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Studio One 5’s Tape Emulator


Although Studio One 5 doesn’t have a tape emulator plug-in per se, it can emulate some of the most important characteristics that people associate with “the tape sound.” Truly emulating tape can go down a serious rabbit hole because tape is a complicated signal processor; no two vintage tape recorders sounded the same because they required alignment (influenced by the engineer’s preferences), used different tape formulations, and were in various states of maintenance. However, emulating three important characteristics provides what most people want from tape emulation.

  • Tape saturates, which rounds off waveform peaks and affects dynamic range. This gives a higher average level, which is part of why tape sounds “punchy.”
  • Head “bump.” The frequency of a bass range peak (around 2 dB) depends on the tape speed and the tape machine. At 15 IPS, a typical peak is in the 40-70 Hz range, and at 30 IPS, in the 70-150 Hz range. However, at 30 IPS, the bass response drops off below the bump—sometimes drastically, sometimes gently. Even though in theory 30 IPS offered better fidelity, many engineers preferred to work at 15 IPS due to the bass response characteristics (and they saved money by using half as much tape for the same recording time).
  • Tape is a flawed recording medium that trades off noise, high-frequency response, and distortion. For example, some engineers aligned their machines to underbias the tape, which increased distortion but gave more highs; other engineers did the reverse and made up for the lack of highs with subsequent equalization.

Check out the audio example to hear what this FX Chain can do. The first part is unprocessed, while the second part uses the default FX Chain control settings with a little underbiasing and head bump. The difference is subtle, but it adds that extra “something.”



The Tape Emulator FX Chain

This FX Chain starts with a Splitter, which creates three signal paths: one for saturation, one for hiss, and one for hum (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: FX Chain block diagram.


After auditioning all available Studio One 5 saturation options, I liked the TriComp best for this application. The Pro EQ stage preceding the TriComp provides the head bump EQ and has a control to emulate the effect of underbiasing tape (more highs, which pushes more high-frequency level into the TriComp and therefore increases distortion in that range) or overbiasing (less highs, less distortion).

At first, I wasn’t going to include tape hiss and hum, but if someone needs to use this FX Chain for sound design (i.e., an actor starts a tape in a theatrical production), then including hiss and hum sounds more authentic. An additional knob chooses 50 or 60 Hz hum, which represents the power standards in different countries. (Note that the closest you can get to these frequencies is 50.4 and 59.1 Hz, but that’s good enough). However, I draw the line at including wow and flutter! Good riddance to both of them.

Because creating three splits reduces each split’s level, the TriComp Gain control provides makeup gain.

Turning Bump on adds a boost at the specified frequency, but also adds a 48 dB low-cut filter around 23 Hz to emulate the loss of very low frequencies due to the head bump. As a result, depending on the program material, adding the bump may increase or decrease the total apparent bass response. For additional flexibility, if you turn Bump Amount down all the way, the Bump On/Off switch enables or disables only the 48 dB/octave low-cut filter.

Fig. 2 shows some typical spectra from using the FX Chain.

Figure 2: The top curve shows the head bump enabled, with underbiasing. The lower curve shows minimal added bump, but with the ultra-low cut filter enabled, and overbiasing.

Roll Tape!

The controls default to rational settings (Fig. 3), which are used in the audio example. But as usual with my FX chains, the settings can go beyond the realm of good taste if needed.


Figure 3: Control panel for the Tape Emulator.

For example, I rarely go over 2-3% saturation, but I know some of you are itching to kick it up to 10%. Ditto tape hiss, in case you want to emulate recording on an ancient Radio Shack cassette recorder—with Radio Shack tape. Just remember that the Bias control is clockwise to overbias (less highs), and counter-clockwise to underbias (more highs).

There’s a lot of mythology around tape emulations, and you can find some very good plug-ins that nail the sound of tape. But try this FX Chain—it may give you exactly what you want. Best of all, I promise you’ll never have to clean or demagnetize its tape heads.

Download the Tape Emulator.multipreset here!