In this article, we’re going to cover our top 7 cheap tape emulation plugins for anyone as well as two free top-notch tape plugins.
The tape is one of the cornerstones of the history of music recording. Recent studies in music production show a vast increase in the use of analog instruments and outboard gear. Thankfully, in the digital era, we don’t need to fork out excessive money to access the vintage magic that comes with effects such as spring delays, vinyl noise or tape-style processing.
- 1 What Is Tape Saturation Plugin?
- 2 What Is Analog Tape?
- 3 How Does Analog Tape Work?
- 4 What Does A Tape Emulator Do?
- 5 How Do You Use A Tape Machine?
- 6 7 Best On Budget Analog Tape Emulation Plugins 2020
- 7 Conclusion & Verdict
What Is Tape Saturation Plugin?
Tape saturation plugins simulate the type of character that analog tape machines produce. A plugin is a device that you can insert onto a track or channel within your DAW. There are various types of saturation plugins on most audio programs, including tape, which has a very specific overall character.
This particular type of saturation has fast become one of the more used effects among modern producers. The irony of this concept is that this effect is used to give sounds a type of analog warmth that existed quite some time before the digital era. You’ll find that a lot of lo-fi type music has a lot of vintage textures. Tape saturation contributes to a lot of these warm fuzzy tones in these genres’ mixes.
In order to attain the warmth that tape emits, an engineer would traditionally have to record an audio signal through a reel-to-reel or tape machine. Not everyone has access to analog equipment, and thus plugins have been created in an attempt to make this audio aesthetic available to bedroom producers or anyone with financial constraints.
It’s practically impossible to create a perfect replica of any piece of analog equipment, but a lot of plugins can come pretty close. It’s definitely worth trying out more than one tape saturation plugin so that you can compare them. It will also help you get a firm grasp on exactly how this effect changes your signal.
What Is Analog Tape?
Analog tape is a roll of plastic film that is covered in a thin coat of chemicals that contain iron oxide, as well as tiny magnetic particles.
How Does Analog Tape Work?
A tape can conduct electricity, and – with the right process – an electrical signal can be printed onto its surface. The tape itself naturally has a capacity for the amount of data it can store. Overloading the magnetic tape strip with a signal produces the saturation.
This process feeds a lot of brilliance and presence into specific frequencies depending on the type of tape you use and the recording speed. Some saturations give a really warm depth to lower and mid frequencies, while others will brighten up the mid to high spectrum. Before digital recording existed, audio information would be imprinted onto either vinyl records or magnetic tape.
An intriguing factor about tape recording is that there are several variations of tape saturation. The overall color and warmth of a recording would come down to the type of tape used, as well as the tape machine. Other crucial factors that contributed to this process included the recording speed (measured in inches-per-second, or IPS) as well as the wear on the machine.
What Does A Tape Emulator Do?
Tape emulators mimic the type of audio responses that analog tape recorders and tape effects units create. In essence, a tape emulator creates a digital mapping of the effect that tape devices produce and then applies it to an audio signal.
There are a variety of tape-style effects that have been digitized, from saturation to echo and delay. All of these devices revolve around recreating the recognizable warmth that tape recordings produced. Producers and engineers generally use these to add warmth and color to particular frequencies in a mix.
Depending on the device that is being emulated, there are a few fundamental characteristics that define tape saturation. These include but are not limited to:
- Wow – An oscillation or change in pitch caused by warped information on a piece of tape. This warping could be caused by a variety of slight faults during the recording or printing process
- Flutter – Tape can sometimes become stretched or strained under while being passed through a tape head. The instability in the tape’s structure causes it to passes inconsistent information back to the tape player. These cause vibrations on the signal’s frequency spectrum, which is referred to as flutter
- Noise – Tape noise or hiss refers to the background noise or ambiance that is picked up by tape recorders during a recording process. Because recordings are done in silence, the additional room noise can add a warm texture and depth to recordings
- Hysteresis – This effect is caused by a flux in the magnetic structures of the recorded tape information. The result is a series of pops or crackles during playback, and this is part of what gives tape saturation that signature retro tone
How Do You Use A Tape Machine?
In order to record audio on a tape machine, you begin by sending an audio signal into an electro conductor. This signal could be an individual track such as a vocal or instrument, or it could even be a finished composition in its entirety. The conductor receives your electronic signal and converts it into an ionized blueprint.
A tape head receives this information and then prints it onto the magnetic tape strip. The magnetic particles that are on the tape strip arrange and store the electronic signals being sent to them so that they can be repeated later on. You can then replay this information on a tape player.
In order to any sort of editing or overdubbing, engineers would literally cut and paste pieces of analog tape together in order to completely arrange their tracks. This was the original analog cut and paste function that we use as part of our computer commands in the present day.
Producers and engineers rarely record their sessions onto tape in the digital age. Analog tape is, unfortunately, a rare and expensive commodity these days. Another one of the tape’s disadvantages is its minimal storage space compared to its size. Instead, most will use digital tape saturation in their effects chain to help bring out a particular instrument, vocal, or overall mix elements.
Ampex was the original frontrunner of the tape manufacturing era and was also the pioneer of multi-track recording on tape during the 1950’s. Thereafter tape’s popularity and usage soared, and a significant amount of music has been pressed exclusively on tape during the last century.
7 Best On Budget Analog Tape Emulation Plugins 2020
1. Hornet Tape
The Hornet Tape Emulator is one of many audio plugins created by Italian producer Saverio Vigni.
His site hosts an impressive list of various effects units and some handy mixing and mastering tools. The Hornet is straightforward to use, and even beginners should be able to navigate its simple interface.
- Auto Gain – An Auto Gain feature helps maintain a steady balance between your input and output levels. This function helps prevent any clipping in your overall mix and enables you to keep healthy monitoring levels for recording purposes.
- Grouping Feature – This feature lets you copy the settings from one instance of the plugin into another and host up to 8 of the same duplicates in one group. This feature is excellent for creating continuity on things like a group bus for drums or vocals.
- Four Deck Types – There are four different deck emulations available with the Hornet Tape. These are defined by the regions that the old analog machines were manufactured in – America, Japan, France, and Switzerland. Each one is mildly distinct from the next, with the American and Japanese offering the most significant color differences.
- Two Tape Speeds – The Hornet Tape allows for 15 IPS and 30 IPS tape speeds. The faster the tape speed, the more bias there is on higher frequency ranges.
Compatibility: The Hornet Tape Emulator is available for 64 bit Windows and Mac only and comes in VST2.4, VST3, and AAX formats.
Summary: While this plugin may not be a first choice for creating any avant-garde or more experimental tones, it adds some delightful subtle harmonics to things like drums or vocals. The Auto Gain feature makes gain staging a dream if you know what you’re doing. One of the most attractive things about the Hornet is its price. At just £ 10,00, it’s pretty accessible to the general public and a worthy investment in our opinion
2. Toneboosters ReelBus 4
One of the most appealing things about the Reelbus is its modern but straightforward interface.
The overall layout is easy to understand, and the aesthetic is soft on the eyes, which is excellent for long hours of screen time. This plugin hosts a variety of tape-style effects, which we will cover below.
- Drive EQ – The Drive EQ lets you isolate your saturation onto specific frequencies. This tool is great for bringing up individual harmonics in a signal without interfering with the rest of it.
- Tape Echo and Flanger – The Tape Flange and Echo units serve as modulation and time-based effect units. Each comes with its own sets of parameters, and you can also choose which frequencies to focus your effects independently. These units can help you create some well defined spatial textures over elements of your mix.
- Hysteresis and Tape Wear Controls – The Reelbus is one of few emulators to incorporate a Tape Wear function. This function blends your signal with the kind of wear you would get from a tape that has been in constant use. These knobs can add a nice vintage touch to samples or midi recordings.
- Tape Stop and Start Functions – Most traditional tape machines have signature start-up and stop sounds. Naturally, as the wheel that holds the reel deviates in speed, it will also, in turn, affect the pitch of the audio signal. The Rebus’ stop and start functions also have adjustable rates that you can set according to your personal preferences.
Compatibility: Reelbus 4 is available for Windows in VST, VST3, and AAX. Mac users can enjoy it in VST, VST3, AU, or AAX formats.
Summary: The Reelbus gives users more in-depth control of their saturation, with many parameters to fine-tune their processing. The echo and flange units are lovely additions to this plugin, and they encourage experimentation. While it may not have the richest frequency response or processing, the Reelbus is a user-friendly and very fun plugin to utilize.
3. Voxengo CRTIV Tape Bus
It’s easy to underestimate the CRTIV, with its minimal interface and compact size.
But Do not let that fool you. This little guy packs a punch. The programmers have saved time on appearances and poured it into some really impressive saturation capabilities instead.
- Hi-Frequency Emphasis: Hi Emphasis controls can help you zone where you want to focus your saturation within the mid to high-frequency range. This control can either help preserve the rest of your signal’s EQ or brighten up otherwise dull parts of your mix when used correctly.
- 4 Tape Machine Modules: Each of the Voxengo Tape Modules have their subtle coloring characteristics. Some are better at bringing warmth and body to lower frequencies, while others can add some sparkle to the top end of your mix.
- Flutter Control: Flutter is an oscillation in the pitch of a signal that has a wobbly character to it. The effect is somewhat similar to that of vibrato and is part of the signature characteristic of tape-style effects.
- Contextual User Help Text Window: The CRTIV features a small dialog box with some hints and tips to make it easier to integrate the plugin into your workflow.
Compatibility: This Plugin is compatible with 32 and 64 bit Windows and macOS 10.11 or after. It comes in VST, VST3, AU, and AAX.
What the CRTIV lacks in presentation, it makes up for with its robust processing power. This minimal plugin is a firm favorite among many award-winning producers. Voxengo has managed to grasp the signature crispiness that comes with saturating a signal, and it’s hard to pick a favorite among the four tape emulations provided.
4. Caelum Audio Tape Pro
The Audio Tape Pro is the follow up to a free version of Caelum’s Tape Emulators.
This plugin is one of the more meticulous tape emulators on this list, with extensive parameter control for just about every factor that makes up tape saturation. There are a generous amount of presets, saturation types, and tape modules. There are a dizzying amount of tape saturation combinations to try out.
- 6 Saturation types: The Saturation module heads up the signal chain and defines the primary kind of distortion applied to your signal. These can range from discreet to very harsh and dirty. The Saturation modules also come with five adjustable parameters.
- In-depth Response Module: The Response module allows you to shape your signals impulse responses. This gives you greater control over your saturation dynamics and can be used to either enhance or distort your signal.
- 12 Tape Presets: Caelum has expanded some of the already impressive lists of tape emulations provided with their previous free versions. You can apply these emulations to either the response or noise modules independently to create some lush overtones on your signal.
- Extended Delay Parameters: The Tape Delay module in this plugin gives users an extensive scope on their delay parameters. There are independent left and the right time and feedback controls, which can help users balance or tilt their stereo image to preference. There are also separate gain knobs for both the dry and wet signals and a sync option to delay in time with the click.
Compatibility: Caelum is only available as a VST3 for Windows users and in VST3 or AU for Mac. It also comes in either AU, IAA or has a standalone app for both iPadOS and iOS.
Summary: The Audio Tape Pro is an absolute dream. The user interface is extremely attractive, and there are so many knobs and parameters, it’s hard not to get carried away just fiddling around. What also sets this plugin apart is that it gives you the capacity to select your saturation type. This plugin also includes some digital forms of saturation, giving you a few enhancement options that analog gear can’t provide.
5. AudioThing Reels
The Reels Saturation plugin by Audiothing differs slightly from its competitors in this list in that it’s modeled off just one particular analog Tape Machine.
The machine in question is a Japanese reel to reel unit found at an old flea market and defines that Reels overall characteristics.
- Crosstalk and Ducking: A Crosstalk knob determines how much of the opposite ends of the stereo image interfere. This plugin is one of the only units that we have come across with this otherwise vital feature. Ducking creates a volume duck when the saturation is introduced to simulate the imperfections caused by tape recording.
- Motor Noise: Audiothing has tried to replicate the whirring sound to the reel’s motor and give users a control knob to help mix it into their signal. This parameter mostly affects the mid to lower range frequencies, and the motor noise simulation is accurate.
- Built-in limiters and Mono parameters – The built-in limiter button that features on the reels plugin will help contain any harsh DB gains caused by the saturation effect. This tool is quite handy if you’re trying to see how much you can overload a signal’s drive without causing any clipping in your mix.
- Tape Echo ‘Wet Only’ Function: The echo module in this plugin comes with a ‘Wet Only’ button, which removes the original dry signal from your mix, leaving only the echoes’ behind. This technique can create some sparse and colorful stereo information without cluttering up your mix.
Compatibility: Reels by Audiothing is compatible with 64-bit windows and comes in VST2, VST3, or AAX formats. Mac Users will require macOS 10.15 or above and have the option of choosing between VST2, VST3, AU, or AAX versions of the plugin.
Summary: This plugin is convenient for those looking to find a more Lo-Fi type sound for their mixes with little effort. A downside to this device is that it only offers you only one type of tape model.
6. Tone Bytes Tape Noise
This plugin is Tone Bytes’ most popular plugins and with good reason.
The Tape Noise plugin is the brainchild of independent programmer Eugeny Danchenko. His website Tone Bytes hosts an eclectic selection of plugins and virtual instruments, as well as some free sample packs. Unfortunately for Mac users, these toys are all Windows exclusive.
While it may not be the first choice of those seeking very avant-garde or experimental sounds, it is a highly ergonomic tool for bringing some life into dull parts of your frequency spectrum.
- 3 Band EQ: The Tape Noise plugin is one of the few that we have encountered featuring a three-band EQ. This control lets users emphasize specific frequencies in their signal or smooth out any overbearing overtones.
- Panning capabilities – Another simple yet often overlooked features is a panning control. This will give users the option of sending their routing their effect to either the left or right sides of their overall mix. This is great for widening out your stereo image.
- Wow and Flutter Controls – Wow is another element of what gives tape saturation its unique pitch characteristics. The Tape Noise combines this effect with a flutter module and gives users depth and rate parameters to set to their taste.
- 21 Tape Noise Emulations – Tone Bytes have gone to great lengths to give their users the luxury of choice, with 21 tape noise profiles to choose from. These all simulate various types of recording tape that was utilized during the analog era. The profiles act as presets and are great starting off points when you are unsure of exactly what sound is looking for or simply trying out new things.
Compatibility: The Tone Bytes Tape Noise plugin is only available to Windows users in a VST2 format.
Summary: The Tape Noise unit features one of the more compact interfaces amongst the list’s plugins. It does, however, also offer its users an immense array of tape noise presets. The frequency response unit in this plugin can come in handy when dealing with volatile elements in a mix, and it can also act as a limiter to prevent any clipping or excess gain. Thus, this plugin is a lot better at taming frequencies than at distorting them.
7. Initial Audio Analog Pro
Initial Audio’s Analog Pro could win first prize for the coolest looking plugin on this particular list.
The company itself boasts a small but very powerful collection of plugins, including some wonderful mastering tools that will cover in another article.
This plugin also comes with a bit of an edge in that it allows users to utilize tube and/or vinyl emulators as well as tape. There aren’t a ton of features that come with the Analog Pro. However, the few controls that this device is very reactive, and the processing on this unit is exceptional.
- Tape, Tube, Vinyl Simulators – There is a little extra value that comes with the Analog Pro plugin. This device offers the addition of tube amp simulation, as well as vinyl recording emulators. Tape, Tube, and Vinyl each have their own distinctive aural aesthetic as each records electronic signals by a different process.
- Stereo Widening Control: A Stereo widening knob is a quick solution for clearing up any mud caused by clashing harmonics in your saturation. You can also use it to help smooth out specific phasing issues with vocals, brass, or string busses.
- Emphasis Parameter: This control helps boost the affected mid to high frequencies in your signal chain. When used in combination with the stereo knob, it can add a lot of warm resonance to your mid to high range information.
- High and Lowcut Slopes – Saturation can sometimes cause overbearing harshness in certain parts of a signal’s frequency range. Tuning out the higher or lower end of your signal with controls such as these can clean out any sharp or booming points in your signal chain that the plugin might introduce.
Compatibility: The Analog Pro is compatible with Windows 7 and above and macOS 10.6 and higher. It only comes in 64-bit versions as a VST for Windows and VST or AU options for Mac.
Initial Audio’s Analog Pro tops our list of coolest looking tape emulator with its sleek wooden handcraft aesthetic. We would have liked to have seen a few more options for parameter control with that in mind. The additional valve and vinyl emulations are a nice touch and provide users with a slightly broader scope on classic analog processing sounds.
1. Caelum Audio Tape Cassette 2 (FREE)
This plugin created the demand for the Audio Tape Pro.
It rivals the RC-2o by XLN Audio as one of the top choices for free Lo-Fi effect plugins. It has a very pleasing minimal interface with left and right VU meters for monitoring. This plugin’s processing power is incredible compared to its actual size, which helps users save sometimes vital CPU during sessions.
- Sampled Tape Noise: The Tape Cassette 2 allows users to layer sampled noise from the classic Type 1 cassette tape. There aren’t any extensive parameters other than a blend knob, which serves its purpose within the boundaries of this compact device.
- Impulse Response Switch: The Impulse switch is an ideal upgrade to this version of Tape Cassette. The IR creates a more organic frequency response than its predecessor and vastly increases the saturation dynamics, particularly around the mid to high end.
- Oversampling – Oversampling control is a dream for sorting out any aliasing issues. You can set the rate at 2,4,8,16X to help finely attenuate any misinterpreted signal processing caused by the saturation.
- Over 15 Presets – Caelum has given the users a bevy of preset choices to use a starting block for processing or even mere reference. These are split between presets with the newly introduce IR switch and those without.
Compatibility: Caelum’s Audio Tape Cassette 2 is available as 32 or 64 bit VST3 to Windows users. Mac users require OSX 10.11 or higher and can get in VST3 or AU formats.
Summary: If you’re looking for a top-tier free tape emulation plugin, you cannot go wrong with Tape Cassette 2. The color and harmonic enhancements that it offers users make it an absolute steal. If you enjoy this plugin and have the means, we recommend upgrading to the Audio Tape Pro, also by Caelum.
2. Ourafilmes Diabolique (FREE)
The final mention on our list is the Diabolique by Ourafilmes.
The Diabolique is a compact but effective unit and is one of the only free ones on offer through their online portal. It might not be the most powerful device on this list, but the fact that it comes in for free definitely reserves the right to a place on this list.
- Two Tape Machine Emulations: Users have the option of choosing between 2 classic reel to reel emulations. The first is a Revox F36, and the alternative is a Tandberg Model 3. These act as the two raw presets for users to build their saturation off of.
- Analog Mode: Analog mode smooths out the high to mid-frequency responses that digital processing can sometimes overexert through saturation. The result is an overall warmer, which a bit more pleasant on the ears.
- Tube Saturation: Separate tube saturation control lets users blend the processing of a valve state amplifier into their signal chain. This parameter brings out the presence of what some of the other commands can do when incorporated correctly.
- Vintage Parameter: Users can make use of this control to scoop out some of the frequencies. Boxing up the mid-range will result in the classic signal tones produced by old vinyl players.
Compatibility: Diabolique is available to Windows or Mac users as a standalone device.
Summary: There are only two emulations available with this plugin, but both are highly sufficient at their processing power. The Revox module is geared more towards warming up your low to mid-range, while Tandberg’s primary purpose is to introduce higher rates of distortion and harmonic content into your signal.
Conclusion & Verdict
Selecting the right tape saturation plugin will come down to your purpose and taste. They can either be utilized to add some textural dirt or grit to tame parts of your mix, or they can be a convenient tool for creating warmth and stereo depth. If you’re looking for something affordable, simple, and reliable, we recommend trying out the Hornet Tape machine.
Otherwise, if you’re looking to get in-depth with all the different aspects of tape processing, try out the Caelum Audio Pro. Remember to try out using this device in other parts of your signal chain and on group busses as opposed to single tracks.
Kieron Brown is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and writer from Cape Town, South Africa.
He has spent over a decade in the music industry working as a musician, events curator, and consultant.