Take Your Music Back in Time Without Having to Rewind: My Top 5 Tape Emulation Plugins 

by Joe Hamilton

Joe Hamilton is an independent, DIY artist based in Brighton. In this article, he reflects on the role of tape in music production today and lists his top 5 tape emulation plugins.  

As a DIY producer and artist, I’ve found that one of the main benefits and drawbacks of my musical practise is the ease and precision of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). DAWs have allowed me – and millions of others – to easily create great quality recordings, quickly, from the comfort of my own home. However, something I have found over the years is that the precision and quality offered by home digital recording technology can lead to my recordings sounding very ‘in the box’. What I mean by this is that my songs can come out sounding flat, boring, and sterile, due to the precision and flexibility offered by DAWs – the ‘box’ literally being the computer. Having done some research I became aware that there are many plugins which seek to address this issue and add the missing ‘something’ to a digital mix. This is when I discovered tape emulation plugins.  

 

Before the 90s almost all music was recorded on to tape and many of our favourite records are steeped in nostalgic tape mojo. Developed in the early 20th century, magnetic tape records audio by converting audio signals into magnetic energy and printing this signal onto tape covered in magnetic particles. This means that tape behaves in interesting and unpredictable ways. Despite the rise of digital recording, tape has never fully disappeared, and its recent resurgence suggests that tape’s unusual sound provides an irreplaceable magic. 

 

Tape adds nostalgic warmth and character as well as a musical saturation and grit. These characteristics help to enhance digital mixes that feel sterile and flat. You may be thinking that tape emulation plugins are pointless, seeing as the whole appeal of tape is that it is analogue. However, audio quality and analogue emulation have been improving massively in the DAW music world and the differences between tape machines and emulations are getting smaller. Cassette tapes, which present us with many of the historical issues with analogue technology (hiss, distortion, loss of frequencies, dropouts, wow, flutter, etc.), can now be faithfully replicated with all these artefacts that producers spent decades trying to escape. 

 

One of the main things I love about tape emulation plugins is that they provide that subtle – almost unnoticeable – low end warmth while also squeezing and rounding some of those harsher high-end sounds. Also, when pushed hard, these plugins provide unique saturation and harmonic distortion. They also replicate tape’s incidental compression which adds a vintage character and helps glue your mix. The plugins below also have the option to add tape noise and hiss for that extra vintage vibe.  

 

There is a vast array of tape emulation plugins available today and - due to the subtle and subjective nature of tape – this list is just my opinion and is by no means conclusive. I have chosen a range of options and, while they vary in price, all of these plugins will add warmth and character to give you that missing “something” in a cold, sterile digital mix.  

Page Break 

1. Tape - Softube 

As a DIY producer and artist, I’ve found that one of the main benefits and drawbacks of my musical practise is the ease and precision of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). DAWs have allowed me – and millions of others – to easily create great quality recordings, quickly, from the comfort of my own home. However, something I have found over the years is that the precision and quality offered by home digital recording technology can lead to my recordings sounding very ‘in the box’. What I mean by this is that my songs can come out sounding flat, boring, and sterile, due to the precision and flexibility offered by DAWs – the ‘box’ literally being the computer. Having done some research I became aware that there are many plugins which seek to address this issue and add the missing ‘something’ to a digital mix. This is when I discovered tape emulation plugins.  

 

Before the 90s almost all music was recorded on to tape and many of our favourite records are steeped in nostalgic tape mojo. Developed in the early 20th century, magnetic tape records audio by converting audio signals into magnetic energy and printing this signal onto tape covered in magnetic particles. This means that tape behaves in interesting and unpredictable ways. Despite the rise of digital recording, tape has never fully disappeared, and its recent resurgence suggests that tape’s unusual sound provides an irreplaceable magic. 

 

Tape adds nostalgic warmth and character as well as a musical saturation and grit. These characteristics help to enhance digital mixes that feel sterile and flat. You may be thinking that tape emulation plugins are pointless, seeing as the whole appeal of tape is that it is analogue. However, audio quality and analogue emulation have been improving massively in the DAW music world and the differences between tape machines and emulations are getting smaller. Cassette tapes, which present us with many of the historical issues with analogue technology (hiss, distortion, loss of frequencies, dropouts, wow, flutter, etc.), can now be faithfully replicated with all these artefacts that producers spent decades trying to escape. 

 

One of the main things I love about tape emulation plugins is that they provide that subtle – almost unnoticeable – low end warmth while also squeezing and rounding some of those harsher high-end sounds. Also, when pushed hard, these plugins provide unique saturation and harmonic distortion. They also replicate tape’s incidental compression which adds a vintage character and helps glue your mix. The plugins below also have the option to add tape noise and hiss for that extra vintage vibe.  

 

There is a vast array of tape emulation plugins available today and - due to the subtle and subjective nature of tape – this list is just my opinion and is by no means conclusive. I have chosen a range of options and, while they vary in price, all of these plugins will add warmth and character to give you that missing “something” in a cold, sterile digital mix.  

Page Break 

1. Tape - Softube 

As a DIY producer and artist, I’ve found that one of the main benefits and drawbacks of my musical practise is the ease and precision of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). DAWs have allowed me – and millions of others – to easily create great quality recordings, quickly, from the comfort of my own home. However, something I have found over the years is that the precision and quality offered by home digital recording technology can lead to my recordings sounding very ‘in the box’. What I mean by this is that my songs can come out sounding flat, boring, and sterile, due to the precision and flexibility offered by DAWs – the ‘box’ literally being the computer. Having done some research I became aware that there are many plugins which seek to address this issue and add the missing ‘something’ to a digital mix. This is when I discovered tape emulation plugins.  

 

Before the 90s almost all music was recorded on to tape and many of our favourite records are steeped in nostalgic tape mojo. Developed in the early 20th century, magnetic tape records audio by converting audio signals into magnetic energy and printing this signal onto tape covered in magnetic particles. This means that tape behaves in interesting and unpredictable ways. Despite the rise of digital recording, tape has never fully disappeared, and its recent resurgence suggests that tape’s unusual sound provides an irreplaceable magic. 

 

Tape adds nostalgic warmth and character as well as a musical saturation and grit. These characteristics help to enhance digital mixes that feel sterile and flat. You may be thinking that tape emulation plugins are pointless, seeing as the whole appeal of tape is that it is analogue. However, audio quality and analogue emulation have been improving massively in the DAW music world and the differences between tape machines and emulations are getting smaller. Cassette tapes, which present us with many of the historical issues with analogue technology (hiss, distortion, loss of frequencies, dropouts, wow, flutter, etc.), can now be faithfully replicated with all these artefacts that producers spent decades trying to escape. 

 

One of the main things I love about tape emulation plugins is that they provide that subtle – almost unnoticeable – low end warmth while also squeezing and rounding some of those harsher high-end sounds. Also, when pushed hard, these plugins provide unique saturation and harmonic distortion. They also replicate tape’s incidental compression which adds a vintage character and helps glue your mix. The plugins below also have the option to add tape noise and hiss for that extra vintage vibe.  

 

There is a vast array of tape emulation plugins available today and - due to the subtle and subjective nature of tape – this list is just my opinion and is by no means conclusive. I have chosen a range of options and, while they vary in price, all of these plugins will add warmth and character to give you that missing “something” in a cold, sterile digital mix.  

Page Break 

1. Tape - Softube 

softube tape.jpeg

Softube Tape expertly emulates 3 different vintage tape machines. You can choose between these (A, B, and C) and control the amount of distortion using the amount knob. There is also the option to adjust the tape speed which effects pitch and speed. This plugin has a rich, smooth sound which is instantly impressive before any adjustments are made. It is also the best-looking plugin on the list, with a meticulously constructed UI. One drawback is the limited flexibility provided by the lack of controls. However, this means that the plugin is light on CPU and is definitely a good option for those with older computers.  

2. Abbey Road J37 – Waves 

waves j37.png

This plugin emulates the famous J37 tape machine at Abbey Road Studios – heard on many of the biggest hits of the 1960s and 1970s. Waves have produced a very faithful recreation of this machine with a multitude of controls for noise, saturation, delay, tape speed, wow and flutter. Alongside this it also models three different formulas of tape. This plugin provides a heavy vintage sound which adds masses of warmth and vibe that can be tightly controlled and adjusted. However, a drawback of this is that, due to the plugin being so closely modelled on a specific machine, it is not as broad in its sounds as other plugins.  

 

3. TAIP – Baby Audio 

babyaudio taip.png

TAIP is constructed using an AI-based algorithm which emulates the analogue circuits of tape machines. Unlike the other plugins on this list, TAIP offers controls and features learned from a variety of tape machines, instead of being modelled on a specific machine. This allows you to adjust parameters such as noise and wear, as well as being able to saturate the low and high end separately. This unique approach takes a step further than simply emulating existing machines. This plugin provides tape magic in an easy and flexible way and can be added to single tracks or full mixes. This plugin is great if you’re not looking for a specific sound but more of a tape vibe.  

 

4. SketchCassette II – Aberrant DSP 

abberant sketchcassette ii.jpeg

This plugin is designed to emulate the sounds of the cassette recorders and tape machines that are, and have been, made available to consumers and expert hobbyists – like the famous Tascam 424 4-track cassette recorder. SketchCassette II mainly serves the purpose of adding lo-fi tape vibe – such as hiss and tape noise – and Aberrant have described it as ‘Cassette Inspired Degradation’. However, while this plugin may act as an effect as opposed to an emulator, it still allows you to pick between four different types of tape, and 3 different tape machines. This plugin also looks amazing – literally a sketched cassette machine – and its appearance suits the lo-fi, DIY sound.

 

5. Kramer Master Tape – Waves 

waves kramer tape.jpeg

This plugin was developed by Waves alongside the legendary producer Eddie Kramer. It is based on a modified tape machine that was used at London’s Olympic Studios – where artists like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles all recorded during the 1960s. Kramer Master Tape, as the name suggests, is mainly made for mastering and has a subtle, refined sound which adds that characteristic tape width, warmth, and glue to your final master. This is one of those plugins where you do not really notice the difference until you bypass it – and you’re left with that flat and lifeless DAW sound. Having said that, this plugin also provides us with a nasty, crunchy tape distortion and a retro slap back delay which make it a useful plugin for achieving classic tape effects. The only potential drawback being it can be quite heavy on CPU – so I’d advise not putting it on every track.  

 

Conclusion 

 

It is prone to breaking, it never behaves as you expect, it is expensive, it is time consuming, and you edit it with a scalpel. While many people would say that they’re glad tape is in the past, we can’t seem to escape it. There are still many producers who record all their music to tape, and they’d argue that its magic simply cannot be recreated in a DAW. While I’m not saying that tape can be replaced by any of these plugins, they certainly show that we are getting much closer all the time. It seems like a very good sounding, cheaper, and much easier alternative for all producers – especially those who are independent.