A brief history of magnetic tape recording (plus six top tape emulation plugins)

It’s been more than three decades since hard disk recording first hit the studio scene, yet despite the technology providing pristine audio fidelity in an infinitely malleable form, there are still those who insist upon (or dream about) recording to good-old-fashioned magnetic tape.

What makes this cumbersome, expensive and fragile medium so appealing? The answer depends upon who you ask. Some traditional studio engineers love the sound of a well-maintained high-end multitrack deck. Contrary to popular belief, these machines were anything but colourful. They were, in fact, rather accurate, and whatever character they imparted was subtle. Any overt flavour was generally the result of intentional misuse on the part of the operator - for example, the tape would saturate at hot input levels, producing a mildly distorted compression effect that’s quite pleasing to the ear.

Conversely, the sort of machines upon which the home recordist might once have depended were anything but accurate. Narrow track widths and slower tape speeds resulted in lower dynamic range and poorer frequency response. This was especially true when it came to the 4-track cassette recorder.

Needless to say, such dubious qualities are once again in demand in this nostalgic era, and developers now offer new options for recreating the sounds of various tape machines inside your DAW. But you need to be sure of what’s needed before loading up any old tape sim effect. You can’t simply slam a signal through a battered old cassette machine and expect it to impart the magic mojo of a Studer A80 for you. 

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the software emulations on offer, and what they can do for your in-the-box signals.

For more vintage processing tutorials, pick up the November 2018 edition of Computer Music.

Six top tape emulators

Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines

Slate Digital’s designer extraordinaire Fabrice Gabriel has earned a much-deserved reputation for his obsessively accurate recreations of legendary studio gear, and VTM is one of his best. This digital doppelgänger recreates both a 16-track 2-inch machine and a half-inch stereo mastering machine down to the very finest detail. VTM’s character has endeared it to pro engineers.

Read full Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines review

HoRNet Tape

HoRNet’s Tape is a right old bargain, providing simulations of four different tape decks for a paltry €20. Useful features abound, including dual tape speeds for each deck, auto gain with three different targets, analogue hiss, and output compensation that provides a constant level in order to ensure that your ears don’t get fooled by changes in volume.

Read more about HoRNet Tape

ToneBoosters ReelBus 4

Now in its fourth incarnation, ReelBus offers all manner of simulated tape artefacts, including wow and flutter, and a fun tape-stop simulation. More than a saturation plugin, you can also call upon ReelBus 4 for flanging and tape echo duties. A nifty drive EQ is joined by a tape ‘wear’ feature, and the tape speed can be shifted smoothly from 3.75 to 30ips.

Read more about ToneBoosters ReelBus 4

u-he Satin

How much control can you expect from a tape simulator? If you’re asking u-he’s Urs Heckmann, the answer would likely be “total”. This is reflected in Satin, which allows you to choose tape speed, wow, flutter, head bump, noise - even the type of emulsion used on the virtual tape itself. And as a bonus, it even provides superb tape echoes and flanging. 

Read full u-he Satin review

AirWindows ToTape

Airwindows are talented purveyors of esoteric plugins. Developed from mastering-grade gear, ToTape provides the best qualities of high-end tape with none of the muck. Available in AU and VST formats, however there’s no GUI - but then again, it’s the sound that matters. If you like ToTape, you can support Airwindows financially via the Patreon platform.

Download AirWindows ToTape for free

Ourafilmes Diabolique

Windows users looking to impart some of that sticky tape goodness to their tracks can avail themselves of the free Diabolique, an emulation of two different decks, a Revox 536 (c1962) and a Tandberg Model 3 (c1958). Saturation, system noise and tape speed are just of a few of the artefacts provided. If you like it, you can donate on the developer’s site.

Download Ourafilmes Diabolique for free

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