Tape enjoyed a long history, and there are many types of tape deck: later models could achieve extremely high-fidelity, while earlier or cheaper models might colour the sound significantly before it even hit the tape at all.
Tapes came in many widths, from two inches down to an eighth-of-an-inch for compact cassettes; and tape speed could vary from 30 inches-per-second on a pro machine, down to just 1.875 ips for a compact cassette.
Different formulations of tape were available: even the humble compact cassette had three common types (ferric, chrome and metal), each of which sounded very different, and three possible different noise reduction systems (Dolby B, C, or S, although the last one was rare).
There are a few general characteristics that we associate with the tape sound, the most important of which is saturation. There’s a limit to how much you can magnetise a section of tape: once all the molecules are polarised the same way, there’s nowhere else to go.
But tape approaches this limit very gradually and gently. There’s no sudden hard ceiling like in an AD converter – instead, a smooth, gentle curve, which starts to gently round off and tame peaks in the signal well before they reach the limit. This means the added harmonics tail off very quickly as they get higher in frequency, more like a triangle wave than a square wave.
With that knowledge gleaned, let's check out a dozen of our favourite tape emulation plugins.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $120
This plugin has been around for many years, becoming genuinely vintage in its own right. It isn’t a detailed super-accurate tape model as we’d expect from more modern plugins, but provides tasty tape-flavoured saturation and compression that just sounds really good.
Mac/PC | VST | $N/A
The original Magneto tape emulator dates back to the dawn of plugins, when Steinberg first introduced the VST standard. Version III is integrated directly into the Cubase mixer, while MkIII is available as a Cubase-bundled plugin with a little bit more control.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €39
Reelbus 4 doesn’t bother with tape reel graphics – just a clear and easy-to-use interface, with tabs to group functions relating to flanging, tape delay and tape stop/start effects. Separate control over asperity noise is a nice touch and relatively unusual among tape emulations.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €129
Saturn’s three tape styles model the saturation and frequency response of tape, but don’t offer other features like noise or wow/flutter. This keeps CPU usage low, even with oversampling enabled. A more optimal approach than more detailed models.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €80
Saturator X includes a couple of tape modes as well as its other options. Like Saturn, these are simplified models that focus on saturation only, but again, this can sometimes be a bonus, helping to keep CPU usage low, and avoiding distractions like the minutiae of bias levels.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €239.99
Four plugins, each modelling a different classic tape deck with its own choice of tape formulation, and the ability to tweak bias level for a huge range of tape flavours.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | from $14.99 annual
This one has a choice of multitrack or stereo deck, two different tape formulations, 15 or 30ips tape speeds and three bias settings. Then there are the obligatory spinning tape reels! VTC can be gentle and transparent at restrained settings, or audibly distorted when driven hard.
8. u-he Satin
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €129
More of a tape saturation toolkit than a model of one specific deck, Satin is the most fully-featured of the models in this list. You have the freedom to tweak everything, and even set things up badly ‘wrong’ if required. It feels a bit like driving a Ferrari: powerful, but easy to crash!
9. Softube Tape
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $99
Default settings give you the subtle, almost imperceptible sheen of a high-end machine in great order. Switch to more colourful tape models or lower tape speed for more grunge, or change gain structure to drive it into obvious distortion. More Rolls Royce than Ferrari!
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $499
iZotope’s Ozone mastering suite includes a Vintage Tape module, which can also be run as a separate plugin, presented with the usual modern iZotope interface. While it’s intended for mastering, there’s no reason why you can’t use it for general mixing purposes.
11. Waves Kramer Master Tape
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $249
Kramer Master Tape models a specific stereo deck used by Eddie Kramer. You can control noise, wow/flutter and saturation amount, and it features an intuitive interface. Alternatively, check out Waves’ J37, a tape saturator with an altogether different character.
12. AudioThing Outer Space
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | €69
Here’s something slightly different to finish with: a model of a famous, green-coloured tape loop delay unit, with spring reverb thrown in, too. The grunginess and character of tape is authentically modelled, and it makes for a much more organic-sounding echo effect than clean, digital repeats.