As the world of recording continues its digital evolution, the demand for high-quality tape emulation plugins is on the rise. Engineers, producers, and musicians are searching for tools that can recreate the beloved tones they grew up with. While owning a physical tape machine may seem ideal, they are becoming scarcer, more expensive, and less user-friendly. Thankfully, the digital realm offers a wide range of options to meet these needs.
In this article, we will explore some of the best tape emulation plugins available, putting them to the test to help you make an informed choice for your digital audio workstation (DAW). Each plugin on this list offers its own unique features and benefits, so the order in which they are presented should not be the sole determining factor in your decision.
To give you a taste of what these plugins can do, I ran a short drum loop through each one with minimal adjustments. The changes between the dry and processed tracks are subtle, so be sure to listen on headphones or proper monitors to fully appreciate the nuances. I kept the plugins close to their default settings, only making slight tweaks when necessary.
Let’s start with the Slate Virtual Tape Machines (VTM), a straightforward and affordable plugin that delivers excellent sound. It’s highly versatile, finding its way into almost all of my mixes. While it may not offer any groundbreaking features or effects, VTM does the basics exceptionally well. It adds a warm polish to your tracks with minimal effort, making it a reliable choice for any situation.
UAD Oxide Tape Recorder
The UAD Oxide Tape Recorder plugin offers a more subtle effect compared to others on this list. It brightens up the transients and provides a natural sound that enhances both clarity and depth. The DSP usage is impressive, making it a valuable tool for improving the cohesion and sonic character of your mix. The Oxide is a solid entry-level option for those who already own a UAD system or have the means to invest.
If you prefer a hands-on approach and love having options, the McDSP AC202 is the plugin for you. This plugin offers a wide range of settings to sculpt your sound precisely to your liking. With various tape formulations, adjustable frequency rolloff, and saturation recovery time, the AC202 allows you to customize your tape saturation to match your source. It’s a versatile plugin that adapts well to any situation.
Crane Song Phoenix II
The Crane Song Phoenix II plugin is another versatile option, designed by Dave Hill with decades of design experience. With five different tape flavors to choose from and three levels of tape “glow,” this plugin offers impressive flexibility without overwhelming complexity. You can achieve a wide range of sounds, from baseline tape emulation to extra warmth or brightness, with ease. Despite its slightly dated appearance, the Phoenix is one of the best tape emulation plugins on the market.
Sound Toys Decapitator
While not specifically designed as a tape emulation plugin, the Sound Toys Decapitator is still worth considering. This all-in-one saturation solution can create unique sounds and effects without going into full overdrive. It’s a popular tool for a reason, offering unmatched versatility. While it may require more tweaking than other plugins, the Decapitator is capable of producing results that are difficult to match.
UAD Ampex ATR-102
The UAD Ampex ATR-102 is a legendary tape machine that has left its mark on countless hit records. The UAD plugin faithfully recreates the clean sense of polish that the original machine provided. While it’s not suitable for individual tracks, the ATR-102 shines when used on an entire mix. It adds an extra layer of analog glow, increasing top-end excitement and depth without becoming too shrill.
UAD Studer A800
The UAD Studer A800 plugin replicates the dedicated multitrack tape recorder that revolutionized the audio industry in 1978. It is best used as the first insert across every track, providing a subtle effect that accumulates over multiple instances. The A800 informs better mixing decisions and enhances the cohesiveness of a mix. While difficult to hear its effect in isolation, its impact becomes more apparent when applied to all tracks.
Moving away from DSP acceleration and back into the native world, the Waves J37 plugin aims to recreate the iconic Abbey Road machine. With three different tape formulations, it offers a creamy top-end breakup that is particularly suited for individual tracks. The J37’s diverse range of tape models and adjustable controls allow for precise customization of the tape sound. It’s an impressive plugin at an affordable price, giving you a similar sound to the DSP offering for less money.
Waves Kramer Master Tape
Another offering from Waves, the Kramer Tape Machines emulate the Ampex 350 and 351, renowned for their use on major records. The Kramer Master Tape plugin provides a subtle yet effective tape sound, gluing tracks together and adding a touch of sparkle to the top-end. While it may not offer the same versatility as other plugins, it can produce unique and interesting sounds. It is most effective when used on your 2-track, adding a solid flow to your audio and improving the overall quality and character of your master.
UAD FATSO Jr.
Our final plugin on this list is the UAD FATSO Jr., a digital emulation of an analog tape saturation device designed by Empirical Labs. This plugin excels at recreating the sound of analog circuits, smoothing out the digital roughness and adding a subtle breakup. However, it can also provide more aggressive effects by dialing up the compression and tape saturation. The FATSO Jr. is one of the best tape saturation plugins available, boasting unique color, flexibility, and fun for your system.
Summing it Up
Tape emulation plugins have come a long way, providing increasingly realistic sounds as coding and DSP power improve. Each plugin on this list offers its own strengths and distinctive qualities. Take the time to listen to the tracks and consider which flavor suits your needs best.
For those on a budget, Slate’s VTM is a solid choice, offering great sound quality without breaking the bank. If versatility is your priority, the AC202, Decapitator, and FATSO Jr. are excellent options that can do more than the average tape simulator. If you’re looking for authentic emulation, the Universal Audio plugins deliver top-of-the-line quality, but acquiring a UAD system may be necessary.
Which plugin caught your interest the most? Which one sounded the best to you? Did we leave out any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
-Jacob Roach is a writer, producer, and engineer from St. Louis, Missouri.
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