this one lets you make it sound like it came from tape.

Like tape, hitting the input harder increases the compression/saturation. And while the EQ may seem out of place, it isn’t: “Real” tape recorders had trims for pre-emphasis and de-emphasis (boost and cut, respectively, of high frequencies), and how you set these made a big difference on the overall frequency response.

Like other VirSyn products, the interface is clean and straightforward; if you have to think to figure this out, you should probably consider another profession. All controls work in an obvious manner, and have an equally obvious effect on the sound. Overall, Saturator is less versatile than many other sims, but more accurate—and part of a groovy suite of plug-ins that takes you back to the ’60s.

System requirements: Windows XP/Vista, Mac OSX 10.4/5 or later, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows VST/RTAS, Mac AU/VST/RTAS
List price: $261
CONTACT: www.virsyn.com

Digidesign Reel Tape Saturation

Although part of the $495 Reel Tape Suite, which also includes tape delay and tape flanging, the Reel Tape Saturation plug-in is available separately. While I mentioned at the beginning that all these plug-ins are really quite different, here’s an exception: The McDSP AC-2 and Reel Tape Saturation are quite similar in how they approach the goal of faithful tape emulation. However, Reel Tape Saturation offers a more limited degree of control, with three machine/head types (and no head bump control) compared to McDSP’s six; both have two tape types, bias, speed, and input controls. Unlike the AC-2, though, one of the machine options is “lo-fi” (Wollensak, anyone?), and you can also “calibrate” your tape to +3, +6, or +9. Like VirSyn’s VTape, RTS allows introducing tape hiss into the signal (incidentally, either one of these makes a good white noise generator if you want to do rain and similar sounds).

In typical Digi fashion, this plug-in gives you what you need, has an obvious interface, works efficiently, and does the job. It seems purposely limited to doing tape effects; you can’t really “stretch” the settings to give less tape-like, more “exciter”-type effects. For example, the bias control covers an extremely realistic range, whereas the McDSP control lets you overbias and underbias beyond the limits found in typical tape recorders.

The bottom line is that Reel Tape Saturation does one family of things, but does it well: You can slap it on a signal and—with a minimal amount of tweaking—get a convincing tape crunch that indeed adds that vintage “analog tape” quality to digital audio.

System requirements: Windows XP, Mac OSX 10.4 or later, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows/Mac, TDM/RTAS/ AudioSuite
List price: $295
CONTACT:www.digidesign.com

Crane Song Phoenix

Phoenix is Crane Song’s answer to “warmth” plug-ins. Unlike software that models tape alone, Phoenix takes into account the interaction of tape, the machine’s electronics, and set-up equalization curve.

The suite contains five plug-ins: Luminescent, Iridescent, Radiant, Dark Essence, and Luster. Luminescent is the most subtle of the five. Iridescent adds a more pronounced bottom/midrange. Radiant brings a more aggressive compression curve, while Dark Essence is even more saturated. Luster covers the widest range, starting more gently than Luminescent, but becoming as hard as Dark Essence when the process is at full scale.

Phoenix is TDM-only, but very DSP-efficient. Users can expect to get about 20 instances out of a single HD (non-Accel) chip at 44.1kHz. This efficiency is appreciated because this plug works best when it’s placed on individual tracks. For example, Iridescent on individual drum tracks can provide you that 15 ips gravy that classic rock lovers crave. Overly spashy hi-hats (and sibilant vocalists) can be tamed with Dark Essence. Luster is a godsend for keyboards, organs, and synth patches.

Again, you’ll get the best results by tailoring an instance of Phoenix for each component of your mix. That said, adding Luminescent on a bus can bring an analog-like glue without overdoing the effect. For my money, Phoenix is the benchmark for warmth-type plug ins. As long as users invest the time to explore the tonal possibilities of the titles, the results will be top notch.
—Garrett Haines

System requirements: Windows XP, Mac OSX 10.3.9, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows/Mac TDM
List price: $450
CONTACT: www.cranesong.net

URS Classic Console Strip Pro + URS Strip

And now for something completely different: a channel strip “construction kit” where you can select from 30 input stage algorithms, 60 compressor/limiter algorithms, and 5 selectable EQ algorithms. Both the input and compressor algorithms include tape emulation options, so if you want, say, an input strip with a Class A transformer-based input stage coming from 1/2" 30 ips tape that goes into tape-type compression with vintage 1951-style EQ, no problem.

If you seek hardcore tape crunching, or simulations of different types of tape, look elsewhere—this plug-in is really all about tailoring a channel strip to the sonic qualities you find most appealing. That might involve, say, choosing the 15ips input characteristics to pick up a bit of head bump, and balance out some of the “air” introduced by running the high-band 1951-style EQ. Some differences are subtle, and some more obvious; going through all the options to find out what you like is time-consuming, but offers plenty of rewards. With a plug-in this versatile, it’s very helpful that the documentation is both clear and comprehensive, especially with respect to figuring out how the sidechaining works.

It almost seems incongruous to include this excellent plug-in in a tape sim roundup, as the tape sim aspect is just a part of the program’s overall character. But if you’re looking to pick up some of the vibe of tape without hitting people over the head with it, whether for an input stage or for compression, this is a lovely plug-in. Anything I ran through it benefited in some way—and that’s saying a lot.

System requirements: Windows XP, Mac OSX 10.3.9 or later, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows TDM/RTAS/ VST; Mac TDM/RTAS/AU/VST
List price: ($1,199.99 TDM/RTAS/ AU/VST, $599.99 without TDM)
CONTACT:www.ursplugins.com

Massey Plugins Tape-Head

We ran a full review by Garrett Haines in the 09/07 issue, so we won’t repeat ourselves here. But to give the highlights, Tape-Head is simple (Drive and Trim controls, with a Normal/Bright switch), CPU-efficient, and effective. As Garrett said, “Just because [tape sims] never sound exactly like tape doesn’t mean that you can’t color your sound in a subjectively pleasing way. It’s all about learning how to use them right, and the Tape-Head is good. Very good.”

Although you won’t find a plethora of modeling options, the advantage of this approach is you just tweak the Drive knob until you have the desired amount of crunch, decide whether you want it a little brighter or not, then set the Trim control to compensate. Tape-Head isn’t all things to all people, but download the demo and try it on individual tracks and program material. You might be surprised at what $69 can do.

System requirements: Windows XP/Mac OSX 10.3.9 or later, Universal Binary
Formats: Windows/Mac TDM/ RTAS (free, “lite” AU version)
List price: $69
CONTACT:www.masseyplugins.com

CONCLUSIONS

If you need to do general purpose tone-shaping, tweaking, saturation, and distortion, it’s hard to beat PSP’s MixPack2. I could even see these plug-ins being used by adventurous mastering engineers, and the price is right: At $40 per plug-in, with no filler, you’re getting a great deal that’s pretty much compatible with everything. It has a more impressionistic than literal interpretation of “tape sound,” but for some, that will be an advantage rather than a drawback.

The VirSyn VTape suite, on the other hand, is all about a literal interpretation of tape sound. While the Saturator is cool, to me the stars of this suite are the Flanger and Delay, both of which incorporate the Saturator element. (Having used the same Record Plant flanging setup that was used for Electric Ladyland, I know what tape flanging is supposed to sound like . . . and apparently, so does someone at VirSyn.)

Voxengo’s AnalogFlux suite is somewhere between PSP and VirSyn. It perhaps doesn’t do pure tape as authentically as VirSyn, but is more effects-oriented than PSP’s offering. The price is hard to beat, as it’s less than half of MixPack2 and a third of VTape, so if you want some solid tone-bending and effects, this does a commendable job without the level of specialization of the other suites. This is definitely an over-achiever.

If you like simple, good, and inexpensive, you can’t go wrong with Massey’s Tape-Head. It has no bells and whistles, but gives good crunch and accomplishes its stated task efficiently. Although Voxengo’s suite gives you more bang for the buck, Tape-Head has its own character . . . download the demos for both, and make up your own mind.

Digidesign’s Reel Tape Saturation is the most literal attempt to emulate tape: It emulates well-known machines, specifies particular speeds, and models tape the same way that, say, their Velvet models an electric piano. If you want the most literal tape emulator, this is a good one (Pro Tools only, of course). But speaking of Pro Tools-only, there’s McDSP’s AC-2. This is sort of like Reel Tape Saturation, but gives more machines, a wider control range (especially bias), and thoughtful features like automatic output leveling. The bottom line is if you stay within the proper boundaries, you can get convincing, beefy tape sounds—but you can also go beyond those boundaries, achieving sounds that use tape as a point of reference but not a final destination. This is a pretty addictive plug-in, and the AC-1 (which is the other part of the bundle) is also extremely desirable.

I suspect that for a lot of people, DUY’s DaD Tape will be an almost “set-and-forget” type of plug-in where they find particular settings they like for particular instruments (or program material), save it as a preset, and use it a lot. The effect is subtle enough, yet pleasing enough, that you won’t need to hit the bypass switch much. If you want to go nuts with science-fiction head bump options, add in flutter, and the like, this isn’t the plug-in for you. But if you like subtle enhancements—and don’t mind the “exchange rate surcharge”—this is a refined, intelligent plug-in.

The ColorTone is the maverick of the bunch, with its convolution-based design that does a lot more than just tape emulation. It offers serious value, especially given its versatility, but it’s also the most difficult to use of the lot—not because of any design or interface flaw, but because it really does take an original approach that requires some acclimation. This plug-in is for those to whom tape saturation is another color in the palette, not the main focus.

And finally, URS. Granted, their Strip Pro is by no means the ultimate tape simulator, yet it incorporates tape simulation in strategic ways that really bring this plug-in into a class of its own. If you’re looking for a hardcore tape sim, this probably won’t do it for you. But it amply proves there’s more to tape emulation than just cranking up the virtual record gain, and watching the meters pin. It’s almost like this reproduces the spirit of tape, rather than its body. And yes, that’s a major compliment.

When I started this article, I had no idea what lay ahead. I was expecting a bunch of me-too products, but boy, was I wrong: Each program has its own way of expressing a high degree of ingenuity. They all have very different personalities; what I’ve tried to do is describe those personalities the best I can, to help you understand where they’re coming from. Whether you just want a couple dials for crunching, or a sophisticated suite that takes tape simulation beyond where their mechanical forebears ever went, these are some pretty amazing programs. They’ll definitely become an important part of my musical toolkit in the years ahead—which is something I wasn’t expecting at all.

FREE AS A PLUG-IN

Want to get started with Tape Sims? In addition to demo versions of some of the products being reviewed, there are some free sims that may lack the feature sets of the “big guys,” but nonetheless do a credible job. The following programs are Windows-only, though.

Cakewalk Sonar includes a tape sim plug-in, FX2 Tape Sim, that often gets high marks in the Cakewalk forums, and I can understand why: Despite an interface that hasn’t been overhauled in so long it has Cakewalk’s logo from the Pro Audio 9 days, it provides the functionality needed for some very decent tape simulation effects. There are controls for tape speed, EQ curve, amount of crunch and warmth, low frequency boost for head bump effects (although it’s either on or off, and on is a bit too heavy-handed for my tastes), and even the ability to add in hiss. It takes a bit of fiddling to find the sweet spots, but it’s a great way for Sonar fans to get into tape sims with zero investment—and actually, those sweet spots can be very sweet.

If you’re into VST format plug-ins, check out Jeroen Breebaart’s Ferox from www.jeroenbreebaart.com/audio vst.htm. This is a surprisingly good plug-in, particularly because it folds in some tape delay effects that are lots of fun and quite authentic. But it will also get you started at adding that fabled “tape sound.” (Attention DAW manufacturers: If you want to add a tape sim to your program, try contacting this guy and offering him some money.)

Another freebie, THD from www.digitalfishphones.com, is no longer supported but worked just fine in my system. The effect is subtle, and isn’t really a tape simulator as much as a “warmer” that draws its inspiration from tube preamps and tape machines. Although I didn’t find it too useful on program material, it can be a very fine addition to individual instruments—I love what it does to drums, and it’s almost a “plug-it-in-and-forget-about-it” kind of plug-in.