Frustrated that your modern music productions sound clinical, compared to the warm, lush tones of your favorite albums? A tape saturation plugin might be just what the doctor ordered! I’ve compiled a list of the best tape emulation plugins around, guaranteed to give your mixes extra low end, pleasant saturation, and rich harmonic content.
This round up of the best tape emulation plugins covers everything from VSTs that emulate 4-track tape cassette recording to the beautiful studio-grade tape machines of yesteryear.
Note: some of the links below may be affiliate links, meaning that I receive a commission if you purchase through them.
What is a Tape Emulation Plugin?
Just about every piece of music recorded before the 90’s was recorded to tape. Back then, it was the best medium they had to capture sound. But unlike the precise Digital ones and zeros we have today, analog tape behaved in interesting, non-linear ways. It naturally added subtle boost to the low end, while pleasantly rolling off some of the highest, harshest frequencies.
When driven hard, tape saturation could cause highly musical amounts of harmonic distortion, giving the music a raw edge, but still remaining pleasant to the ear. The hard a tape signal was driven, the more compression it would also inadvertently add to the tone, giving tracks a touch of glue.
And as a further layer of magic, vintage tape machines added a little bit of noise to each recording. When added up over multiple tracks and overdubs, this patina of subtle noise also helped warm up the sounds.
Fast forward to today, and music is almost always recorded digitally. When you record a track on your computer, the sound that you put into it is the same as the sound that comes out. There’s no magic, there’s no surprise.
There’s no warmth.
Thankfully, though, there are plenty of virtual tape machines to choose from these days.
That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of wonderful things about digital, but a lot of producers feel like there’s “something” missing from their productions.
That’s where tape emulation VSTs come in. You can put these tape plugins on individual tracks or the whole mix (or both), and re-capture some of the lost magic. I’ve selected this list of the best tape emulation plugins based on my years of experience producing. They will all give you a great tone, and help you dial in a sound ranging from subtle warmth to searing lo-fi garage rock.
|Tape Emulation VST||Pros of Tape Emulator VST||Cons of Tape Emulation VST||Purchase||Ranking Out of 5|
||Check price of U-He Satin
||Check price of Apollo Solo||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
||Check price of SofTube Tape
||Check price of Ozone 9 standard
|Sketch Cassette 2||
||Check price of Sketch Cassette II||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
🏆 Best Tape Emulation Plugin - U-He Satin 🏆
U-He Satin is the best stand-alone tape emulation plugin out there. Not only does it sound great and feature a ton of tone shopping possibilities, the U-He Satin allows you to models the tape sounds of a variety of classic tape machines.
As I noted above, the amount of volume on the tape was one of the biggest factors in shaping its sound. So the input and output controls of tape are the first place to start. And Satin does a killer job of modeling how tape compresses and saturates in response to hotter levels of signal.
Another really cool feature of Satin is that it can be used in group mode, with 8 slots. So you could have the kick, the snare, and overheads all assigned to group 1. Then any tweaks you made to group 1 will apply to all of the instruments in that group, allowing you to quickly dial in a killer sound.
Like many of these tape plugins, Satin can be used as a vintage tape delay, flanger or chorus.
On top of that, it also models the noise reduction function included in a lot of tape machines that can be tweaked/abused for incredibly cool noise tone shaping and compression sounds.
Pros of U-He Satin
- Lots of other great features like saturation and delay
Cons of U-He Satin
- Slightly complicated
🏆 Other Best Tape VST - UAD Ampex ATR-102 🏆
The UAD emulation of the Ampex ATR-102 is far and away the best tape emulator I’ve heard. It does everything from subtle to blown out, and it beautifully adds compression and saturation and tone shaping in response to the input and output, plus a variety of tape settings.
The Ampex ATR-102 sounds great on everything from bass to vocals, and the on-board EQ lets you really dial in your sound. Throwing it on the master bus literally feels like you've added an extra octave to your low end.
This is the number one plugin I’d recommend for tape emulation, except for one thing. It requires that you own a UAD interface, like the Apollo Solo. So if you’re an UAD interface owner looking for the best tape plugin, this is the one for you. And if you’re looking for a new audio interface, this may be a reason to consider UAD! But the Apollo Solo is so good that I think it's worth the investment.
Pros of the UAD ATR-102
- Best sounding tape emulation
- Mix bus magic
- Makes everything sound better
Cons of the UAD ATR-102
- Requires UAD hardware
Most Affordable Tape Emulation Plugin - SofTube Tape
SofTube Tape is a great sound vintage tape plugin, and is frequently on sale for an affordable price. The SofTube Tape has a smooth, rich sound, and emulates 3 different vintage tape machines. In fact, even disregarding the low price we'd say it's one of the best tape plugins!
While it sounds really nice, SofTube Tape is missing a lot of the features and controls found on other tape emulators. You can only adjust three parameters: character, the type of tape machine, and the tape speed. These allow you a lot of customizability, but it’s still less that what you see in Satin or the Ampex.
Additionally, this tape plugin doesn’t have other features like delay, flanger, and chorusing.
However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the SofTube Tape VST is very gentle on your CPU. So if you’ve got an older rig, this might be the best tape plugin available.
Pros of SofTube Tape
- Simple controls
- Sounds good
- Low CPU load
- One of the best tape machine plugins
Cons of SofTube Tape
- Doesn't sound the best
- Limited flexibility
Most Versatile Tape Emulator - Ozone 9
When people think Ozone, they don’t immediately think tape. But Ozone 9 standard actually comes with two different tape emulators, that can be used anywhere in your signal chain (on top of the incredibly powerful dynamic EQ, multi band compressor, maximizer, etc).
First, there is the exciter which allows you to apply tape emulation (or several other type of saturation). While the exciter doesn’t give you much control over what the saturation sounds like, it does let you assign saturation per frequency band!
So you could have a ton of tape tone your low end, and then leave your mid-range pristine.
While this isn't a realistic emulation of how traditional tape machines worked, this really opens up a lot of creative freedom. If your main concern is controlled saturation, then this is probably the best tape saturation plugin out there for the level of precise control it offer.
Second, Ozone 9 comes with the Vintage Tape module. Like the SofTube tape, this VST is very straightforward and doesn’t allow for a lot of control. But it sounds great at what it does. It lets control tape speed, model the drive and bias, and control the harmonic content of tape saturation. It also lets you emphasize low frequencies if you’re looking for a little extra bump!
Pros of Ozone 9
- Lots of additional modules
- Decent sound
- Straightforward controls
- Per-band saturation
Cons of Ozone 9
- High CPU load
- Not best sounding
Best Cassette Tape VST - Sketch Cassette II
Sketch Cassette II might actually be my favorite of these plugins. It’s designed to emulate the prosumer tape sounds of cassette based tape recorders, like the Tascam 424. This plugin is a tone shaping powerhouse that is perfect for getting that garage rock indie band sound.
It lets you choose from three different tape machines and four different types of tape. It sounds amazing and has loads of tone shaping flexibility, from tape age to noise reduction. It’s also got built in flanging and flutter.
If you're looking to nail that lo-fi sound, this would be one of my top picks. Here is a round up of the other best lo-fi VSTs.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that also looks beautiful.
Last I checked, this thing was like $30, and is just a total tone powerhouse. I’ve gone a little mad since I got it, and have put it on nearly everything!
The only thing to note is that this is only available as a VST 3 plugin, so it is not compatible with Reason 11.
Pros of Sketch Cassette 2
- Sounds great
Cons of Sketch Cassette 2
- Doesn't do "high quality" tape sounds
Thoughts on the Wave J-37
While this is supposed to be a heavy weight, I felt very underwhelmed by the J-37. While it certainly colored my sound, it didn’t offer the non-linear sort of warmth and transformation it would expect. Additionally, I do not like Waves subscription model and software management portal.
Best Free Tape Saturation Plugin - Ferric TDS
This free tape saturation plugin is inspired by vintage tape machines. What makes it really cool is that you can separately control the dynamics and saturation, allowing you to dial in a more precise sound. On top of that, it even comes with a built-in limiter.
But while the feature set of this free tape emulation plugin is great, the sound quality leaves a little to be desired.
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