In the mid 70’s, the first CDs were introduced by Phillips and Sony, and that changed the way people listened to music. In 1983, Yamaha introduced the first digital synthesizer, the DX7 and in 1987, Alesis introduced the ADAT, and they changed the way many recorded music, especially non-commercial studios. The digital age had arrived.
From the beginning the CD received a mixed response. Many Classical musicians embraced the format because of the increased clarity and detail, while Rock guys largely did not, because of the perceived lack of warmth and, well, balls. Initially it was sometimes considered a brittle sound, but the addition of oversampling eventually helped with that perception.
When computer based DAWS and plug-ins arrived it only heightened the tension. Quite by chance years ago, I ended up having dinner with Neil Young and he was quite emphatic that while his engineer and he used ProTools for editing, they would never abandon analog tape for recording.
But many of us reached a simple conclusion: While expensive analog may sound best, inexpensive digital blew the pants off of inexpensive analog and the convenience, power, and recall ability that DAWS offered was too good to resist.
For a relatively small investment, musicians could now record really good sounding music. But or many, something was missing, namely that analog warmth and balls and people have tried to add that to digital ever since. Here is a good article that helps explain some of this well.
For those with the money, time, and patience, to execute it, a hybrid analog/digital solution brought them some satisfaction but it definitely complicates things greatly, and adding inexpensive low quality analog components can do more harm than good, so it gets pricey easily.
People began to clamor for plug-ins that would help them come closer to sonic nirvana. Guitar amp emulations/simulations like Amplitube found an audience. Later, competitors arose, like Native Instruments Guitar Rig and now virtually every DAW comes with its own, all of which have their fans and detractors.
Analog compressor plug-ins, like PSP’s Vintage Warmer, UA’s Fatso, and ones by McDSP and many others also started to appear with the same result, fans and detractors. They still are widely used as a part of the sonic palette and more seem to appear weekly.
Now while no experienced musician or composer believed they sounded exactly like the hardware (they do not), they did enjoy the perceived warmth and balls the plug-ins added.
The latest buzz comes mostly from releases of tape recorder emulations/simulations and it seems like suddenly there is a wealth of them to choose from. Once again, each has its fans and detractors. The good news is a lot of them, indeed most of them, have demo versions available to download and try. I recommend that you do so if you can, rather than rely on what a bunch of guys on a forum say. The poster maybe a real pro or a 15 year old kid in his bedroom in his parent’s house and anyway, we all have different ears and taste.
If you have a UAD-2 card as I do, there are emulations of the Studer A800 and the Ampex ATR-102 to demo, and these are the ones I most frequently use. These two tape recorders were very different machines so not surprisingly, as UA does is best to be very faithful to the hardware, they sound very different.
The Studer was a 24 track machine. It had in my opinion and the opinion of many others, less of a signature sound than the multi-tracks produced by many of its competitors and even other machines by Studer, more subtle, but with very good fidelity. The logical way to use it is to put one on every track, or every buss if that is too much overhead, and it adds a nice glue to the sound that I really like. However, just sticking a single instance of it on a 2 buss (stereo output) does not bring that much to the table in my opinion.
The Ampex was a 2 track machine used mostly for final mix down and mastering and its sound is less subtle and well suited or your 2 buss. It has lots of presets with tape speed variants and it is now part of almost every cue I do. In tandem with the Studer on busses for strings, brass, woodwinds, rhythm, and percussion, I get a sound that is reminiscent of analog that I like.
The fact that I use the UA ones however certainly does not mean that they stand alone in quality in everyone’s opinion.
Steven Slate’s VTM and VCC have been released and have a lot of fans. I have seen comments on them ranging from, “it is more subtle” to “it is more aggressive” so you will have to let your ears decide when you demo it.
Long time respected plug-in purveyors Waves now have their Kramer Master Tape, developed with the participation of the famous engineer Eddie Kramer. This seems to have been less well received but it is by no means not a contender, particularly since it is priced quite affordably.
I was not aware of this one but it is very affordable and therefore one you might want to check out of money is tight.
In addition to tape recorder and console emulations, there are a large number of “saturation” plug-ins
Personally I really like McDSPs’ venerable AC202. It takes a while to get a handle on but is very impressive when you want to really stir things up sonically.
The first one I used, and I still think it sounds very good and is a bargain is PSP’s Mix Saturator 2 plug-in, which is part of their very affordable MixPack 2. Don’t overlook these, they might just fill the ill for you.
CraneSong’s Phoenix II is available in fewer formats, mostly Protools compatible, and is more expensive but it really does sound great and may be the most versatile of all.
There is also the Fab Filer Saturn.
The Izoptope Alloy 2
The much admired folks from Massey have its TapeHead Saturator.
People seem to either love or hate Acustica’s Nebula. It produces the most wide range of favorable to unfavorable comments of any that I have read about.
SPL’s offering can be found here.
I am sure there are many, many more than the ones I have mentioned, particularly PC only ones, some of which may even be free or very inexpensive, so Google is your friend.
As I wrote earlier, almost all of these have demo versions available so you do not have to buy a pig in a poke :) With all of them, however, you have to be realistic in your expectations. Yes, they will give you some of that analog vibe you are craving, but no, it will not sound just like analog. And frequently, a little goes a long way, less is more, yadda yadda.
Have fun exploring giving the gift of analog sound (sort of) to your digital creations.