Real Tape harmonics vs their emulations

Discussion in 'Tracking / Mixing / Editing' started by achase4u, Apr 4, 2015.

  1. achase4u

    achase4u Active Member

    Lately, I have been trying to learn more about tape. I grew up listening to albums tracked to tape, but have only worked professionally in the DAW environment.

    There is a craze with tape plugins in the last several years - including Universal Audios Officially endorsed Studer A800 mkIII plugin, as well as u-he Satin and Slate's Virtual Tape Machines.

    I happen to own these, and enjoy using them on a case by case basis, as they all have their own "flavor".

    In a nutshell, to my ears, the Studer has a fairly subtle and transparent sound - but is fully tweakable. You can go from "almost no effect" to hissy, driven tape sounds.

    Slate is less tweak-able by far, and has a slightly less subtle sound. Its a very pleasing one - big, wide and fat on the 456 emulation. A bit forward and sometimes a tad too sharp on its GP9 setting.

    Satin is a good sounding plugin that I put in between UAD's Studer and Slates VTM. Its tweakable, much like UAD but with less tape formulas - and has a fatter default sound, more like Slate's VTM.

    My feeling on this is that these companies probably very accurately modeled these machines. Each machine sounds different, and whomever sets the machine up and maintains it also plays a role.

    I would like to know more about harmonics in tape. I've taken some screenshots of my plugins with sine wave testing.

    Interestingly - Satin and VTM both show the strong 3rd harmonic - while the UAD Studer shows strong multiple harmonics - many more than the other emulations. At least, at its default tape settings for 456 at 15IPS. I was able to push the bias level from its default 10.18 volts to 11.87 - which is an interesting spot apparently, as most of the harmonics, except the third, mainly, all but disappear. They quickly return on either side of this voltage. The sound is bassier and more compressed to my ears with the higher bias - along with a loss of highs.

    I tend to shy away from the 456 on the Studer, because so much odd order harmonics tend to show up too easily, which doesn't seem realistic. Has anyone shot a sine wave through tape and looked at it on an oscope? Obviously, someone has - I am curious if the Studer is really correct in it's modeling.

    What are everyones thoughts here on tape and its emulations? Close enough? Nailed it? Not necessary?

    Here are the pics. Satin 15ips.png Slate 456 15 ips.png UAD A800 456 15 IPS high bias.png UAD A800 456 15 IPS.png
  2. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I'm still tossed on it. There's no doubt that these major plug manufacturers have vastly improved their plugs from a modeling approach, and many new plugs have certainly come close in many ways.

    I'm not sure I would go so far to say that anyone has "nailed" it yet, though.

    My thought with plug ins, is that I use them for a particular purpose, and that purpose isn't always to go after the result in a way expecting 100 % emulation accuracy of an original piece.

    Clear as mud, right? LOL... yeah. I know. Okay...hmmm... how do I explain this....

    Put it this way:

    When I use a T-Racks LA2, it's not necessarily because I'm expecting an exact replication of a Teletronix original piece of hardware - but more because I like the result of what the plug can do.
    It may not be an exact replica, but that doesn't mean that I don't like what it does.

    I look at the Slate stuff the same way. I have the VCC, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say that their channel or 2-bus plug sounds exactly like a Neve, SSL or API console strip or bus, that doesn't mean that I don't like the results.

    Also, there could be the argument that even with the real hardware, that from model to model, each sounded a bit different. You could have two real 1176's side by side and each would have its own individual sonic character... I believe that tape machines are similar - varying biases, alignments, tapes, etc., along with whatever other small differences each machine would have, means that two Studer B77's, side by side, might have different sonic characteristics.

    So... taking this into account, how do you model that?

    Well, you can't really, unless you were going to make each single plug you made slightly different from another -- LOL - so they get as close as they can with what they have.

    If it were me, I'd start looking at these plugs for what they actually do as opposed to what they are supposed to do. If you drop pre-concieved expectations, and just listen to them for how they sound, it makes things a bit easier when choosing which plug you think is best for a particular application at hand.

    IMHO of course.

  3. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    What makes analog hardware units unique is the natural wear the get over the years. Some parts are not really affected, like resistor, transistors. But others, like capacitor, tubes, tape heads etc, will make the unit sound different from any other units of the same make after a while. So an emulation could be a perfect match of one unit or the average of a few unit but something emulations won't do is wear in a natural way.

    If you use a tube plug in, it will sound the same everytime you use it and the sound won't change by the time it's used in the performance. Start a tube preamp, its sound will change dramaticly in the first 15mins and then small changes will happen depending on how long and how hard you drive it. Those suttle changes are those that can't really be replicated. My 2 x LA-610 certainly have the same kind of vibes but they don't sound exactly the same. Actually they even don't have the same output level at different stages. In a near future, I hope to get the budget to change the tubes of both unit it hope to get their sound to be closer for better stereo recordings.

    So in the end, I'm with Donny. We know emulations aren't exaclty the same, but if they sounds right for the song, why not using them ? ;)
  4. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

    I failed to get a job after graduating at the BBC, many years ago, because unknown to me, the interviewer was the Head of Engineering, covering for a sick colleague - and I attempted to blag my lack of understanding of what bias current did. Too late, for my own benefit I looked into it, and then on my own reel-to-reels with my favourite tape (Scotch something - I can't remember!) found all the setup tweaks that made it sound the 'best' whatever 'best' really was. For me, the move to digital was really positive. My real hate was hiss and noise. I had a problem with cassettes because the hiss annoyed me, but the brighter top end of Chrome tape meant I recorded with the higher bias current settings and then turned off Dolby for replay - and the extra brightness was something I liked a lot, and I could put up with the trade off hiss. Going to DAT as my first digital format (ignoring the short time on Sony F1-Beta) was for me great - I liked the clean sound, the clarity and the lack of artefacts. My friends moaning about the lack of warmth meant little to me - and I suspect this is why I've never liked tube mics, tube compressors and tube guitar amps. Somehow, I found a few tape simulation plug-ins on my system - I guess they must have come with something I use, and while they do seem to sound like my memory suggest, I hate these too!

    For me, these good old days are thankfully behind me! I suspect I'm probably in the minority but my goal is to sound as it is now, and not recreate the sound of the past, because I really don't like how it sounded then. I remember the first Phillips branded CD player with one CD - Dire Straits we used as a demo. I thought wow! Looking at all the first digital products, they were a bit harsh on the ears, and that was a bit unpleasant but the differences we now talk about are so small compared with the huge ones of years ago. Chasing my tail for small returns doesn't seem productive. Today the track I've been producing uses lots of orchestral samples, and I'm spending far more time on tiny performance edits than tonal ones. By accident I used the wrong (as in not my favourite reverb plugin) and in the context of the whole piece, I really cannot tell. Sonically, in isolation, the reverb is just a bit gritty and not quite real on the bigger room settings - but in the mix, it's not an issue at all.

    Maybe I should try a tape emulator and see if it makes a difference?
    audiokid likes this.
  5. JohnTodd

    JohnTodd Well-Known Member

    That's what I do in my tiny studio. I use "emulation" plugins as "sound changer" tools. My "Vintage Desk" plugin may or may not sound like a vintage desk; I wouldn't know; but I like what it does on certain things like acoustic guitars and backing vocals.

    So in my studio, I run some things through old gear, new gear, and some gear not invented yet. It's an engineer's wet dream to run vocals through a Neve console and the drums through some LA2As and the guitars through some APIs and the piano through an old "whatchamacallit" and the reverb is a 1620's-era cathedral.

    Now, if they only sounded as good as the brochure said they would... :)
  6. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    Think of them as sonic changers, regardless of what they are meant or intended to do. It's just another pallet of colors from which you can choose to sculpt sound.

    Personally, I think there are some plugs that sound pretty close to that which they are meant to emulate... but even then, I still approach them individually - and always within the context of the song.
    Kurt Foster and JohnTodd like this.
  7. achase4u

    achase4u Active Member

    This is true - it's all about the purpose we use it for. I just find it kind of interesting that the UAD version has such pronounced harmonics at moderate input levels... maybe on purpose so the plugin wouldnt sound as neutral is it really does???

    Interesting responses. I would hate the noise of analog if I couldn't escape it. Sometimes I love how clean and noise-free digital is. Some days I cant even stand the self noise of a microphone. But on some material, when it comes time to mix, a little noise, albeit nearly undetectable, serves some purpose. The goo of a tape plugin and harmonics serve a purpose.
  8. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    If I would buy something that emulates a unit that I never tried I guess I'd like it to do an obvious difference to the sound I pass through it. I guess that's the kind of philosophy UAD aim for. If an untrained ear can't feel the difference, they would loose a lot of business.
    The only thing I would like them to do is to add a blend knob to most of the plugin they do... So if I decide I don't want them to be that obvious I woun't have to do parallele processing ;)
  9. achase4u

    achase4u Active Member

    I agree. This is kind of what I was thinking - that if the harmonics are indeed boosted beyond what was actually measured, it was because they wanted a more obvious effect for people to go "ohhh" over. Even with the harmonics, its a subtle effect. I just wish it drove like tape normally would.

    As a Reaper user, I have a blend knob for all plugin instances. So I guess I never considered this...
  10. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I think it's important to note that the differences between the digital emulations and the various "virtual settings" included are likely to be more "dramatic" than the differences between the real hardware they are meant to emulate, for the simple fact that very few people want to buy a plug and hear very little difference. If they can't hear obvious differences, they feel as if they spent money for nothing. They want a "wow" factor, even if that factor is somewhat fictitious.

    The sonic differences between various real machines and tape wasn't always all that dramatic.

    Could I tell the sonic differences between 499 on a Revox B77 and a reel of 456 on a Studer? Or a reel of Agfa on an Otari versus a reel of 499 on a Tascam? Maybe, but probably not. If they were all maintained well, biased and aligned, probaby I wouldn't be able to hear much of a difference. And, I say that as having worked with tape for a long time.
    I'm not saying that there weren't differences, but I don't believe that they were as dramatic as some of these digital emulations make them out to be.

    Tape machines weren't intentionally used for getting a "certain sound", at least not to the degree that other available hardware was. I won't go so far to say that they didn't have their own "character" - because all tape had character to one degree or another. Sometimes it was pleasing, other times not so much.

    In the end, it was all about getting the best balancing of frequencies/bias, overcoming inherent noise with sufficient signal to mask the built-in inadequacies and limitations, finding "that" sweet spot for the tape you were using, and getting the best and most accurate reproduction of the master mix coming off the console as you could.

    It would never sound post-repro head exactly like it did when you were monitoring post console/pre-deck. And then, by the time safety copies were run off, duplicates were made, and then mastered and transferred to vinyl or tape for consumers, it was quite a bit different sounding than what the engineers originally heard coming off the desk through their monitors. But, that's the way it was done at that time, and it was accepted as such.

    There's nothing wrong with using these emulations as long as you keep your expectations reasonable, and if you don't always expect them to react and sound like the real thing(s)... because truthfully, if they were based exactly on the real thing, I'm not sure that the average plug-in consumer would be all that impressed. ;)

    IMHO of course.
  11. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    Some of us may find some plugin to exagerate how a real unit would sound but if I was recording with a Behringer C1 and an audio Buddy, I might just need that extra not so subtle effect. ;)

    Everything we do depends on the source, how it's recorded and the sound we are looking for !!
  12. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    Oh, don't get me wrong, pal - I couldn't agree more.

    I was just mentioning that with some of these emulation processors, the color/character/tonality has been intentionally hyped, because after all, no one wants to buy a plug where you really can't hear any difference when you use it. Of course, the experience level of the listener comes into play, too - generally, people who are newer to the craft aren't able to hear subtle sonic changes as well as those who have been doing it for awhile.

    Slate Digital has taken a little bit of heat with their VCC processor, because the differences are considered to be too subtle by those who's ears aren't maybe as experienced and as tuned-in to sonic nuances, as more experienced listeners are, and those inexperienced listeners who have purchased it were expecting big, dramatic differences, and they are disappointed when the processors don't give them that huge change in sonics.... but, that's really not what those emulations were intended to provide.

    The differences are subtle, but again, different enough so that they can make a big difference in the bigger picture of the mix.

    I think that it's the subtle sonic changes that seem to make the biggest differences once you step back and listen to them within the context of the mix.

    But it goes the other way, too. Recently I inserted a VCC channel strip, (RCA Tube Setting) on a bass guitar track, and it sounded really good when I was in the beginning stages of the song, where it was just drums, acoustic guitar and bass. But, after adding more tracks - piano, synth, electric guitar and vox, I started to notice a subtle - but apparent - low end "looseness" that was going on. I searched around a bit, and finally, I found that it was the VCC on the bass track that was adding the lack of definition.
    I switched the setting to an SSL G Series strip instead, tweaked the levels a bit, and the low end tightened up instantly.

    So, while these processors can often be pleasing in a subtle way, they can also be subtly problematic, too. ;)
  13. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    Exactly ! And I was just saying that even with trained ears, if a friend sends me a cheap/thin recording, those hyped effects may just be what I need ! ;)

    I guess we both agree that what ever we do depends on what we are given to.
  14. achase4u

    achase4u Active Member

    Donny - that pretty much sums it up, I think. It's amazing how different the sound would be after the tape aged and copied were made etc.

    I think what bothers me is that UAD went as far as to get the Harmon-Studer stamp of approval, and tout the 12 months of research modeling every part of the signal path - then to just mess up the harmonics(if they are, that is - maybe the tape they tested really did do that... but I really doubt it) Many times it's just too much for my ears. Then they charge $300 bucks for it...

    I love Slate VCC - as well as Sonimus Britson. Those are great plugs, that do just the right amount of subtle for your mix. It's the little things that add up. Even a really clean, well calibrated Studer a800 would make part of the sound in the end, combined with outboard gear and a console - all those little things make up the sound of albums like the ones from Sound City.

    I like Slate VTM for allot of tape needs. I feel like it does do a little bit much in the EQ side of things, but I'd take that over too much saturation. I can push the needle and it responds as one would think.
    pcrecord likes this.
  15. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    I think Tape saturation can be emulated more effectively than Real tape but I don't think tube harmonics vs their emulation is as realistic. Tubes are moving and grooving all the time. Plug-in are constant or programmed to react (cause and effect) so I think there is something quite unique when a source hits a tube before the ADC as opposed to "emulating" what ever the so called tube emulation effect is programmed to do ITB.

    To my ears, a "programed to ride the waves" does something un-tubely that is the furthest away from a tube ever is. I think tube harmonic emulators fall into the same category as wave riders, and wave riders are wiser used on a mono wave. They are transient shifters/ imaging destroyers.

    I think whatever works for us, is all that matters. From a destructive pov, I think there is a imaging trade off that happens with some plug-ins that should never be used as a stereo effect, these are one of them. They do more bad than good. All effects in a mono app are useful. Thats the beauty of mixing. A little of this, a little of that. :)

    I wish plug-in media would stop marketing them tube emulation.
    kmetal likes this.
  16. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    There are some I find to be useful, but more-so as a kind of "bit destroyer" effect than an actual tube emulation. Even Samplitude's stock "Tube Stage" plug seems to act more like a bit destroyer (of sorts, in a more controlled and less dramatic way than a typical bit destroyer acts) than it does with the harmonic edge and break-up of an actual tube amp.

    But - I do think that pre and post gain modeling has gotten much better than it used to be. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they've nailed it 100% yet, but with current technology heading in the direction that it is, I certainly wouldn't rule it out as an eventual.

    There are a lot of very cool things happening out there these days, some things still in development - for example, with "virtual" acoustical "tuning" technology, where modeling technology is used to correct the speakers to compensate for acoustic issues in a faulty room, instead of the other way around, where we've been correcting the room. And, the better that the developers get with one type of modeling, the better they will eventually get with other types of modeling as well.

    So, just as I can say that there's the very real possibility that modeling technology will be able to accurately adjust your monitoring to simulate actual room correction, I can also say that I believe that there's certainly the possibility that with the same modeling technology, developers can eventually achieve accuracy in gain modeling as well, and be able to accurately emulate Tube, FET, Opto/Vari-Mu gain reduction, along with accurate gain staging and sonics from different preamps and EQ's such as 1073's, SSL G and E's, Harrisons and many others.

    Think about just how far we've come - in what really amounts to a very short amount of time in the grand scheme of things - in less than 30 years, we've come from home studios, tape-based 4 and 8 track studios, to the the birth of midi, to full blown, limitless multi track audio and midi production, with tools available to us now - tools and technology that we often now take for granted - that we couldn't have even dreamed of just ten short years ago.

    So - while gain and tube modeling may not be there at 100% yet - maybe not right now... with modern modeling technology growing as fast as it is, and with new doors of related technology opening every day, I don't believe that we should say "never gonna happen"... because it's not impossible to think that it could happen eventually.... and in this modern age, "eventually" doesn't necessarily mean 10 years down the road anymore, or even 3 or 4 years into the future ... "eventually" could mean in as little as a year from now, or even just 6 months from now... or for that matter ... even next week. ;)


  17. achase4u

    achase4u Active Member

    Great post, Donny.
  18. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    The tube like plugin that I think of as nearly authentic but very usefull is Fabfilter Saturn. You can go from gentle to full saturation, it is actually a multiband saturator, so you can affect just the part of the signal you want and it as a usefull EQ as well.. Very well thought !
    Also the presets are great exemples which is not the case of many plugins.
  19. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

    Isn't it funny that things that were just 'how it was' are now thought of as desirable? When we used tape machines, they were a real pain - all that cleaning, aligning, and tweaking to get the best out of them, and preventing the myriad of problems that could creep in if you didn't look after them. We had preamps that would hiss if you had the 'average' ones, and eq that often sounded harsh when you tried to add too much boost, and very thin if you did too much cut. Back then, we all wanted the nicest sounding one, with the minimum of artefacts. Now all the products are so good, we're getting excited adding back in processing that makes it sound better. What a mad place the world has become.
    pcrecord, audiokid and JohnTodd like this.
  20. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    first, the obvious. if digital recording is so wonderful, why all the analog emulation plugs? why are DAW manufactures striving to make DAWs that behave more analog-ish? funny, you don't see analog manufactures busting a nut to make products that sound more "digital" .... lol.

    i never had issues with quality analog tape, consoles or outboard.

    noise? that's what automation, mutes, faders and gates are for!.

    the pre amps and eq on my JH600 never sounded bad ... the problems most attribute to analog recording are really more operator error compounded by cheap -10 unbalanced prosumer equipment.

    it's not as if there are no issues with keeping computers running. it's a real pain all the cleaning dust out of the case, installing drivers, uninstalling drivers you don't need anymore, optimizing, "tweaking to get the best out of them" .... many speak as if computers are a panacea of good audio and simplicity when the reality is exactly opposite. my analog recordings never sounded as bad as the itb stuff i get from computers. even old stereo cassette and cassette 4 track stuff sounds better to me. and that's just the tip of the iceberg. i could go on and on re; what's wrong with digital .... the best thing about digital audio? it sucks! especially itb. i would be very happy with digital if it really did sound better, but it doesn't.

    the simplicity of analog is that it's mechanical ... you don't have to be a math or computer wiz to work on them. with analog, even at the electronic level it is a matter of pulling the bad part and mechanically replacing it. no poking around staring a screen, at little numbers and letters, dealing with component and software compatibility. no dealing with video cards ... (wtf do we need a video card for? it's audio!) even with individual components on a DAW there are compatibility problems and added software functions that make the recording process kludgy.

    SANS console, (itb) .... wouldn't it be nice to route a source to the track and then pull the track up in the DAW and monitor it without having to go into a separate interface software mixer ? .... and then in playback you can listen to the same mix from the same source without it sounding different?

    wouldn't it be nice to be able to print compression or effects and build the mix (with compression, gates, effects patched in through the patch bay) while you track without leaping through a sh*tload of hoops and dealing with latency? that's how it used to be done.

    i was able to do killer 4 song demos for $300 in 6 hours. if i tried to do that on DAW it would take at least twice as long ... more convenient my ass.

    i love analog and i miss it dearly. i like cleaning tape decks. i enjoy aligning them. it's a kick messing with bias to get different things out of tape ... and i love the challenges presented by analog that only inventive recordists could solve that now can be accomplished by a key stroke. what's special about that? last i hate that digital has changed the game that the cost of tape has quadrupled. i don't care about the competition of a thousand little snots trying to get the same business i am going for. if 2" analog tape still cost me $85 a reel, i could kick ass on them. they wouldn't know what hit them. but at $400 a reel .... i just can't convince a client it's worth it, no matter how much better it sounds.

    you can still buy analog gear new or used, at reasonable cost. it's the price of the medium that is preventive.

    i think analog sounds better and was so much cooler to work with and be around. i would much rather be pulling and replacing the channel strip of a great sounding console that went down in the middle of a session than dealing with a fuc#ing computer that sounds like sh*t and keeps crashing. O/S configuration, component compatibility ad nausium and when you finally do get it running smoothly has to be upgraded or replaced in order to keep up with compatibility with the rest of the world. then it starts all over. and it still sounds like sh*t! talk about a money pit! a JH24 made 30 years ago still works. you can't say that about any computer that is ten years old .... analog is plug and play .... what could be simpler?
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