How to emulate the sound of cassette tape in your DAW

Never mind your fancy reel-to-reel emulations, sometimes all you want is the lo-fi sound of a knackered old C90 cassette.

Whether you're looking to add the requisite sonic crust to a retro-styled synthwave track or just degrade a drum loop, there are plenty of clever ‘cassette deck’ plugins available to help you do it. However, you don't actually need any of them, as faking the sound of cheap tape can easily be done using the tools included with you DAW. Allow us to demonstrate…

For more vintage effects emulation advice, grab the November 2018 edition of Computer Music.

Step 1: Cassette tapes are back in a big way and, as you’d expect, they’re now loved for the very reasons they were despised the first time around! We needn’t make a run for the local thrift store to get that hip cassette flavour, though - we just need a few plugins and the right approach. Let’s fire up our DAW - in this case, Cubase.

Step 2: Since cassette recorders are well loved for the way they impact drum tracks, we’ll call an acoustic drum kit loop into play. Our DAW of choice comes with a number of distortion effects, so we’ll start there, with the plain ol’ Distortion plugin. You can use whatever flavour of saturation you like.

Step 3: Our cassette Portastudios never had much respect for high frequencies, so turn the Tone knob down a bit to get rid of all of that hi-fi top end. Let’s try to approximate the sound of the Portastudio being overdriven - reduce the Output level and increase the Boost value to around 0.9. 

Step 4: It’s exaggerated, but that’s OK - we want to fly our freq flag high! Now for some tape noise. For this, we’ll call up an analogue synthesiser on an Instrument Track. Any synth with a noise generator will do.

Step 5: Turn off all of the synth’s oscillators and turn on its Noise generator. Filter the noise a little bit for a darker effect, and reduce the synth’s volume level to the point of it being barely audible. Then, record a long, sustained stream of noise under the drum loop.

Step 6: Finally, if you want to simulate one of the worst qualities of cassette, you can fake the low-level pitch modulation that plagued old, battered machines. Do this by manually adding pitch fluctuations using automation, or throwing in a bit of vibrato, as we’re doing here.

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