Tape: the final frontier?

The concept of magnetic recording to a moving tape was invented by the German-Austrian engineer Fritz Pfleumer and received a patent back in 1928. The basic idea was to translate the voltage from the audio signal straight into magnetic energy, which then induces magnetic particles on a tape (moving along the inductor at constant speed). These particles manage to store the audio information. The whole process goes the other way around for recall.

Although this was a revolution for both broadcast and recording industry, there were many technical challenges to be addressed before its success during the middle of the last century. Some physical limitations can’t be ignored even today. While electromechanical problems, such as wow and flutter or noise and crosstalk have been improved over the years, the electromagnetic phenomena, such as magnetic permeability, hysteresis or the Barkhausen effect still must be addressed.

Additionally, since a tape can’t store unlimited amounts of energy, a natural saturation occurs when signal levels are driven too hot. Normally this has to be avoided, as it can lead to heavy distortion. Nonetheless, this type of saturation was (and still is) frequently used as an artistic audio effect.

The new digital recording technologies that emerged towards the end of the 20th century overcame these shortcomings of analog recording and made tape obsolete – if regarded from a purely technical and workflow-related point of view. Yet some of the positive effects of high quality tape and recorders are still highly appreciated in today’s audio production, and there is quite a lot of myth and buzz going on about it’s “magical” qualities.

In fact, what makes a good tape and recorder still attractive in the digital age is its overall ability to balance audio dynamics while adding harmonic content and gently limiting the peaks. If properly applied, this can result in a very pleasant sonic experience. However, it still comes at the expense of some of the mentioned artifacts and side effects, not to mention the time and cost of operation and maintenance.


  1. I am currently trying to get set up using tape. I recorded a vocal and acoustic guitar to a friends old reel to reel, and the tracks were done. No mixing. Very loud, and sat up front in the mix easily just like a sound from a drum module or synth would.

    I believe if done properly, you could achieve similar effects. I don’t know that plugins are sophisticated enough yet to model tape without tons of dynamic paremeters, however, I think you could figure out the various aspects of tape and apply them to a signal with results that would bring the sound closer, and sitting up the mix like tape does.

    Elements of tape:

    Ability to eat high transients very fast.

    Does not just limit high transients, but turns them into various forms of pleasant distortion. Harmonic “fuzz” and Varieties and differently spaced and pleasant “grit” both of which cause a sound to appear louder while the signal remains at a DB threshold.

    Compresses the overall signal when driven very hard with a very round and soft clipped effect, and finally a lot of pleasant grit when driven very hard.

    It would be cool thave these disortion and soft clipping abilities, but also the ability to apply a volume curve that matched either the existing file or another file on an adjustable scale. This would allow one to add those distortions, but recreate the original “bigness” (-minus the sharpt fast transients)

    Especially if such features could be applied to selectable frequency bands.

  2. Also, as far as real time, this wouldn’t be as important. Even being able to apply the effects not in real time to assure that you are getting absolute zero latency would be awesome.

    Perhaps a certain amount of look a head could be used to assist in real time performance for tweaking paremeters, but I have always felt like if people want to get true zero latency out of such complex and intensive algorithms, they should be willing to process the file destructively to assure absolute zero latency

  3. The way I see it the most sadly missed aspect of tape is the subtle dynamic compression behaviour and the associated effects.
    We meanwhile have a great choice of tools for all kinds of saturation and more obvious distortion, not least thanks to Bootsie’s fine offerings, and that’s much appreciated.
    A plugin modelling tape behaviour this side of obvious distortion would be wonderful, no doubt.

  4. If bootsy informs about Tape-Saturation, there must be a reason for it. I hope there is. 😉 And i hope this reason is orientated on something like Fatso. Would be cool !

  5. “Ability to eat high transients very fast”

    At first I thought this said “ability to eat trans-fats very fast.” Haha, perhaps not the fatness we’re after…

  6. I was wondering if there are “frequency-robbing” atributes of tape compared to digital.I know there are sub-frequencies that vinyl could not produce at that time that digital can.maybe a filter of some type,i don’t know.

  7. Sweet Water Pirates says:

    Nebula 3 is the only way to go imo, when trying to “emulate” tape. If you don´t use the real thing. Just check out cdsoundmasters collection of r2r, outstandning!

    But please prove me wrong 🙂


  8. For tape simulation I sometimes use the well known freeware JB’Ferox but as I never used real tapes I can’t tell whether it’s accurate.

    And I wonder if there is good subtle saturation vst freeware ? What do people use ? I was interested by URS Saturation but you need a iLok to demo and it’s sure not cheap.

  9. Need realy best saturation-effect ??? Put in Pultronic set Bass-Cut, Bass, Mid, and Highs to zero (flat). Decrease Output, Increase Input, Warmth and a bit of Brightness and you will hear what saturation is possible in algorithms. All others are nothing against this. After that you even can choose different Tube-Models for Bass and Highs. Get it ! Put it in ! Forget URS !

  10. That’s a little too broad a comment tho Bob. All saturation is not created equal for starters, and there’s a great reason right there to have either both, or which-ever ones work best for each person. No?

    That being said… Gee, I wonder what Bootsy’s KVR submission will be? 😉

    “sub-frequencies that vinyl could not produce”
    hmm, perhaps not the right playback gear? i have a bunch of hard to find 1990s German minimal with LOADS of sub-20hz bass that would rock the panties off the staunchest school marm, so ehm… it’s just about having the right setup, great pre-mastering, and having wax cut by people who really know what they are doing.

    • Hi Jesse ! I never wanted to have something to do with vinyl, although i have to admit, that the sound is realy cool especialy in Bass frequencies. The most realistic Tape-simulation i heard, is the new UAD-Fatso! There is no equal in Voxengo, PSP, Nomad Factory or Recording School stuff. And the best Tube-SAturation i found in Pultronic, if you leave it flat and drive it hard. So why don`t you just follow my advice and we all are happy and everything is smooth and relaxed ? 😉

  11. Young Jay says:

    Whats poppin Jess

    The best Tape emulation that I have ever heard is the MCDSP Analog Channel in Pro Tools. Every VST that MCDSP has is by far the best in the business, but the price tag for their pro entry bundles start at 1,000 dollars and up. The MCDSP AC is the only reason I even use Pro Tools, nothing from the URS, to Nomad, to PSP can compare to its tape Emulation. Its subtle and has an authentic tape sound to it that does not add or diminish the sound quality. Some of the other emulators are a little harsh for many settings. The Voxengo Analog FluxSuite Tape Buss is one of those Tape emulators that can do miracles on certain applications but it is not a go to emulator because it degrades the sound a bit. I have used the Pultronic Plug but to me it is a little too aggressive for the application of subtle tape emulation or sat. I have yet to test the UAD fatso but would expect them to be one of the best, but it is hard for me to think that it could be better than the MCDSP Analog Channel.

    If you want real tape emulation you could get the Neve tape emulator that costs around $2’000 dollars. You could also get an analog console and run your music through it.

  12. I actually have the Portico. It’s a nice unit, but it’s not tape. An emulation by Bootsy might beat it in terms of audio quality, and of course the workflow of VST is the best. Fatso is pretty good, and I prefer it to Phoenix simply because Phoenix unfortunately clips the sound… Fatso is more subtle but Phoenix sounds darn good, if you need that royally slammed tape sound.

    However, Bootsy’s plugins have that “magical” harmonic quality to them but are more transparent, they don’t ruin the sound to do what they do, and much better suited to mastering purposes. It’s not a total “free lunch” as they say, but the side effects are always controllable, and almost always somewhat desired to go with the “magic” of the effect. Like the SMOOTH way that TesslaPRO can control loud resonant toms without upsetting impact of the kick midbass. Or the way that Density mkII limiter can remove the snare nasal sharpness without having impact on the loudness of other midrange lesser nasal sounds WHILE it adds 2-3db of transparent loudness. (API 2500 anyone?)

    I would expect nothing less than not only desired side effects of a tape emulation (which the article talks about) of the utmost transparency everywhere else. Free lunch never tasted so good.

    Bootsy, you need a donation button. It’s more worth sending a gift to you than paying to 95% of the overpriced commercial effects out there today. Donationware is the future of software AND music, and you could probably make this a full time hobby if you don’t have many expensive habits, like cars or women. 😉

  13. Anders Nilsen says:

    Please, please make a tape simulator Bootsy! Preferably one that kicks the crap out of the Anamod ATS-1! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPJs4j8tmCM)

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