What’s the big deal with tape? In this article, we’ll identify some key applications of tape plugins, from mixing techniques to creative tricks.
It’s been nearly four decades since digital recording took the throne from analog, and yet, the sound of this ‘obsolete’ technology remains a firm favorite among mix engineers, producers, and musicians the world over.
While hardware tape machines get rarer and more expensive each year, high-quality emulations have made the sound of tape more accessible than ever. In this article, we’re going to unpack how tape machines work, why we still love them, and how you can use them to add creative flair to your work. If you’ve just stumbled across the world of tape and feel out of your element, you can brush up on your tape knowledge with these 13 Essential Tips for Mixing with Tape Plugins.
You’ll want to follow along with this one, so grab a free trial of Waves’ emulation of the legendary Studer J37 4-track, and see why tape is here to stay.
There are countless reasons to fall in love with tape, but many agree its single biggest draw is warmth. To be clear, when we talk about the ‘warm’ sound of tape, we’re talking about imperfections: a non-flat frequency response, harmonic distortions, even subtle pitch and volume fluctuations.
You might think we’d want to keep those things out of our recordings, but a bit of irregularity and gentle distortion can actually give audio that smooth, rich, organic character we associate with the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The original J37, a 4-track tape machine, was a giant leap forward in recording technology when it debuted at Abbey Road in 1965. Sporting 52 vacuum tubes and an almost perfectly flat frequency response up to 18kHz, the J37 helped produce era-defining albums like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Right out of the box, Waves’ reproduction of the J37 offers the same rich color and tonal warmth that engineers sought in decades past. A key difference, however, is you can push the sound of the Waves J37 even further with its built-in saturation capabilities.
To hear Waves J37 for yourself, try it out with our free demo.
What is saturation? Well, in the analog world, it happens when a piece of hardware gets overloaded by an audio signal that’s too hot. When the input gain is high enough, the hardware will impart a specific tone to the recording. Historically, magnetic tape was a favorite medium to drive recordings through, largely thanks to the soft clipping it would produce. Unlike the harsh sound of digital clipping, the harmonic distortion produced by tape saturation can add a huge amount of character and warmth to a recording.
1. Adding Warmth with Tape Saturation
The J37 sports a dedicated saturation dial, the fastest way to add some warmth to your sound.
Here we have some solo piano chords which are currently very dry.
We can introduce some gentle coloration by bringing the saturation up to 6.0.
2. Adding Warmth with Input and Output Gain
While the saturation dial is the simplest way to add color to your sound, you can also control the temperature of your recordings with the J37’s input and output gain. Boosting the input level will smoothly distort the harmonics, while lowering the input gain will give you a more clean, open sound.
Crucially, the input and output gain are linked by default. Raising the input will automatically lower the output and vice versa. This ensures you can fine tune the saturation level without fooling your ears into thinking your audio sounds better, when in fact it’s just louder.
It’s also worth noting that the input gain and the saturation dial can be used simultaneously. Combining these two drive methods can add a variety of tone, color, and richness to our piano sound.
Tape saturation not only adds character and warmth, it also introduces a natural form of compression. The softness and transparency of tape compression makes it ideal for evening out the levels of an individual track or for gluing together an entire mix.
Of course, saturation isn’t just about pushing the input level. It’s also about selecting the appropriate type of tape for a given piece of audio. In the heyday of analog recording, many different types of tape were available, each produced using a variety of chemical formulas. The J37 offers three of these tape styles, each modeled on rare EMI formulas that were developed exclusively for Abbey Road Studios.
The 815 is the default tape setting and has the flattest sound, which makes it perfect for adding subtle warmth without introducing obvious distortion. By contrast, if we switch over to the 888 formula and raise the input gain, we can hear a subtle roll off in the highs and some noticeable warmth in the mid-range frequencies.
Let’s hear it on a multitrack drum recording to add some compression and warmth.
Another key parameter to consider when saturating with tape is the Bias, an ultra-high-frequency signal used to boost overall recording fidelity. While Bias was originally introduced to ensure a clean and accurate sound, mix engineers quickly found that by ‘over-biasing’, they could add even more color to saturated tape.
In the J37, if we load the 888 tape, set the bias up to +5, and dial in some saturation, we can hear an audible increase in the amount of bite and distortion, giving us a great lo-fi grunge sound.
The beloved ‘imperfections’ of tape don’t stop at saturation. In hardware tape machines, small irregularities in motor speed would produce subtle pitch modulations. Similarly, the friction of the tape against the machine’s recording heads would result in amplitude modulation.
In Waves’ J37 emulation, those original imperfections have been faithfully replicated. If you want an accurate tape sound, you can add some pitch fluctuation via the Wow Rate/Depth parameters, or introduce subtle volume variation via the Flutter Rate/Depth parameters.
While authenticity is one possible application, there are a number of ways we can get creative with the sound of tape. By default, the J37 accurately models the original hardware’s Wow and Flutter, but we can dynamically push these parameters to add flavor to our musical parts.
Here, we’re using an arpeggiated synth. By dialing in the Wow at a rate of 40 and with 20dB of depth, we can really emphasize the retro vibe and give the sound a shimmering tremolo.
Or, we can add a vibrato effect to our synth by bringing in some Flutter. Note that, just as on the original machine, Flutter is affected by the tape speed. If we flip over to 7.5ips from 15ips, we can hear the rate of Flutter subtly shift and the high frequencies gradually roll off.
Combining both Wow and Flutter at high levels of Depth, we can even create a rich chorus-like effect.
These examples should give you an idea of the type of sounds you can achieve with the J37, but don’t let these be the end of your experimentation. You can also get creative by applying the J37 as an arrangement tool. How? With automation. Try increasing the Wow and Flutter at the very end of a synth line to finish it in style, or you could engage the plugin across an entire musical section to tonally differentiate it from your song’s main structure.
3. Using Delay
Back when Pink Floyd and The Beatles were using the J37 at Abbey Road, creating a tape delay involved setting up multiple machines, splitting and recombining signals, and fine tuning the playback speed to get the timing just right. Needless to say, it was a whole lot of work. Fortunately for us, the J37 emulation stays true to that authentic sound, but makes the process much easier.
There are three classic tape delay styles to choose from: feedback, slapback, and ping pong.
A feedback delay takes the delayed signal and routes a portion of it back into the input. This creates a feedback loop where the delayed signal repeats and slowly decays over time. Compared to digital delays, which can produce perfect repetitions, tape feedback naturally introduces some degradation and saturation to the sound. The delayed signal often has a warmer and more vintage quality, which helps differentiate it from the source signal.
To take the J37’s delay in an even more creative direction, you can try recording the wet signal onto a new audio track. Then, you can chop, reverse, stretch, and further process the delays. If your CPU permits, you can even try stacking several J37 instances, each with different delay settings, to create a cascading delay sound.
4. Slapback Delay as an Insert
A slapback delay is a single echo, typically with a very short delay time. It’s perfect for emphasizing high energy vocals and guitars. On the J37, we can set our delay time at around 80 milliseconds, or, if you prefer to use musical time divisions, just click the ‘Sync’ button and choose your desired length.
Here’s the effect on some percussive acoustic guitar chords.
5. Ping Pong Delay as a Send
Lastly, a ping pong delay bounces the delayed signal from left to right across the stereo field. If we de-link the left and right channels in the delay section, we can independently set the delay time of our Ping Pong Delay to thicken out the sound.
It’s a great way to add extra width to a mix, or to bring a classic 60’s psychedelic vibe to our guitar.
However, sometimes we want extra control when balancing our delayed sound with the ‘dry’ original. This is where the J37’s Send/Return Mode comes in.
In its default setting, the Delay section is set to Insert Mode. This will add the delayed sound to the original audio. If we place the J37 on an auxiliary track and switch it over to Send/Return Mode, then the original audio will be removed and only the delayed output will be audible. This allows us to concentrate fully on the J37’s output and then blend in the original audio as we wish.
Tape remains relevant in modern mixing for one simple reason: it sounds great. Whether you’re placing it on the master bus to bring cohesion to a mix, adding some vintage vibes, or creating powerful time and frequency effects, tape emulation can add life, vibrance, and heft to your recordings.
We’ve covered how to add warmth with tape saturation, how to add movement to a sound with classic Flutter and Wow, and how to lush tape delays effects. However, this is just the beginning.
Tape is somewhat unpredictable by its nature, and we can use this to our advantage. Try tweaking and combining the J37’s parameters to produce distinctive timbres and unexpected effects.