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Virtual Tape Machines: A Modern Producer’s Guide

Best Virtual Tape Machines Plugins

With more and more tape machine emulators and plug-ins on the market today the choice can be somewhat overwhelming.

For many of today’s producers having never had the chance to embrace the magnetic beast then asking them to decide if it ‘sounds like the original’ seems to be somewhat unfair.

As well as being unfair, the mere principle of attempting to find the perfect replication can be incredibly distracting, unrewarding and can cloud the view of any user.

UAD’s Studer A800 Collection
UAD’s Studer A800 Collection

This got me thinking; does it really matter? Surely if it does good things then, it’s good? Right? Let’s dig deeper and see!

In this article, I’m going to explore some of my personal favorite uses of a few of today’s tape-machine plug-ins and showcase some ideas you might not have seen before. Let’s view this as the ‘modern producers guide to the old’ if you will.

For me, it’s all about getting great sounds from these units with no real mention of nostalgia, old school homage or caring if it actually sounds like a Studer etc.

Compression

Let’s start with the obvious one. J37 Tape Saturation Plugin from Waves & AbbeyRoad Studio has an amazing way of compressing transients thus softening that harsh top end. Try it on the drum bus to tighten things up and ‘glue’ your individual drum elements together. The transient softening can also be incredibly useful in softening aggressive hi-hats or controlling over the top resonances in synths.

Waves J37 Tape
Waves J37 Tape Options, speed and Bias

EQ

Over the years hundreds of different tape styles, sizes and widths have been made with each having its own characteristics and EQ curve.

Try experimenting with different tape styles to see which one has the most pleasurable ‘low-end bump’. My personal favorite is the Slate Virtual Tape at 30ips. This has been my constant go to for adding some tight subs to weak basses and clicky kicks. This thing always seems to deliver.

Slate Virtual Tape Machine
Slate Virtual Tape Machine Buy VST Plugins

Tip: The results sometimes are extreme so worth chucking a HPF after the tape to keep those low rumbles in check. Extremely important if you’re monitors don’t go down low enough to reveal the sub frequencies.

Flutter FX

Wow & flutter relates to the frequency shift and pitch elements found from variances in machine speed. Though useful in adding some ‘analogue characteristics’ we can also take this a step further.

The J37 by Waves offers users a few dials including rate and depth. When automated on synth channels, this can create abstract LFO inspired FX, perfect for adding some weirdness to often sterile sounds. The more the dials are pushed the faster and weirder the results become.

Waves J37 tape saturation plugin
Waves J37 – controlling Wow and flutter FX

Old School Nature

Probably an obvious one but a touch of saturation from driving the input beyond zero is the perfect way to add a touch of vintage drive. This combined with noise and saturation settings means you can truly deliver the old school flavour that many digital tones are crying out for.

Tip

Keep an eye on the bottom end when pushing the input gain. Whilst the saturation can be stunning the loss of bottom end can be quite drastic and suck the life out of drums and bass i.e nightmare.

Mixing Kicks & Bass Levels

This is an idea that I stole but the technique can be incredibly useful in getting an equal balance between these two tricky elements.

The process:

  1. Add tape machine plug-in or anything with a VU to the master channel.
  2. Solo kick and bring the level up so VU hits -3db.
  3. Slowly bring up bass to hit 0Db then you’ll know the relationship between the two is equal.
  4. Link the channels to lower them equally in the mix.

So there it is, the humble tape machine explored from the perspective of the new guy. As you can see the options are many and the affects can vary from plug-in to plug-in which is great.

For me, I think it’s time to stop worrying if it sounds like the original and worry more about whether the thing actually sounds good, surely that’s the most important thing.

About The Author

Ryan co-runs the newly formed sample company Touch Loops who are based in London & LA. They’ve a real love the classic recording, mixing and production techniques which is expressed through their unique sample collections. You can find out more about their products at https://www.touchloops.com

Keep in touch!

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