Ever since the CD was introduced, musicians have both embraced the accuracy of digital while bemoaning the missing “warmth” of analog. This became especially true with the widespread use of mixing in the box, where little or no analog equipment is utilized. While arguably digital is “superior “ because it is more accurate, those of us who came up with analog and love it miss the humanity of it, and there is a lingering feeling that digital can be cold sounding and just not have the mojo that great analog sound has. While this may be written of by some as nostalgia for those who came up recording in a different age but that does not explain the prevalent acceptance of the idea among younger people, who probably never recorded in an all analog environment. So perhaps there is something to it.
Recently, there have been a number of software solutions introduced that attempt to replicate these qualities, either by modeling existing hardware or creating their own. How successful any of these are or are not depends on your subjective evaluation and expectations. It is not realistic in my opinion to expect a software solution to perfectly achieve all the character and warmth that vintage and expensive analog gear brings to the table. At the end of the day, the simple fact is that there is a market for plug-ins that can impart some of that quality to the sound. Some.
There are always what is referred to as “non-linear” irregularities with analog gear. If you have an analog recording console, it has irregularities that develop over time and even initially because of the electronics it uses. With tube gear, for instance, different kinds of tubes sound different, and then when they burn in, the sound changes.
Tape recorders have a lot of non-linear aspects that lead to the warming qualities generally referred to as “tape saturation. Tape speed and width, the formulation of the tape itself, distortions of harmonic content, phase response, as well as the construction of the have heads that have differing amounts of wear and need periodic demagnetizing, alignment, etc.
There is a certain amount of irony in that we are trying to put back a lot of what previous generations were working to minimize, like tape hiss and wow and flutter. Yet perhaps they add an intangible quality to the sound that we find attractive.
Indeed, Paul Frindle, designer of the Sony Oxford plug-ins and formerly of SSL, recently wrote: “As for the so called SSL sound – as most of you know, I designed much of this stuff (especially the G series) and I can tell you there’s nothing magic about the technology used – we got the best performance we could from the technology at our disposal. We would have dearly loved to get anywhere near the performance of today’s cheap DAWs and decent plug-ins – but it was simply impossible back then, because we were constrained in analogue by the laws of physics.”
Yet he and many others are understandably skeptical of people trying to replicate analog gear with plug-ins and thinks we would be better off just seeing them as their own beast.
There is no need here to create another analog vs digital, in the box-out of the box debate. There are already plenty of those out there. For those who are mixing in the box a lot, and that is most of us nowadays, there is a demand for this kind of plug-in and now there are a number out there that I will introduce you to for consideration if you are of that mind.
Universal Audio has a number of channel strip emulations for their UAD-2 cards, like the Neve 88RS and SSL E Series.
Waves has its SSL 4000.
and SSL has its own channel strips for its Duende platform.
URS has its Classic Console channel strip. All of them have their fans and advocates.
In the case of the Empiriical Labs Fatso, there is a hardware piece trying to add analog warmth through digital control that now has its own software emulation, also a UAD-2 plug-in. So we have an imitation of an imitation :)
Harrison has taken it to another level by introducing its own DAW for mixing with an emulation of its consoles, called the Mixbus.
Slate Digital has emulated 4 consoles with its Virtual Console Collection!
And now the latest craze is tape recorder emulations. AnaMod got the ball rolling with a hardware version called the ATS-1 Analog Tape Simulator. It is highly regarded in many circles, but pricey.
Once again, Universal Audio is in the market with its Studer A800. This is one I have a lot of personal experience with. It sounds great, but is subtle as the machine it is modeled on was a later generation model that was very refined. I love what it does to my mixes.
By the time this article is posted, UA will also probably have released their eagerly awaited Ampex ATR-102 ½ 2 track.
The Nebula has its own Electromagnetic Tape Program of a Studer-A810 that some swear by and some swear at as it has a reputation for bugginess.
Once again, Waves enters the fray with the MPX Master Tape.
Frequently overlooked is PSP’s MixSaturator2, part of its very affordable MixPack 2.It was my “go to” before I got the UAD-2 Studer and I opened it up today and gave it a listen and darned if it does not still sound good to my ears.
I may well be leaving out someone’s favorite here and there are more coming all the time, as DAW based composers lust for that vibe that analog tape brought to the table, good and bad. So are any of these “must haves” the way a trusted software compressor, reverb, or EQ are? Probably not, but that is subjective and as I say, I am addicted now to the one I use. But they can muddy a mix up in a hurry if you do not use them well, so you must spend some time with them.
Which one? If you go to onto a site like Gearslutz you can find threads about most of them and opinions are all over the map. The good news is that many have demo versions you can try, although you have to own a UAD-2 card to try UA’s, and Waves requires an iLok, etc.
Just to make things harder, here are some links to reviews, in no particular order, all mostly positive: