Best Tape Emulation Plugins – 2020 Guide

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There is a certain portion of the paradox regarding using tape emulation plugins.

You’re deliberately ruining clear and pristine sound and yet the outcome is most of the time considered as getting better sound.

Let’s see what’s going on here and why people are so crazy about the tape emulation effect.

Our Top Picks for Tape Emulation Plugins

  • 3 tape machine types
  • In-depth editing available
  • Presets made by professionals
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  • All major tape units available
  • Delay and Flanger effect
  • Service Panel detailed editing
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  • 4 distinct tape impulses
  • Automatic make-up gain staging
  • Resizable user interface
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Comparison of the Best Tape Emulation Plugins

IMAGEPRODUCT
  • Three tape machine types based on hardware models
  • Extended editing available in Remote Control panel
  • Presets made by professional producers
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  • All major tape hardware units available
  • Control multiple instances from a single panel
  • Detailed editing with service panel section
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  • 4 distinct tape impulses
  • Automatic make-up gain staging
  • Resizable user interface with different color schemes
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  • Best Waves Tape Emulation Plugin
  • 3 tape formulas models based on real hardware unit
  • 3 types of Tape Delay
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  • Most complex tape emulation ever made
  • 2 tape machines, types and speeds
  • Cover both modern and vintage tape emulations
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  • Best Tape Emulation for Mastering
  • 2-way tape speed with adjustable parameters
  • Can also work as a slapback delay unit
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  • Best Lo-Fi Emulation Plugin
  • 4 cassette types available
  • Controllable Stability and Artifact parameters
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What is a Tape Emulation Plugin?

Tape Emulation plugin emulates the sound of the vintage tape applied to your mixes. Some may emulate real hardware, while others will generate a genuine effect without having any specific vintage unit in mind.

So, in general, the Tape Emulation plugin does digitally what analog hardware did half a century ago - it takes the audio signal and passes it through the recording head generating magnetic radiation using different chemical formulations which had certain sound characteristics resulting in cleaner or more distorted sound output. 

However, engineers of that time discovered that if you push the sound over the maximum, you’re getting a pleasant crunch effect that could be used on vocals and other instruments, especially on the drums. That’s how the saturation effect was discovered and very soon tape machines were used not just for recording master track but became a regular part of the mixing process. 

Also, the inevitable part of any tape emulation is the background noise called the tape hiss and luckily, using plugins instead of real hardware had for the result that the plugin version could completely remove this unwanted part of the saturation or at least control it as an individual parameter that can be applied to the desired amount.

Why Use Tape Emulation?

Tape emulation provides a smooth effect and glues individual tracks together into a dense mix. It makes tracks feel more connected. Also, applying a tape emulation allows your vocals to sit a bit better in the mix compared to what you would get with the EQ.

It brings the certain analog warmth to your digital recording which is most often registered as pleasant to the listener’s ears because many iconic albums were recorded using this specific method, so resembling that type of sound will trigger positive feedback from the audience instantly without even knowing what’s really going on. 

Are Tape Emulation Plugins Hard to Learn?

We have to be really honest with you about this effect. Sometimes you won’t even be sure if you’re hearing any difference at all. But it all depends on your knowledge and on what equipment where you’re listening to the reference track.

So, in general, it requires a lot of training and the differences you’re about to hear won’t be drastic. It’s all about subtle changes and the result it will generate for you can’t be achieved in other ways.

So if you want to go fully professional with your mixes, it’s definitely worth the time investment.

Pros and Cons of a Tape Emulation VST Plugins

Tape emulation is all about trading off things, so let’s see what you can get from it and at what price:

PROS

Analog Breath

There is something almost magical found in the sound of the vintage tape machines that still work even in modern ages. The warmth you’re getting from it is hard to recreate using other effects and some producers go even further and insist on using the original vintage hardware to get this specific effect.

Saturation Magic

Pushing tape machines over the top is a technique often found at professional producers. Unlike the digital clipping, analog clipping results in creating pleasing harmonic overtones which may be used as a constructive tool for creating a sonic character that may become a trademark for a specific instrument. And it’s much more forgiving than clipping from a digital realm.

CONS

Unwanted Hiss

Hiss is a regular part of the tape machine processing. While you will definitely like the warmth you’re getting from these plugins, hiss might be an issue that may lower the overall loudness of your track, so don’t be surprised if you devote some time balancing between clarity digital sound provides you and the warmth you’re getting from tape machines.

Quick Take: 
Top 3 Picks

Here are the best tape emulation plugins:

  1. Softube Tape
  2. u-he Satin
  3. Voxengo CRTIV Tape Bus

Review of the Best Tape Emulation Plugins

With the current mainstream rising trend of having mixes put through the tape, we had to put some time and find the best products available.

Best Overall:
Softube Tape

PROS

  • Truly realistic analog tape sound
  • Presets made by professional producers
  • Minimalistic but effective front-panel interface
  • Extended editing available in Remote Control panel
  • Three tape machine types based on hardware models

CONS

  • VU-meter not so responsive
  • Remote controls panel feels hidden

Features and Specifications

This plugin is made from three tape models. Type A provides you with precision and linearity based on a Studer tape machine. Type B brings Ampex ATR102, a transformer machine that adds extra color to the low range while Type C brings a vintage vibe, similar to British EMI tape machines.

While being basic with just two knobs dedicated to the Tape Amount and Speed, Remote Control allows you to go more in-depth and adjust Speed Stability, Tape up, High-Frequency Trim, Crosstalk, and Noise activation parameters.

Why it Stands Out to Us

It’s how controlled these heavy changes sound and not just being a typical harmonic distortion that caught our attention. But, in overall, Softube Tape has a really pleasing tone throughout the complete range.

Tape models are also chosen carefully so they cover a really broad sound palette. It may work great on drums and it will bring to life any synthetic element. From our impression, Type A will work great for trap music.

It also sounds a bit different than the rest of the tape emulation products, so, because of the affordable price, you may extend your tape emulation collection.

Runner-up:
 u-he Satin

PROS

  • Wide variety of presets
  • Works also as a Delay and Flange effect
  • In-depth editing with Service Panel section
  • Control multiple instances from a single panel
  • Complete collection of all major tape hardware units

CONS

  • Wish it could be set at more extreme values
  • Advanced editing has a steep learning curve

Features and Specifications

Satin is a tape emulation machine designed to work in three specific modes - Studio (default), Delay, and Flange.

Studio mode works like a typical tape emulation plugin with dedicated knobs for speed ips and pre-emphasis on the left and a compander part on the right with five types noise reduction encoders and decoders modeled upon some authentic vintage hardware units.

Below the main panel, there is a service panel that allows you advanced editing, and, luckily, the Satub manual will cover most of the info for you.

Why it Stands Out to Us

This is probably the most versatile tape emulation plugin on the market. So many various tape machines were emulated within this plugin that it will be really hard to find a relevant sound type that’s missing, especially with so many wonderful factories presets available.

Besides excellent tape emulation, this unit also provides you with additional analog-like effects such as noise reduction, 2-tap or 4-tap delay and flanger that behaves quite differently compared to what you would expect from a digital counterpart.

Best for the Money:
Voxengo CRTIV Tape Bus

PROS

  • 4 distinct tape impulses
  • Automatic make-up gain staging
  • Tape saturation and hard-clipper plugin
  • 2 flutter noise modes and several circuitry modes
  • Resizable user interface with different color schemes

CONS

  • Tape emulation feels generic
  • No Wow parameter available

Features and Specifications

CRTIV Tape Bus user panel is organized in 3 sections. The saturation part controls the obvious effect with 4 knobs. Rec Gain will determine the effect amount, Hi Emphas will add up the gain to the higher frequencies which might be useful for noise reduction equalizing while Hardness allows you to blend between soft-saturation and hard-saturation and Saturation knob works as a Dry/Wet parameter.

Tape section comes with four tape impulses that cover both linear and non-linear frequency responses with adjustable Flutter while Levels control the overall output level with an adjustable level of the high-shelf filter.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Not all music genres can benefit from a decent tape emulation and it’s completely fine if you don’t go crazy over this kind of effect.

CRTIV is made exactly for the users just like you. It’s affordable, it doesn’t go too much into analog details, but it still gets the job done. It also might be a reasonable investment to see if this type of effect works for you at all.

Inexperienced users may appreciate the fact that it doesn’t go so much into details so it will be much harder to go wrong, especially with the automated make-up gain staging.

Best Tape Emulation for Mastering:
Waves Kramer Master Tape

PROS

  • Works in mono and stereo mode
  • Can also work as a slapback delay unit
  • Developed with the legendary engineer Eddie Kramer
  • 2-way tape speed with adjustable bias, flux, wow and flutter
  • Tape emulation of the rare vintage 1/4" reel-to-reel machine

CONS

  • Presets are hit and miss
  • May require extra time to nail down the sweet spot for your tracks

Features and Specifications

This tape emulation comes with several knobs dedicated to the usual parameters found at such plugins. Tape speed can be changed from Low (7.5 ips) to High (15 ips) while Bias can be switched between Nominal and Overbias settings.

Flux can be set on a step basis from 150 up to 1,020 and there is a separate knob dedicated for Wow & Flutter and Noise level.

On the top right corner, there are knobs dedicated to creating a slapback or feedback delay, and all audio changes are displayed in a big VU meter located at the center.

Why it Stands Out to Us

If you’re a fan of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, you should appreciate the name of Eddie Kramer, a guy who is responsible for making their sound. Well, the same guy is in charge of this plugin as well and he made it to resemble the experience he had in Olympic Studio in London back in the late ‘60s while working on those iconic albums

This reel-to-reel machine wasn’t used so frequently so you can get quite a different sound from what it’s usually acquired from a tape emulation plugin and being original is important to this kind of effect in general.

Best Waves Tape Emulation Plugin:
Waves J37 Tape

PROS

  • 3 types of Tape Delay
  • User interface resembles original hardware unit
  • 3 tape formulas models based on a real hardware unit
  • Tape saturation plugin made with Abbey Road Studios
  • Controllable Bias, Wow, Flutter, Tape Speed parameters

CONS

  • Knobs should be bigger
  • Some modern additions would be welcomed

Features and Specifications

J37 is a tape saturation plugin made in collaboration with Abbey Road Studios based on the Studer vintage one-inch 4-track recorder that was used throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s on countless musical masterpieces.

You’re provided with three oxide tape formulas based on the originals made by EMI back in those days and every formula has a specific frequency response and harmonic distortion behavior and it will support both mono and stereo tracks.

Speaking of interface, it allows you to control various parameters such as Bias, Wow, Flutter, and Tape Speed.

Why it Stands Out to Us

It will add a certain analog warmth to your digital content and based on the specific tape model you will breathe in an air of the early or late ‘60s or early ‘70s and each of those tracks brings different amounts of harmonic distortion.

J37 Tape also has a nice combination of basic and advanced options so that newbies can use it plain and straight-forward while advanced users can play around with additional parameters and tune-up the result. And on top of that, it comes with a really nice slapback delay which is irreplaceable if you’re looking to recreate authentic vintage guitar sound.

Best Lo-Fi Emulation:
Wavesfactory Cassette

PROS

  • 4 cassette types available
  • Very interesting pre-made presets
  • Beautiful vintage-style user interface
  • Controllable Stability and Artifact parameters
  • One of the kind tape emulation on the market

CONS

  • No 32-bit support
  • Limited purpose, not intended for premium tracks (yet)

Features and Specifications

Cassette is an audio plugin that emulates the sound of cassette tapes and decks. It comes with four models, each representing different sound characteristics.

The model I comes from the ‘60s and it’s known as Fe2O3, model II is made in ‘70s and it’s made from CrO2, model III was used in early ‘80s FeCr and model IV is metal-formulated and it came in the late ‘70s.

Besides models you can also specify how much of analog Stability you want, the number of Artifacts, and innovative “Re-Cassette” parameters.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Cassette format has been inferior to the original vinyl sound, but it was more present in the general population. Applying such an effect to your track may cause you a certain Lo-Fi vibe, but this one will ring a bell to those users who are feeling nostalgic towards the sound of the original cassettes.

This is a unique plugin on the market and it can be useful for either mastering or individual mixing purposes. And the best part is that unlike the original cassette you have full control of all unexpected artifacts that could occur on a real physical copy.

Editor's Pick:
Slate Digital - VTM

PROS

  • Great for mastering polishing
  • 2 tape machines, types and speeds
  • Various in-depth editing in the settings page
  • The most complex tape emulation ever made
  • Cover both modern and vintage tape emulations

CONS

  • Requires extra attention to treating a bass audio range
  • Sounds so good that it left us craving for more tape machines

Features and Specifications

VTM or Virtual Tape Machines provides you with the two tape machines - two-inch Studer A827 and Studer A80RC half-inch mastering deck.

tone of two premium analog tape machines with different headroom and properties - vintage Ampex 456 that gives you more body and smooth trebles or modern Quantegy FG9 with more headroom and clarity.

There are also two tape speeds available on a dedicated switch so you can pick between 30ips and 15ips while the bass response may be adjusted with the bass alignment slider from the Settings module.

Why it Stands Out to Us

VTM is one of the latest tape machine emulations so it comes with all the field experience taken from the rest of the competition. It may not provide you with tape emulation variety or most detailed parameters, but the quality coming from this plugin is undeniable.

The rumor says that Steven Slate, owner of the Slate digital told that he won’t release this plugin unless there is no audible difference compared to the real hardware. And the outcome was big, warm, and deep sound - as close as the digital world can get to magnetic tape sounds.

Comparison Overview

Next, we’re going to review differences between some units that are often mixed with the Tape Emulation plugins:

Tape Emulation vs Preamp Emulation

Both of these emulations have in common the fact that it will give a certain audio characteristic to the audio signal that it has been processed, especially regarding saturation effect. But, the main difference between tape and preamp emulation lies in the audio order.

While Tape Machines will finalize the audio signal routing, preamp units are most often found as the first unit in this process and most often it’s almost impossible to process the audio signal without applying a proper preamp gain staging first. They may also come with a nice EQ panel or even a dynamics module.

Tape Emulation vs Console

Tape Emulation will reproduce the signal it has been fed on and apply characteristics of a certain vintage hardware unit. Tapes come last in analog music production when all the editing steps had taken place.

Consoles on the other hand come before tapes and can do a lot more. Sure, it will similarly colorize the input track, but it can also apply compression, equalizers, and certain effects founded in an audio chain. 

How to Use Tape Emulation VST

Tape emulation could be used for any kind of track that asks for an “organic” approach. It can open up the mix and add a certain character and vibe to your song in a much more convenient way than applying a certain equalizer.

Here are some tips on how to use Tape Emulation plugin properly:

  1. Check your gain staging first - You want the VU meter to hit zero for input level and occasionally go over that number

2. Pick the tape model that works the best for you - make your choice based regarding how your mix sounds in overall

3. If you want less saturation, lower the input gain - for the opposite effect move it toward positive dB values

4. If you want to add a specific analog behavior, play around with the Wow and Flutter knobs as it will generate unique irregularities found on the original analog units.

5. Bear in mind that modern production generally appreciates the warmth of the tape emulation without having too much of a Wow and Flutter effect so be extra careful with dozing these things. It’s completely fine if you remove it in total.

Be sure to refer to the video below for a full overview of what was just described: 

Conclusion

If you ask any listener why they prefer the sound of the tape over objectively more precise and clean digital, probably no one will provide you with a good scientific reason. However, the reason remains there and it’s up to you to fight windmills or purchase something that can easily go into your favor.

People Also Ask

Tape emulation has so many terms used only for this effect. They are so unique that we can say it built up its own glossary. That’s why even seasoned musicians may come uncertain of terms such as Wow, Flutter, Bias, Speed IPS or a Flux and we’re going to help you out with all these terms:

What Do Wow and Flutter Stand For?

Both of these terms stand for irregularities that may occur during tape recording. Wow is heard as cyclical speed variation that happens in low-frequency range while Flutter occurs in higher frequencies and causes a more rough tone so piano sound may sound just like a harp for example.

How To Set Wow And Flutter On Tape Emulation

Wow and Flutter are subtle oscillating events sound occurring in lower and higher spectrum of tape emulation. They are the core foundation of what makes sound analog.

So, based on how “analog” or “digital” you want to go, you may apply or exclude these parameters. They are usually located in the advanced panel of VST plugins.

What Does Flux Do in Tape Emulation?

Flux is the level of magnetic radiation emitted from the recording head onto the tape. It is also known as the operating level. While older tapes were handling lower flux levels, modern tapes could withstand much higher flux before distorting, resulting in relatively lower noise. 

What Does Bias Do in Tape Emulation?

Bias calibration is an ultrasonic signal that’s used to reduce the limitations of the reel machines. Many engineers got the impression that adding more gain to the bias signal resulted in better overall sound and this method of Applying additional gain over “nominal bias” is called over bias and it usually goes around 3dB over the recommended settings.

What Does IPS Means?

IPS stands for inch per the second abbreviation. It is used to describe at which speed the tape is rolling. Low speed offers better frequency response with some loss in high frequency, while higher speed offers a more full-range signal with significant losses in the lower ranges.