Tape plugins have a wide range of definitions and features that it can sometimes be difficult to determine where you should start. Some of them have a subtle impact on your tracks by adding like tape emulation to sound like you’re recording with a tape machine. Others get a bit more aggressive - adding more harmonic distortion and saturation to the mix for color and taste. Then there are the spin-offs like tape delays and echoes designed to introduce tape as an additional feature to more obvious effects.
With so many great tape plugins available on the market today, it’s important you know what you’re looking for in your next one and how it’s going to supplement your current mix workflow.
The Need for Tape Plugins
Tape-based plugins are an interesting apex of what you already have in your DAW and what you want. While most DAWs today have delays and saturation/distortion plugins natively, they often don’t come with the feature set many engineers and producers are looking for. This has really opened up a great place for plugin manufacturers to operate - supplementing your existing setup with plugins that can perform better and/or differently than the ones you already have.
Before you jump for the first tape emulation plugin you see though, think about how it’s going to interact with the rest of your signal chain. There’s a reason a tape emulation thrown in front of a standard digital delay doesn’t sound the same as a tape delay - there are irregularities in tone and desirable quality degradations that come with each repeat when a tape delay loops a sound that you cannot get any other way.
Keep this in mind as you hunt for your next plugin - it can be the difference between buying something that works once in a while, and buying something that you can use in each and every mix.
Best Tape Emulation Plugin
Tape emulation is one of the first places people look when it comes to tape plugins. While there are a ton of options in this category, few do as good a job at replicating the subtle nature of tape machines like the Slate Virtual Tape Machines.
Steven Slate’s team did an incredible job replicating the sounds of both 16-track and 2-track tape machines with plenty of bells and whistles to help you tweak your sound for each and every mix. The Slate VTM plugin includes tons of features like the ability to set Bias, Tape Type & Tape Speed - all contributing factors to how the plugin will color your sound.
While the Slate VTM sounds great on just about anything - don’t expect it to significantly alter any sounds. These Virtual Tape Machines are made to sound organic; they don’t get into heavy saturation or have any type of time-based effects like other options on the list. If you’re looking for a subtle tape emulation though, this is your best bet.
Best Tape Saturation Plugin
Tape saturation takes the emulation of tape to the extremes. With a great saturation plugin, you can really hear how the harmonic distortion grows as you turn things up and get some really wild sounds the crazier you get. While a saturation plugin isn’t going to work on every track, sometimes it’s exactly what you need to keep things interesting in a mix.
Our choice for the best tape saturation plugin is the Soundtoys Decapitator. While Decapitator is a saturation plugin first and foremost, it’s tape saturation setting is one of the best in the biz. Decapitator can be a bit unruly if you’re not careful to dial it in just right, but once you get it, the sound is something to be reckoned with.
Decapitator gets bonus points for its versatility. It’s switching ability between 5 different saturation styles can be great if you’re looking to quickly compare options, but it’s easy to get lost in the plugin because of all of those choices. If you’re looking for an easier saturation, something like Gain Reduction might be easier to dial in - just know that it’s not going to offer the tape or other saturation styles modeled by Decapitator.
Best Tape Delay Plugin
Tape delays are the gold standard for many producers looking for something more feature-rich than their stock delay plugins. While a stock delay can be great for something like a quick eighth note repeat, things start to get really interesting when you add tape to the mix. As we quickly mentioned at the start, the ability to tweak and alter the delayed signal is the biggest benefit of using a tape delay.
In order to create something that had the best of other tape plugins on the market, the JST team built Soar as a tape delay with all the features we thought other delays were missing. Features like Tape Age, Health & Flutter were just as important to us as the Tape Speed & Repeats. Things like the number of tape heads, feedback & even contour were introduced for maximum flexibility.
The beauty of Soar is that at its core, it can be used as a standard delay with basic tape properties - similar to the Space Echo, Echorec & other hardware units that have become studio standards. Mixers can easily tweak the settings to get out-of-this world sounds, but they don’t need to do that for a good sound. Soar was made to be user-friendly & feature-packed so you can tweak to your heart’s content.
Using Tape In Your Mixes
Once you’ve got your tape plugins, do you know when and where to use them for maximum effectiveness in your mix? JST VIP members get access to all kinds of recording and mixing guides - giving them a path toward better mixes. When they get there -they’re able to submit their mixes for review and get honest feedback about how they’re progressing.