Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines ReviewSeptember 23, 2013
Product: Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines
Company: Slate Digital
Many recording engineers can argue for hours about the pros and cons of analog vs. digital audio recording. Of course, today’s digital audio workstations have many benefits, such as essentially unlimited tracks, automation, and one-click instant recall of settings (no worries of knobs being moved between sessions). One thing that analog equipment has over software is the unique sonic characteristics that it imbues into mixes, especially when recording to tape. When digital recording was first gaining popularity, many argued that the format was too clean and clinical, and ever since then countless plugin manufacturers have inundated the market with emulations of classic analog gear and tape emulations. When emulated accurately, tape simulations can bring some of the warmth and life of classic recordings to modern mixes, giving mixing engineers the best of both worlds. Slate Digital‘s Virtual Tape Machines does just that, and is easily one of the most realistic representations of this vintage format available today.
Virtual Tape Machines, or VTM, is a 64-bit, iLok 2-protected plugin downloadable directly from the Slate Digital website. It features two separate tape models, designed for tracking and mastering – the 2″ 16-track Studer A827 and and a 1/2 inch Studer A80, respectively. Aside from the machine type, VTM has a few other basic settings as well, such as tape type, speed, and bias. The two tape types simulated are the vintage Ampex 456, introduced in 1975, and the more modern FG9, which is a “+9” tape offering 9db of additional headroom before saturation and distortion occurs. While it’s completely up to the user to decide which tape type works best in any given situation, the 456 offers thicker bass, while the GP9 gives the audio a bit more punch due to the extra 3 db of headroom before saturation.
Virtual Tape Machines offers two tape speeds – 30 ips and 15 ips – the term “ips” standing for inches per second. At the 15 ips setting, you’ll notice a fatter, richer sound due to the higher noise floor, and a more non-linear frequency response. The faster speed, 30 ips, has less noise and a flatter frequency response, and the amount of hiss of both can be attenuated in a dedicated Settings panel. You can assign tracks to groups in the VTM plugin, which will allow you to change the settings of every grouped track at once. In the Settings panel you can change things like bass alignment, noise reduction, and Wow & Flutter, which faithfully reproduces the subtle pitch and amplitude variations that are inherent to the sound of tape. Unfortunately, changing anything in the Settings panel affects every single instance of VTM globally, so you wouldn’t be able to, for instance, affect the bass alignment for just kick or bass guitar.
Similar to Slate Digital’s VCC Virtual Console Collection, the Virtual Tape Machines plugin is designed to be used across every track in your mix. It’s pretty CPU-intensive though, yet works quite well with the 2 inch setting just strapped across the master buss. Slate Digital recommends placing VTM (on 2″ 16-track mode) as the first insert of every track in the mix, followed up by VCC as the second – and then VCC Mixbuss on the master fader followed by VTM in 1/2-inch 2-track mode. Doing this emulates recording onto 16-track 2″ tape, through console channels, and finally onto 1/2-inch 2-track tape for the master. As is stated in the manual, though, there are no rules, and whatever sounds best to you is the way to go.
Slate Digital has created the king of tape emulations in Virtual Tape Machines. The effect is subtle, yet cumulative, and after mixing through it for a few hours and then bypassing it, you’ll likely be floored. VTM breathes an intangible sonic quality into mixes, giving audio life and vibrancy while making the overall mix an easier puzzle to fit together. When you consider the warmth and depth that VTM adds, and the countless experienced engineers that have stated VTM is identical to the real deal, adding Virtual Tape Machines to your arsenal is really a no-brainer. When you consider the cost of maintaining an actual tape machine, VTM is a steal.