Pro Audio Files

Tape Machine Plugins: Everything You Need to Know

Modern engineers are spoiled. We have keyboard shortcuts for making edits, crossfading and even quantizing. But back when engineers still routinely recorded to tape, they needed a pair of scissors and special tape to make cuts.

While most engineers don’t miss the hassles that come with using a tape machine, we all miss the sound. Tape machines impart a unique combination of equalization, compression and saturation to audio signals. The exact effect a tape machine has on a track depends on a number of settings.

Tape Machine Type

Before DAWs were popular, tape machines were the primary method for recording audio. Typically, studios would use multichannel tape machines for recording and then bounce the final mix to a 2-track master tape. Each of these machines effected the sound in different ways.

Generally speaking, fewer tracks requires a smaller tape size to maintain fidelity. So, 2-track mastering decks typically used 1/4”, 1/2” or even 1” tape. However, 8-track, 16-track and 24-track recorders typically used larger 1” or 2” tape. Each tape size has its own unique sonic characteristics.

Tape Speed

The speed of the tape also affects the sound. All tape machines offer a “head bump“, or frequency boost in the low end. Which frequency, and how much boost depends on how fast the tape is spinning. Tape speed is measured in inches per second, or IPS.

Generally, faster speeds offer higher fidelity, less noise and more high-end. Slow speeds tend to roll off the high-end and boost the lows and low-mids. Slower speeds also add more saturation but tend to be noisier. Common speeds include:

  • 30ips: Typically considered more “hi-fi”. Low midrange boost around 200Hz. Slightly extended high-end.
  • 15ips: Low-midrange boost around 100Hz. Slight midrange boost for more “bite.” More saturation and “attitude”, but more noise. Favorite for rock.
  • 7.5ips: Typically considered more “lo-fi”. Significant high-end roll off and boosted low-end.

Tape Types

Of course, the tape machines themselves aren’t the only variable in this equation. The type of tape you use has an impact on the sound as well. Each tape type has “different frequency response, compression, and distortion characteristics.”

Tape types are defined by the amount of input they can handle before distorting. Early tape types offer more color and thicker low-end response in exchange for more noise and distortion. “Modern” tape types tend to sound punchier, have extended headroom and less noise/saturation.

Although each of these tapes has a suggested “calibration level,” most tape machine plugins let you adjust them. Calibration levels determine how loud the incoming audio signal can get before distorting.

Generally, the lower the calibration level, the higher the signal level needs to be to cause saturation. Here are the most common tape types, and their default calibration level.

  • 250 (+3): Distorts early. Highest noise floor. Highs are noticeably rolled-off. Big low-end boost.
  • 456 (+6): “Colorful.” Thick low-end.
  • 900 (+9): Punchier. More definition.
  • GP9 (+9): Minimal distortion. Least noise. Flattest frequency response. Minimal coloration.

Fine Tuning

The great part about tape machine plugins is that they offer many of the luxuries of analog recorders, with almost none of the drawbacks.

For instance, one of the worst parts about working with tape (aside from editing) was dealing with all of the noise. Many plugins simply offer a Hiss and Hum controls to reduce or remove the noise entirely.

As an added bonus, many plugins feature group controls. Which allow you to try a variety of settings across multiple channels. Instead of, you know, shutting down the session for an hour while you swap the heads and tapes on two machines. Don’t forget to recalibrate every channel when you’re done!

Here are the most common “fine tuning” controls seen on tape machine plugins.

  • Over-Bias: Introduces an ultrasonic signal to help prevent artifacts. Some plugins offer Normal/Over-controls. Over-Biasing adds an extra 3dB of the ultrasonic signal, which many engineers prefer.
  • Low/High Bias: Other plugins offer Low/High Bias controls, which causes the low-end to distort when set to Low, and the high-end to distort when set to High.
  • Flux: Flux is another control that dictates when the signal will distort. Higher flux settings mean you can drive the input harder before causing distortion. Low flux settings mean distortion will occur earlier.
  • Wow: Fluctuations in frequency below 4Hz caused by movement in the tape machine.
  • Flutter: Fluctuations in frequency above 4Hz caused by movement in the tape machine.

Signal Flow

Most tape machine plugins allow you to monitor the signal at different parts of the signal path. They’re typically broken down into four options:

  • Thru: Monitors the original signal. Bypasses the plugin entirely.
  • Input: Monitors the signal after passing through the tape machine’s circuitry, before it reaches the tape. Great for analog vibes without the effects of tape.
  • Sync: Monitors the signal after passing through the record (sync) head, but before reaching the playback head. Minimal tape effects.
  • Repro: Monitors the signal after passing through the record and playback heads. Maximum tape effect and maximum vibes.

Tape Emulation Plugins

Over the years, many different companies have modeled a variety of different machines from all over the globe. They each have their own unique sounds and shine in certain situations. Here are the most popular tape machine emulations:

Most of these plugins offer a range of options, so it’s easy to dial in the sound you’re looking for. Just be warned, once you hear the effect tape can have on your tracks, you might have a hard time going back!

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Brad Pack

Brad Pack

Brad Pack is an award-winning audio engineer living in Chicago. He’s worked for radio stations like NPR, in the studio with artists like William Beckett, and at live sound venues like House of Blues. He has a Master’s Degree in Audio Production, and is currently teaching, writing, and working as a freelance audio engineer. Get in touch here.


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