By Phil O'Keefe |
Can a plugin really give your DAW the sound of analog tape?
by Phil O'Keefe
Tape emulation plugins have become really popular with DAW users who would like to bring a bit of that classic "tape sound" to their digital recordings. While many of today's recordists have little to no experience using actual tape decks, I am old enough that I started out using them exclusively, and have logged countless hours operating and maintaining everything from cheap cassette decks to top of the line 16 and 24 track 2" reel to reels - I still own and occasionally use both an analog half track mixdown deck and multitrack tape deck, so not only am I well acquainted with their sound, I also know what some of the disadvantages that come along with analog recording are, and it's some of these imperfections that people actually seem to like. Analog tape imparts sonic characteristics that many people find highly desirable and pleasant. Analog tape gives you subtle (or not so subtle, if you intentionally hit it really hard) distortion - especially on transients / loud hits / peaks, wow and flutter (think "subtle pitch vibrato" and you won't be too far off), a "head bump" (increased bass; usually somewhere around 100Hz, although it varies with different machines and tape speeds), and added hiss and noise. Analog tape also provides you with some "glue" that helps tracks work and mix together more cohesively, and a bit of tape compression that can soften the sometimes overly-harsh sound of digital, especially on transients.
Swedish software gurus Softube are well known to many DAW recording enthusiasts; they make some very impressive and highly regarded plugins and are considered by many to be one of the top developers on the planet, so when they turned their attention towards creating a plugin that would give DAW users some of the benefits of using analog tape without having to leave the digital domain, it was bound to generate a lot of interest. Their efforts resulted in a plugin called Tape, which is under evaluation here - the question is, how well does it give you some of those desirable analog tape-like characteristics?
What You Need To Know
- Softube Tape is a native plugin (no UAD-2, TDM or AAX DSP versions are currently available) that is designed to give DAW tracks sonic character that closely emulates the sound of analog tape.
- The computer system requirements are very reasonable. On the Mac side, you'll need to be running OS 10.9 or later, and PCs need to be running a 64 bit version of Windows 7 or later - although 32 and 64 bit DAW hosts are both supported. On either platform you'll need at least 1280 x 800 screen resolution, at least 1 GB of RAM, and a Intel Core 2 Duo / AMD Athlon 64 X2 or faster CPU. You'll also need Internet access to download everything.
- Softube tape is compatible with VST, VST 3, AU, AAX Native and Mix Engine FX hosts. Pro Tools 10.3.7 or higher is supported.
- Softube uses Gobbler to manage iLok plug in license activation and software downloads. Signing up for and using a Gobbler account is a bit of a pain for many people (it was not terribly hard for me, but I can see where the extra steps involved might be a bit confusing or frustrating for some users), but you don't want to deal with Gobbler you can download the installer straight from Softube's website instead.
- You also need a free iLok account, although owning a iLok hardware dongle isn't mandatory; the authorization can be stored on your computer.
- Softube Tape works fine with all modern sample rates - everything from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz is fully supported, and the plugin can operate on both mono and stereo tracks, as well as on mono and stereo busses too, making it easy to apply it to things like reverb returns and the main stereo bus.
- There are two main views available with the Tape user interface - when you first open the plug-in, you get a tape deck style graphic and a fairly basic and straightforward set of controls.
- Yes, the virtual reels automatically start spinning when you hit play on your DAW, and they stop when you hit stop. It doesn't have any impact on the actual sound, but it does further the illusion that you're using a tape deck and it's kind of cool to see.
- Starting from the left, there's a Meter switch that lets you use the meters to monitor signal levels, or the amount of THD (Total Harmonic Distortion), and of course a pair of meters too. Since you can use Tape on mono or stereo tracks, the functioning of the meters will depend on which you have Tape applied on. With mono tracks, both meters will still work, but they run identically - with stereo tracks or busses, they function independently.
- The next control is labeled Amount, and this dial works in conjunction with the three virtual Type pushbuttons that are immediately to its right. These let you control the character and amount of Color that Tape imparts, with higher Amounts giving you more obvious tape-like effects.
- There are three tape deck models or "Color Types" that are selected with the pushbuttons. While Softube is a bit coy about which specific tape decks they're based on, they do tell us that "Type A is an emulation of a Swiss tape machine that gained its popularity in the 60s." Type A kind of reminds me of the sound of an old Studer A80 (which many consider to be one of the best sounding tape decks of all time), although that doesn't really line up since they weren't released until circa 1970. Still, if forced to guess, that would be what I'd go with.
- Type B is "inspired by a machine with a transformer-based circuit." Again, this is a curious description; especially considering the fact that the Swiss-built tape decks of the 60s (as well as the 70s-era Studer A80 MkI and MkII), used transformers too. The general consensus online seems to be that this Type is probably based on the Ampex ATR-102, and it does bear some sonic similarities to that classic mixdown deck.
- Type C was "inspired by a British tape machine with a distinct vintage vibe." Your guess is as good as mine on this one; based on that description, I'd say it could be based on the old BTR tape decks that EMI used to make, but having no personal experience using them, I can't say if they nailed the sound or not, or even if that's what they actually based this Type on - but it does seem to be the most likely possibility.
- Type A is the most Hi-Fi of the three Types, with less change to the frequency response of the source material overall. Running on the 15 IPS or 30 IPS setting, it has a very polished and professional sound.
- Type B seems to have more effect on the sound, with a touch of smiley-curve EQ that brings up the highs and lows. This is especially noticeable in the low frequency range; I really liked using this on bass and kick drums, and on the main stereo bus to fatten up the mix overall.
- Type C seems to give a bit of a lift to the high frequency range, with less of the head bump and low end fullness of Type B.
- The Tape Speed Control has a range that goes from a cassette deck's 1 7/8 IPS (inches per second) speed to the 15 and 30 IPS of professional reel to reel recorders, and also includes the 3 3/4 IPS and 7.5 IPS settings commonly found in consumer reel to reel decks. Don't be tempted to do what you'd do with a "real" tape deck and just leave it parked at 15 or 30 IPS - instead, think of it as a partner to the Amount control that, along with the Type buttons, determines the character and amount of the effect.
- Experimenting with slower Tape Speed settings is highly recommended, especially if you're seeking more readily apparent tape-like sounds. Higher settings on the speed control in general give you less restriction on the audio bandwidth, less compression, less harmonic distortion, and less noise. The lower you set the Speed control, the more you'll notice a fattening in the lows, with more rolloff in the highs and a increased propensity to distort and compress the peaks in the material, and more of a lo-fi sound overall.
- New to Tape? Softube includes over two dozen presets from engineers Joe Chiccarelli and Howard Willing to help get you started. Or, if you're more experienced, clicking on the RC-1 bar on the right side of the plugin opens a virtual panel with even more user-adjustable controls that allow you to further change the sound of Tape.
- A Dry / Wet control lets you add in just a bit of Tape's effect, or run it 100% wet, or anywhere in between.
- The Speed Stability knob lets you give the track a bit of "wow and flutter" - a little goes a long way, but adding a touch definitely adds to the realism, and higher settings have potential creative / "effect" applications.
- The High Freq Trim control lets you adjust the overall high frequency response - boosting it brings more sparkle while rolling it off gives darker, warmer textures.
- There's also a Crosstalk knob - this only works with stereo tracks / busses (or when using the plugin with Studio One by PreSonus), but it does a good job of emulating some of the "bleed" that you get from one track to another adjacent track when using an analog tape deck.
- Two faders allow you to adjust the master I/O levels for the plugin. These can also be used to adjust the gain staging and how hard or soft you "hit" the tape, with higher input settings here leading to more pronounced sounding tape processing.
- Noise emulation is included with a virtual toggle switch allowing you to turn it on or off at will. When it's turned on, you get a very credible tape hiss type of noise.
- The Run and Stop buttons are fun and unexpected extras - these don't tie into or replace your DAW's transport controls, but rather simulate the effect of starting a reel to reel up from a dead stop, or stopping it in mid-playback, giving you the ability to very accurately simulate those sounds.
- CPU use is really quite low for a plugin of this type - Softube is really good at this! I was easily able to add Tape to every track in a 24 track Pro Tools Session, along with another instance on the stereo bus. Doing so used about 20% of the native CPU according to the meters in Pro Tools HD, and when simultaneously running Softube's excellent Console 1 on each track at the same time along with Tape, I was still only using about 33% of the native CPU, leaving plenty of CPU power to spare for other plugins. This was while using an older 3.5 GHz quad core i7 based PC.
- There are a couple of features included with Tape that I wasn't able to test, but if your DAW of choice is Studio One from PreSonus, then you should be aware of them. In addition to being able to use Tape as a standard plugin, it can also be added to a MixFX slot in Studio One. Doing so gives you Tape Multitrack, which includes all of the rest of the features of Tape, but also user selectable crosstalk between each track (even mono tracks), and the ability to control all of the Tape Multitrack settings for all tracks from a single interface. Tape Multitrack is included with all versions of Tape at no extra charge, but is currently only functional when running it within Studio One.
- Softube Tape is also NKS-ready, and will integrate well with Native Instruments hardware and software, allowing plugin presets and control settings to be adjusted from NI's Komplete Kontrol and Maschine.
- Bias adjustment, noise reduction (outside of the noise on/off switch) and some other aspects of setting up and using a real analog tape deck are not included in this plugin.
- When you turn on the Noise switch, the noise starts, whether or not Tape is actually "rolling" or not. It would be more realistic if it only came on when you hit play, and not while the DAW is stopped.
- It would be fantastic to have the Tape Multitrack capabilities available when running other DAW programs. This isn't within Softube's sole control, so it's not really something we should expect to happen (at least not without other manufacturers cooperating), but it would be nice to have nonetheless.
- The Crosstalk control is only functional when using Tape on stereo tracks or busses, or when using it in a PreSonus Studio One MixFX slot. It won't have any effect when Tape is inserted as a plugin on mono tracks in other DAWs.
- Unlike some other tape emulation plugins, there are no alternative tape formulations to pick from. I suspect that each of the three tape machine Types that Softube based their emulations on may have used a different tape formulation, there's no way to use the Type A machine with an emulation of say, 456, 499, 996 / GP9 or 250 tape types.
One thing I really like about Softube Tape is the relative simplicity of it. It's easy to get it to sound good, and you can do so quickly, using just the main panel controls. Want more grit and distortion, and more impact on the low and high frequencies? Turn down the tape speed and turn up the Amount. Faster tape speeds give you a more high-fidelity tape-like sound… and of course there's the three different Types to experiment with too - each of which does have its own individual character. Going a bit deeper and accessing the RC-1 panel gives you even more power over the plugin; dialing up just a little Speed (in)Stability makes the illusion that you're hearing a tape deck even more convincing, and the Crosstalk control is equally effective at adding additional analog tape-like imperfections to your DAW's stereo tracks and busses. The High Freq(ency) Trim control lets you dial in the top end just how you like it - giving it a bit of added zing, or rolling it off as you see fit. Like the rest of the controls, it's very effective.
The way Softube handles levels is also commendable - you don't get hotter levels as you adjust the Amount control, just more of the effect itself, making it easy to hear what the plugin is doing without being swayed or distracted by level changes. And if you want to change the gain structure, you can still do so with the faders in the RC-1 side panel control section.
While the speed-dependent graphic rotating reels and changing reel colors with the three different machine Types are nice, I do wish that Softube offered users a choice of different tape formulations and the ability to adjust the virtual bias, but that's the engineer in me talking - for the typical user, such features would be little understood and probably rarely, if ever used, and would only compromise the plugin's ease of use and beautiful, uncluttered interface. Other things on my wish list? I really wish the noise started and stopped with the transport - having it "on" all the time is definitely something that ruins the illusion a bit, at least for me. I'd also love to have the crosstalk capabilities on mono tracks like the folks who use Studio One get, but that is largely out of Softube's hands - that kind of deep-level DAW integration would take cooperation from each of the various DAW developers.
What you get with Softube Tape is impressive. While Tape is not as deeply configurable as some competing tape emulation plugins, it is one of the least complicated ones to use, and yet it's still very easy to get great results with it. If you'd rather spend more time making music than adjusting plugin parameters, then there's a good chance that Tape would be a good choice for you. But don't take my word for it. You'll need to sign up for a free Softube and Gobbler account, but once you have those, a free 20 day trial is available directly from Softube, so give it a try for yourself. I think you'll be impressed. -HC-
Want to discuss Softube Tape or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Studio Trenches forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Softube Tape ($99.99 "street")
Softube's product web page
You can purchase Softube Tape from:
Direct from Softube
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.