Using Plugins To Emulate Tape & Valve

We hear a lot about valve emulators, tape saturation plugins, and vintage warming effects for use in the digital audio world these days. But what are they and how should you u se them? And will they give you that "punchy", yet "warm" sound that everyone talks about?

A quick overview. Valve and tape machines are, of course, analogue equipment. They change the sound when you run a signal through them, even if you're not trying to treat it; in a similar way that a vinyl record player might. This is something that's not an issue in a DAW - there are no converters, and everything can be clinically clean and precise. But this isn't always a good thing. As with vinyl, many consider this analogue sound to be desirable, and so we have plenty of plugins on the market that emulate that subtle shift in timbre. You'll see how they claim to add 'warmth', or 'punch' or even 'grit'.
Ultimately, the analogue sound is caused by distortion. Typically, the main characteristics of that distortion are a 'warmer' EQ sound - in other words you lose some of the top end, and perhaps gain a boost down in the low mids or bass, a 'saturation' of the transient (or a reduction - rather like limiting), and, if driven at all hard, you'll find harmonics introduced that were not in the original sound, like overdrive.
So when should you be using these plugs? And how? Well, there are basically two ways to look at it. Firstly, as a creative effect, and second as a mix tool. As an effect, you can use them somewhat like a straight-up distortion unit - send your bassline or kick through a tapehead plug, ramp up the gain and see what happens. Anything is possible here - try running a sub-bass quite hard through a vintage warmer (or three), and you'll soon hear a vicious snarl of a bassline that suddenly dominates the track. Or you could push a lead synth through one and gain some buzz at the higher end.
 
The more common option for use though, is at the mixdown stage, and here analogue warmers can have a range of uses. Put a valve emulator on your bass sound, and it will introduce higher frequencies to the sound, that will help the subs come through more clearly on smaller speakers. Try one on your strings or pads, and it will help to thicken up the sound and give it a touch more weight or presence. Alternatively, you can run a tape saturator over your drum buss to bring in a bit more power or crunch, whilst reducing the dynamic range - subtle compression, EQ and distortion all in one. It's results like this that make people talk about 'grit' or 'punch' and they can be very welcome.
 
There is an important caveat though - use sparingly! It's easy to lash a valve plugin across your drums, crank it up under the impression that more warmth is better, and unwittingly squash all the life out of your track.

Likewise, it's important to remember that while these plugs add, they also take away. So remember to check that you haven't just removed the sparkle from your hihats, or if you've warmed up your sub with some low-mids, make sure you haven't inadvertantly cut some of the low end that was there in the first place! For this reason, it's often worth using parallel processing - (see our previous blog on this subject) - so that you can bring in the effected signal without compromising the original; especially for sounds with important dynamics, like drums or percussive lead lines. Subtlety is key. These tools are not magic fixers and won't make a dull sound into a great one. But they can add an extra few percent to a good sound.

Some of the popular options are:
PSP Vintage Warmer - one of the originals. Now up to version 2.5, this is probably the most popular analogue emulators on the market, and for good reason.
112dB Redline Preamp - only released this year, but rapidly becoming very popular for its low CPU use, configurability, and quality of sound.
Massey Tapehead - one of the best-kept secrets out there. Sounds great and is widely used. The only difference between the free demo and the full version is the lack of a bypass option. Highly recommended.
So, with some of these tips, we hope you'll be able to get things sparkling with just your DAW. Are you ready to bring that classic vintage sound to your mixes?

Related Articles

  • Top 10 Essential Mastering Tips

    Top 10 Essential Mastering Tips

    Mastering your own tracks is a difficult process - there is a lot to learn and a lot of techniques to master (no pun intended (seriously; that would have been a terrible pun)) but here's somewhere f

    Read More 2
  • How Do I Make A Radio Edit?

    How Do I Make A Radio Edit?

    The good old 'Radio Edit' - a lost art, or something that should be left back in the major label days where it belongs? Do you need to do one, and if so, how should you go about it? Let's turn that FM

    Read More 2
  • 10 Ways To Make Your Beats Dirtier

    10 Ways To Make Your Beats Dirtier

    Sometimes being filthy is a good thing! It's seen in electronic music from Dirty South to Glitch Hop, Minimal to Techno. It's there to make people pull faces that aren't usually seen outside of l

    Read More 2
  • How To Get Louder With Dynamics

    How To Get Louder With Dynamics

    The field of loudness and dynamics processing in music production is an area of vigorous debate. Everyone loves to weigh in on the famous Loudness War, and on production forums the relative merits of

    Read More 2
  • Why Not Pick Up A Mic And Record?

    Why Not Pick Up A Mic And Record?

    We've mentioned plenty of times in this blog about how you can get some great original sounds quickly and easily by taking a microphone and recording instruments, found sounds and more in the comfort

    Read More 2
  • How To Produce Amazing Bootlegs!

    How To Produce Amazing Bootlegs!

    Recently, it seems like the disco edit or the RnB bootleg has increasingly become a way to gain a foothold in music production. From the likes of Soul Clap to techno warriors like Blawan, many artis

    Read More 2
  • How To Use DAW Templates With Your Music

    How To Use DAW Templates With Your Music

      For the uninitiated, a template is the basic setup that opens when you load a new track. It can be as complicated or simple as you like, and normally your DAW will give you a very simple one

    Read More 2
  • Top 5 Tips On Composition & Production

    Top 5 Tips On Composition & Production

    The other day we were invited to give a guest lecture on music production to a group of university students. They were finishing their first year of a Music Technology course, all aged around 19, and

    Read More 2
  • To Quantise Or Not To Quantise

    To Quantise Or Not To Quantise

    When it comes to beats, most producers like their kicks to be consistent, their snares to be steady and their percussion to be punctual. But quatization is a modern conception. Before quantize, m

    Read More 2
  • How To Use Contrast in Your Mix Like A Pro

    How To Use Contrast in Your Mix Like A Pro

    Contrast is a pretty well accepted idea in art - everyone loves to drone on about light and shade, the sweet versus the savoury - but how does that affect music? In particular, dance and electronic

    Read More 2