Saturation Shootout: Comparing 10 Tape Emulation Plugins

Saturation is an essential tool for achieving professional-level sonics—indeed, entire careers have been made through the creative development of unique techniques and approaches to harmonic coloration.

Studer B 67 Tape Recorder

Since the beginning of the modern recording industry, the sounds of tape, tubes, and transistors being pushed past their limits have been an integral part of the music emanating from your speakers. This type of harmonic distortion is the very essence of what makes analog hardware sound so musical and pleasing to the ears.

While there are many ways to add such harmonics to any signal chain, using analog tape equipment isn't always feasible for artists making music today. Thankfully, there are many digital plugins that emulate analog saturation. Today, we're highlighting tape saturation plugins—emulations of the specific type of saturation that occurs when the incoming audio signal has exceeded the limits of analog tape, creating an often pleasing, subtle, and warm distortion effect.

Below, we'll hear how a set of tracks take on different characteristics as they're run through 10 different tape saturation plugins.

Last year, audio engineer and record producer Slade Templeton wrote "How to Use Saturation to Bring Warmth to Your Mixes." In that article, he details what type of saturation works best for which use-case and how to set up these different techniques directly in your digital audio workstation.

Today, for this decidedly more demonstrative tape saturation showdown, I pulled some multitracks from a recent project I produced for two Chicago artists, Brazill and Cheri Soul. I processed the audio from the guitar, drums, vocals, keys/synths, and the master two-track mixes through 10 of my favorite tape saturation plugins on Reverb. (Along this path, I crafted custom Reverb Exclusive presets for each processor, which are available for free here.) Listen to the individual instrument and master mixes here to start:

Featuring companies from all over the globe, the following plugin manufacturers all have a different takes on what they wanted in a tape saturator tool—from the product design concepts and digital signal processing to the settings, interfaces, and more. Each one adds a different harmonic coloration and character to the audio.

I've run the same tracks from Brazill and Cheri Soul through each of these plugins—check out the embedded playlists below to hear these processors in action.

Kicking things off, we have a brand-new release from one of my favorite brands making unique, thoughtful processors, AudioThing. From Ireland, by way of Italy, Carlo Castellano has developed a stunning line of character-driven sound design tools. This new tape machine emulation plugin, AudioThing Reels, is no exception. A tape saturation and tape delay plugin, this thing recreates the unique sound of a consumer-grade mini tape recorder.

The AudioThing Type A Vintage Enhancer is a plugin inspired the Dolby A-Type Model 361 tape encoder. The original unit was designed to be a noise reduction system for tape recording and playback. This processor from AudioThing emulates the encode stage, dynamically increasing the top-end of a signal like a dynamic EQ, without introducing artifacts or altering the harmonic content. Although not technically a direct tape emulation, this plugin emulates the encoding saturation tone of certain tape recordings and was worth inclusion for this very familiar sound.

This Swedish company, Softube, is always at the top of their game, and the Softube Tape plugin is right on target. Tape includes three different tape machine types in one plugin. Type A is based on a classic Swiss high-end reel-to-reel machine, known and loved for its precision and linearity. Type B is much more colorful—it's a transformer-based machine, which adds extra weight and cream to the low-end. Lastly, Type C is based on a British tape machine with a distinct vintage vibe.

A classic remakes another classic with this Eddie Kramer-endorsed Waves plugin. The Waves Kramer Master Tape is modeled on a rare vintage 1/4" reel-to-reel machine used in London's famed Olympic Studios. With adjustable tape speed, bias, flux, wow and flutter, and noise parameters, the Kramer Master Tape provides comprehensive control over the contours of your sound.

From top-of-the-line multi-track consoles to humble cassette decks, this tape machine emulation from the German mainstays u-he gives almost infinite flexibility with its feature offerings. A harmonic coloration device that celebrates all of the historical developments in tape technology, the u-he Satin Tape Emulation includes saturation, transient smoothing, compression, noise modulation, flutter, and hiss. It also gives you controls over delay and flange.

This very simple yet effective tape machine emulation from German outfit Black Rooster Audio, is straightforward for someone just getting into the world of saturation emulations. The Black Rooster Audio Magnetite Tape Saturator keeps it simple with just the necessary controls, such as recording and playback amplifier gain, tape response, and saturation, NAB pre-and de-emphasis EQs, different tape speeds, bias levels, hiss, and hum. Loud harmonics at the twist of a knob.

Inspired by the innovative Studer A810 tape machine, known for excellent frequency response even at the critical high- and low-frequency range limits, Boston-based iZotope makes a great module for analog tape sound inside of their already brilliant iZotope Ozone 8 Advanced mastering suite. I think that this module is really slept on because it's implanted in a much larger software offering. However, I use this often, as it sounds really good when you push input drive almost to the max, and then just walk it back until you get that desired distortion.

A precision model of the very machine used to record many of the greatest masterpieces in modern music, Waves modeled the Studer J37 tape machine used at Abbey Road Studios with their Waves J37 Tape Saturator plugin. With a variety of user-adjustable controls including tape speed, bias, noise, saturation, and wow and flutter, this is a faithful recreation of the sonic signature of the original machine—with an added tape delay feature throw in, just for kicks.

Produced by the Dutch masters FabFilter, this multi-saturation modeler aims to quench all of your harmonic distortion thirsts. The FabFilter Saturn Saturation and Distortion offers a range of different high-quality distortion models, inspired by the vintage sound of tubes, tape, and guitar amps. In addition, you also get three creative distortion styles, with which you can smudge, stretch, crush, rectify, and clip your sounds in weird and unexpected ways.

This saturation tool comes directly from the Los Angeles via India company BeatSkillz. The REELight Tape Saturation is a tape saturation plugin with many features for getting an authentic tape sound. Using their proprietary RTT technology, which they also used in their fantastic Valvesque, their tube version of this harmonic coloration device, like the Magnetite plugin mentioned earlier, is a very straightforward tape machine emulation. Turn a few knobs and get a nice and easy-to-use saturation sound for any use case.

Have a favorite? Not seeing a tape emulation plugin you already know and love? Let us know in the comments.

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