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.
I love tape emulators because they 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 harder 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||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
||Check price of Waves J37||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
||Check price of TAIP||⭐⭐⭐|
||Check price of Reelight Pro||⭐⭐⭐|
||Check price of Dirty Tape||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
Hear Demos of the Best Tape Emulation VSTs
Want to hear how the best tape emulation plugins sound? Check out this in-depth demo of each of them!
I've put together this demo of the best tape emulation VSTs so you can hear how they stack up against each. You'll also see how their interfaces differ. Hopefully it will help you decide which tape saturation plugin to buy!
🏆 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
- Sounds good - but not the best
- Limited flexibility
Most Advanced 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.
U-he Satin vs Softube Tape
U-he Satin definitely sounds better than SofTube Tape - and it should considering that it's more expensive and more processor intensive. For my part, though, I find myself using SofTube Tape more often when it comes to doing subtle tone shaping. Then I tend to skip U-He Satin and go to the UAD tape emulations on my bus and master, because they are the absolute best in my opinion (though most are even more expensive and require expensive dedicated UAD hardware).
If you could only get one tape emulation plugin, you weren't on a budget, and you had a powerful computer, I'd recommend Satin. Plus, Satin allows a lot more flexibility in sculpting your sound.
But I think that dollar for dollar, SofTube tape sounds great and may be good enough for most people.
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.
Updated 2023: Now you can actually use the ATR-102 as a UAD "Spark" plugin, meaning you don't need to have a UAD audio interface to run it!
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 Versatile Tape Emulator - Ozone 10
When people think Ozone, they don’t immediately think tape. But Ozone 10 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 10 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 10
- Lots of additional modules
- Decent sound
- Straightforward controls
- Per-band saturation
Cons of Ozone 10
- High CPU load
- Not best sounding tape machine plugin
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
Best Waves Tape Plugin: J37
The Waves J37 adds a lovely bit of weight to individual tracks. As you can hear in the video at the top of the page, it adds a touch of warmth, and offers a lot of tone controls for additional shaping. If a more vintage sound is what your after, than the J37 is probably the plugin for you, because the J37 is modeled off of a classic tape machine from Abbey Road Studios, so it's based on a proven hit-making machine.
The J37 tape saturation plugin models the exact tape machine that recorded many of the greatest masterpieces in modern music. It includes plenty controls, including: Tape Speed, Bias, Noise, Saturation, Wow and Flutter.
In addition to the J37 itself, the plugin also models three different tape formulas. Between adjusting the drive, tape speed, tape formula, other controls, you can dial in a host of sounds that will have your songs dripping with vintage vibe.
Plus, the Waves plugin can be used to do authentic sounding tape delay effects, boosting its value.
The two downsides are that I do not like Waves subscription model and software management portal. Second, I don't like this plugin as much on my master bus, because it feels like it is adding too much color at the stage. I prefer something more transparent like the Ozone or the UAD Ampex.
Pros of the Waves J37
- Great sound
- Tons of control
- Tape delay
Cons of Waves J37
- Colors sound (pleasantly)
Interesting Approach to Tape - TAIP
TAIP, by Baby Audio, is a unique and interesting approach to tape emulation. It's not my favorite of the bunch, but it is perhaps the most unique, and some producers will really enjoy it.
What makes TAIP really unique is that it's not trying to completely emulate a tape machine. Instead, it can separately emulate all of the main aspects of a tape machine to allow you more precision over your sound.
So instead of emulating the sound of a specific tape formula and size on a vintage machine, TAIP allows you to separately control each of the following parameters:
- DRIVE: Traditionally, systems have been designed to color the sound as much as possible. TAIP is not. The DRIVE button lets you add as much saturation as you like, from subtle saturation touches to distortion.
- MIX / TAPE FLANGING: MIX allows the tapes to run in parallel. Combine MIX and WEAR for the classic “tape flange” effect. This is caused by the wah and beat of the WEAR running in parallel to the dry track.
- MODEL: While in SINGLE mode, TAIP is a continuous tape. In DUAL mode, TAIP creates a line of two tape emulations connected together under the hood, each with half the rate of DRIVE. This adds some weight to the signal.
- LO-SHAPE / HI-SHAPE: This slider allows you to add more or less saturation to certain parts of the frequency spectrum. (e.g. heating up the drum bus without breaking the frequency).
- GLUE: Tape systems are known to have a compression-like effect due to their low power consumption. TAIP allows you to add or remove these benefits independently. Use GLUE for subtle cohesion or use it as a real compressor.
- Noise: Add noise to your liking or skip them altogether.
- WEAR: Emulates the old machine band by connecting wow, flutter and changing the frequency rotation curve.
- PRESENCE: Part of the tape warmth comes from a the hyped top end. PRESENCE allows you to determine the degree of attenuation you need.
- INPUT: Choose from NORMAL or HOT (more distorted) input levels which do not affect the output volume.
- AUTO GAIN: You can add more DRIVE while maintaining an even output balance.
While TAIP offers incredible flexibility for a tape emulation plugin, after using it on a few sessions, I found that it rarely gave me "natural" sounding results. Not that you always want "natural" results.
Maybe if I used it more I would have gotten better results?
Pros of TAIP
- Unique approach to tape emulation
- Incredible flexibility
Cons of TAIP
- Steep learning curve
- Un-"natural" results
Reelight Pro Tape Emulator
Reelight Pro tape emulator from Tone Empire is a fairly straightforward tape plugin. It offers a streamlined model of all the main controls you'd need for tape saturation, including:
- hi pass filters
- low pass filters
- Input and output
- Fast and slow tape speeds
- Cross talk
Interestingly Reelight Pro, like TAIP, it allows you to dial in compression separately. It also allows you to choose from 6 different tape saturation models.
Reelight Pro is straightforward to use, but as you'll hear in the demo video at the top, I found the sound quality be a little lacking. I just couldn't make it do what I really wanted it to do, and wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it.
Pros of the Reelight Pro
- Easy interface
- Simple controls
Cons of Reelight Pro
- Average sound quality
Nastiest Tape Emulation Plugin - SofTube Dirty Tape
Dirty Tape by SofTube should not be your first tape saturation plugin. But it may be your most enjoyable one. With this tape emulation, SofTube went all in on emulation the dirty, distorted, broken down sound of tape.
This plugin screams "vibe," and with only two knobs, it's super simple to use.
With the first knob, you control the amount of drive you want, leading to more and more tape saturation. It can get quite gnarly.
The second knob on Dirty Tape controls dirt, and essentially mixes in all sorts of tape noise and wobble. As you turn up the dirt control, it will sound more and more like a bad recording. It even adds random pitch modulation to flutter, wow, and dropouts.
You can either use it in stereo or dual mono mode, and use the include low-pass filter for more of a lo-fi vibe.
Pros of Dirty Tape
Cons of Dirty Tape
- Limited sound pallet
- Only a good value on sale
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.
From a Frustrated Producer in a Ragtag Bedroom Studio to Major Placements on TV Earning $1,000s!
My name is Evan, and I've been making music since around 3rd grade. I'm from San Diego, California, but I've lived in Washington, DC for the last 20 years.
While I still have a full-time day job, I have created systems that have allowed me to produce dozens of songs a year in my spare time.
My songs have been on Netflix, TV shows like the 90 Day Fiance, an award-winning indie film, and NPR’s “All Thing Considered.” They've also been streamed millions of times.
In addition to being a music producer, I am passionate about teaching people how they can make professional-sounding music and earn money licensing it, all in their spare time.
Thousands of musicians, like yourself, have trusted me to guide their musical journey. My YouTube videos have been watched nearly a million times. And my story has been in Forbes, Side Hustle Nation, and the Side Hustle School.