How to Use Vintage Emulation Plug-Ins

Three stunning vintage-emulation plug-ins
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Three stunning vintage-emulation plug-ins

HERDS OF software manufacturers have capitalized on the perennial hunger for vintage gear by releasing plug-ins that model hardware from yesteryear. Problem is, there’s a lot of cobble among the gems, and not everything hoisting the “classic” flag sounds good. Here are three quintessential plug-ins that squarely hit the mark.

Waves CLA-2A The Waves CLA-2A plugin faithfully models a vintage Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier from the ’60s. The hardware tube compressor has two major attributes that have kept engineers enthralled with it for decades. First, its two-stage, program-dependent release sounds so natural and transparent, the LA-2A can compress the hell out of wildly seesawing vocals without making them sound at all squashed. Second, the LA-2A’s slightly band-limited response automatically filters both bottom-heavy and screechy vocals, whittling their sonic footprint down to the perfect size. The result is LA-2A-blessed vocals virtually always sit in the mix remarkably well. Moreover, the compressor’s spartan control set is so straightforward, you could steer it if you were in a coma. Simply raise the Peak Reduction control to increase compression depth, and adjust the Gain control for the output level you want. Done.

Fig. 1. The Waves CLA-2A plug-in sounds remarkably like the famed Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier. Of the many LA-2A knockoffs I’ve heard in plug-in form, the CLA-2A (included in the Waves CLA Classic Compressors bundle) sounds the most authentic (see Figure 1). Make that scary-accurate. It’s important to realize that no two LA-2As sound exactly alike. The aging of a T4 opto cell results in a progressively less aggressive response over time. As a result, you might be able to get a hair more gain reduction out of a vintage LA-2A compared to the CLA- 2A before hearing any hint of amplitude modulation. But we’re splitting hairs.

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CLA-2A sounds fantastic on more than just vocals. The plug-in transparently compresses electric guitar while beautifully enhancing pick strikes. CLA-2A’s relatively slow attack time also adds punch to bass guitar tracks and snap to kick drum hits.

Slate Digital FG-Grey This awesome plugin— one of three dynamics processors included in Slate Digital’s Virtual Buss Compressors bundle—models the sonic characteristics of both an SSL 4000 Series console’s bus compressor and the classic Saint Ives transformer used in dozens of Neve modules and consoles. While the dual modeling creates a hybrid sound, it most importantly replicates the fantastic, in-your-face onslaught of the SSL bus compressor better than any other plug-in I’ve heard to date. True, the SSL hardware lends greater detail and depth. But FG-Grey’s idiosyncratic compression curve sounds remarkably dead on. That’s what other plugins have failed to precisely replicate.

Fig. 2. Slate Digital FG-Grey convincingly emulates the compression curve produced by an SSL 4000 Series bus compressor. The SSL bus compressor is famous for making drum tracks sound explosive, and FG-Grey does the hardware proud in this application. But if you really want to hear what makes the SSL bus compressor so unique, slap FG-Grey on a bus for strummed acoustic guitar playing in a dense arrangement (see Figure 2). Set the plug-in to 10 ms attack time, 0.1 sec release, and 10:1 ratio. Then adjust FG-Grey’s threshold for roughly an 8dB crest factor. Slowly raise the track’s fader. You’ll be amazed at how big and close you can make the guitar sound without it stepping on the other instruments. It’s this ability to simultaneously pump up and sit broadband, percussive instruments perfectly in a dense mix that makes the SSL bus compressor—and FG-Grey—special.

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Fig. 3. Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines faithfully replicates the girth-enhancing and dynamic attributes of high-end tape recorders. Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines Many so-called tape emulators do little more than roll off very high frequencies and bump up the low bass and midrange bands somewhat to imitate a tape recorder’s frequency response. Um, you can do that with EQ; that’s not what makes tape sound magical. Tape broadens the midrange band in a way EQ can never do. In this way, the best tape emulators—and they are very few—add girth to sterile, thin digital tracks. The other coveted quality of tape is the unique way in which it compresses percussive material—especially drums—when pushed hard. Some recently introduced tape-emulation plug-ins sound choked and phase-y when slammed—nothing like tape. The only plug-in I’ve heard to date that truly sounds like a tape machine in all regards is Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines (VTM; see Figure 3).

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VTM’s model of a 2”, 16-track Studer A827 sounds fantastic on individual tracks. You can select an overbiased setting to saturate high frequencies and round off transients on drum-room mics and electric bass guitar. Use an underbiased setting to add snap to snare drum. VTM’s model of a ½-inch, 2-track Studer A80 RC tape recorder—operating at 30 ips (inches per second) and using Quantegy GP9 tape— preserves more airy detail and punch than the A827 model; subtly softening and broadening the sound, it’s the perfect recipe for 2-bus and mastering applications. Like CLA-2A and FG-Grey, VTM gives to DAW-based productions the best qualities that classic analog gear has to offer.

Michael Cooper is a recording, mix, mastering, and post-production engineer; a contributing editor for Mix magazine; and the owner of Michael Cooper Recording ( in Sisters, Ore.