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?

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