The vast majority of producers, engineers, artists, and audio gurus will agree, for most genres, analog sounds better. Whatever that means. Mics with tubes or FET circuitry and preamps with rows of tubes and power supplies the size of small dogs tend to just make everything sound bigger. Tracking to literal tape, provided everything done pre-tape, meaning the performances, mic placements, and preamp levels, are all executed flawlessly, can make a very warm mix. But it’s also real tape; it’s too scary to actually use and I can get a close enough or better sound anyway.
So how can I get that analog tapes-and-tubes sound without traveling back in time to ask a stegosaurus which reel goes on which side of the deck? How do I make my tracks sound fat without touching the stuff on the other side of the “Do Not Touch” line in museums? Fear not, for it can be done.
Engineers that have been at it for a while always talk about tape. In a bigger private studio I spent a lot of time in, I found several boxes of razors used to cut it. Editing tape must have been a surgical art, because these were the sharpest blades I’ve ever seen. If you accidentally cut yourself with one, you wouldn’t know it until you noticed the new red paint across your work space. I’ve recorded straight to tape then tracked the tape tracks into Pro Tools to edit and mix, but haven’t edited tape.
The sound you get from tape is fresh, real, and warm, warm, warm! But, you can get tangled in it, it isn’t cheap, the noise floor is unacceptable with modern standards, and if it isn’t hit at exactly the right level, it actually doesn’t sound that good. The cons outweigh the pros, and when you throw Slate Virtual Tape Machines (VTM) onto the table, I’m over real tape so fast I forget to change our relationship status on Facebook before my new tape sound moves in and makes my audible world glittery and golden.
I really try hard to approach plugins with an unbiased opinion and decide if it does what I want it to do. That being said, Slate Virtual Tape Machines absolutely nails it, 10 out of 10. It does everything real tape can do, and more, inside of the DAW, where sounds are meant to be manipulated. When you open the plugin, you see it has two different styles of tape to choose from, a 16-track 2-inch machine and a ½-inch mastering deck, two tape formulations, or types of tape, two tape speeds, input and output volumes, a bypass button, and a settings button. That’s more than I could ask for in a tape plugin, and is more tape than I’d care to have in the studio with me. Every option produces a distinct sound from the others, and the adjustable input and output volumes let you hit the tape just right.
When you click the settings button to see what you can adjust, Slate Virtual Tape Machines shoots across the room and gives real tape a roundhouse kick to the deck! There is an adjustable Noise Reduction slider that for all intents and purposes lets you turn the noise floor completely off, a Wow & Flutter slider that lets you add exactly as much of the tape sound as you want, and a Bass Alignment slider to make sure your newly-fattened bottom-end sits right where you want it.
It won’t make a mix done through MacBook speakers sound like it was done in a studio, and it won’t make an unpracticed vocal tracked on a SM57 sound like a professional through a U87, but it can take your hard work and make it shine.
My choice companion for Slate Virtual Tape Machines is Slate Virtual Console Collection (VCC). Now is a good time to note, this article is not a plug for Slate products, these two happen to accomplish the goals this article wishes to accomplish phenomenally well.
Slate Virtual Console Collection comes with two distinct plugins, Virtual Channel Strip and Virtual Mixbuss. While similar in nature, the channel strip is designed for use on individual tracks, and the mix bus is meant for places where things are summed.
There are four different consoles modeled in Slate Virtual Console Collection. I’ve listed them below as they are described in the accompanying user manual from Slate.
Brit N Discrete
This classic desk has been a staple of the recording industry for over thirty years. Known for a rich, fat, and warm sound, it can add some classic vibe to your mixes.
The most popular mixing console in the industry, this desk has a clean, punchy, wide, and slightly aggressive quality that has made it the go-to desk for rock, pop, metal, and hip hop. Push it hard to get some extra grit to the transients.
US A Discrete
One of the most sought after desks in the industry, this American made discrete console is known for a thick and fat tone with lots of vibe and midrange punch.
Another classic British console, this desk is known for being the ultimate rock desk, with a wide soundstage, smooth highs, and fat low end. Push it hard for some extra fatness.
The RC-Tube is based on a 50’s, all tube broadcast desk. It has a super thick mid-range, smooth high end, and fat and warm bottom end.
The descriptions provided by Slate accurately depict the distinctions between the sounds emulated. Also within the plugin, there is adjustable volume, adjustable drive, and grouping, with discrete drive and volume settings for groups as well.
The most significant sub-feature of the plugin is Oversampling. It has separate options for Real-time and Offline-renders, adjustable from no oversampling, 2x, 4x, and 8x oversampling. I will state plainly, these differences are marginally audible on a single track. If I solo a vocal track, and toggle from no oversampling to 8x oversampling, I can hear some change in the track, but I certainly cannot describe it. But, if I have sixteen vocal tracks from an A’ Cappella group, or a drums, guitars, bass, keys, and vocals for a rock band, and I toggle from no oversampling, through each option, to 8x oversampling, on all of the tracks, my mix gets noticeably better, more defined, smoother, and larger, at every interval through 8x oversampling.
Most Pro Tools users that have used the plugin will agree with this, and then quickly complain about both Slate Virtual Tape Machines and Slate Virtual Console Collection using “too much cpu.” To be fair, yes, these plugins use much more than D-Verb, and they aren’t friendly to underpowered mix rigs, which is a good qualifier for their use. If you aren’t already able to call the computer you are mixing on a “mix rig,” VTM and VCC might not be for you.
Even for users that are rocking eight-core monsters, ready to devour 100-track sessions, we can’t run VTM and VCC on every track in real-time, let alone at 8x oversampling, but there is a solution: bounce your edited tracks through VTM and VCC, then mix! It’s that simple.
For a recent A’ Cappella project I worked on, some of the songs where screaming “analog vibe.” There were 15 parts, with 4 sections that I summed in sections, and a lead. After all tuning and editing was finished, I inserted VTM onto all of the individual tracks, grouped them, inserted Virtual Channel Strip onto all the individual tracks, and Virtual Mixbuss onto the busses, then grouped them. Next, I bypassed VCC, and dialed in the settings for VTM across the board. Finally, I enabled VCC, and decided which console sound was best for the track.
Once the decision was made, I disabled Virtual Mixbuss on the busses, routed all of my individual audio tracks to new audio tracks, turned the oversampling setting in VCC to 8x, and hit record. The song was 3 minutes, 30 seconds long, and in total, for me to get the sound produced from having VTM and VCC on every track, took about 5 minutes, at the most lengthy step in the method. Compared to working with real tape, I can only say, “fair enough,” with an obnoxiously wide grin. Once the tracks of this project were EQ’d, I followed the same steps with VCC on every bus through the master track.
Whether or not you agree that in many cases the analog sound is better, you can get that sound, and improve your current mixes with aspects of what comprise the analog sound, with relatively small tools like Slate Virtual Tape Machines and Slate Virtual Console Collection. If enroll in any of the courses I produce, you’ll see me turning to these constantly. I want your mixes to sound better, so follow my lead and use what we both know sounds great!