Review – Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machine
Virtual Tape Machines is one of the easiest ways to make your mix sound big and up-front, with usability features that let you work quickly.
by Per Lichtman, July 2017
Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines (currently available for $149 USD or $169 USD when bundled with an iLok 2) is a plug-in for mixing and mastering that works extremely well to quickly change the character of your sound with various forms of Studer tape emulations. The plug-in works across a wide variety of platforms, with the main requirement being having an iLok 2 (or the newer iLok 3). Of course, if you rent the company’s Everything Bundle (which includes timed licenses for all the Slate plug-ins, including newly released ones, for $14.99 to $24.99 USD per month) you get an iLok 2 or iLok 3 for free. The biggest selling points for Slate plug-ins are the character of the sound, ease of use, productivity features, and graphical user interfaces … so I that pretty much means it’s time to talk about everything.
Starting with the Tape
Virtual Tape Machines does a lot of things really right, straight out of the gate. For starters, the graphical user interface is configurable, so that those that enjoy seeing reel-to-reel tape go by at different speeds can leave the plug-in an “expanded” state while those (like me) that are trying to save CPU and screen real estate can collapse the GUI to only include the controls. It’s just one example of the way that the user interface is tailored to try to accommodate different ways of working and preferences. We’ll come back to that in a minute, but let’s take a look at exactly what’s on offer.
The plug-in emulates two different Studer reel-to-reel tape decks, going between them with the flick of a switch: the Studer A827 16-track 2-inch multi-channel tape recorder and the Studer A80 2-track ½-inch mastering deck. Options are given to run each at 15-inches-per-second (which among other things has a more pronounced roll-off of the high-end that makes it the first setting I normally try) and the more transparent 30-inches-per-second (which has a wider dynamic range, somewhat less pronounced bass and preserves more high frequencies, among other things). Two types of tape stock are emulated: Ampex 456 (labeled FG456 and the darker of the two) and Quantegy GP9 (labeled FG9 and the brighter of two tape stocks).There are three choices for the tape bias (low, normal and high) with the most transparent sound at “normal”, a little more receded high end at “high” and the most obvious saturation at “low”. There are input and output knobs (which can be operated independently or linked to move opposite each other), making it easy to increase saturation by increasing the input or get a more transparent sound by decreasing it. After that the output knob can be used to set the output level as desired without affecting the saturation and tape compression characteristics. The plug-in did a great job of handling signals at a variety of levels, so I was able to throw it into the midst of sessions that weren’t setup for traditional gain-staging without running into any problems – something that often is not the case with other coloration plug-ins.
If you want to start off by getting a sense of the extremes for each machine, I’d suggest creating the following presets.
- Brightest 2-inch Mixing Sound: normal bias, 30 inches per second, FG9 tape, 2” 16 track machine type.
- Darkest 2-inch Mixing Sound: low bias, 15 inches per second, FG456 tape, 2” 16 track machine type.
- Brightest ½ -inch Mastering Sound: normal bias, 30 inches per second, FG9 tape, ½ ” 2 track machine type.
- Darkest ½ -inch Mastering Sound: low bias, 15 inches per second, FG456 tape, ½ ” 2 track machine type.
Since I didn’t have Studer decks on hand to compare during my review, my primary concern in the review was the sonic effect of using the plug-in as opposed to an objective evaluation of the accuracy. Nonetheless, I will mention that in some instances I did use it to help mix new “in the box” recordings together with material a band had originally tracked on Studer tape machines, and was pleased that it did indeed help me to quickly get the new sounds to gel better with the old ones.
One of my favorite features, by far, is the “Group” option where different plug-in instances can be assigned to the same group so that modifying the settings for one instance carries the changes to all the others in a group. Each plug-in instance can be assigned to one of the eight groups, or left ungrouped. Grouping can be helpful when you are putting a tape plug-in on different string sections (or different vocalists), for instance, and want to hear how changing the tape type from FG456 to FG9 or the tape speed from 15 ips to 30 ips affects each track at once.
The plug-in was stable throughout my testing and worked well across a wide variety of material. I found it was at its best when I wanted to make sounds a little thicker, or add more glue – or to bring sounds a little more up-front. It worked great for phattening up drums or bass tracks, as well as vocals or to help distant or thinner acoustic recordings to feel a little more immediate and steady. For genres like pop, rock, metal or the more up-front styles of EDM, the plug-in can help to quickly achieve a more immediate and/or radio-friendly sound. I found I got the best results by finding just how far I could push the sound before the saturation tweaked my ear, and then backing it off to taste. This is part of the reason why the plug-ins ability to model the tape compression effect on dynamics (which is quite level dependent) and its ability to handle input levels (both quieter and louder) than a real tape machines would do well with is especially helpful. You don’t have to think like an engineer in the gain staging, just back off the input when the coloration gets too strong (or choose more neutral tape settings).
Those looking to get in and more finely tune the settings can simply hit the “Settings” button in the upper left to open up three panes of tweaking menus. On the left are two level sliders (for settings noise reduction and bass alignment level in decibels) and a percentage slider (for settings the amount of wow and flutter). In the central pane are the calibration levels, which allow you to affect the absolute (or relative) levels of each group. In the right pane are the “VU Ballistics” which control the rate at which the meters respond to the incoming material, a setting to engage or disengage hiss automation and a finally a toggle for the default group for any new plug-in instance. Honestly, I didn’t find myself tweaking any of these during normal operation but it does help the plug-in to cater to users looking for something different.
The Tape Competition
When it comes to competing tape plug-ins, I’ve probably used CDSoundmaster Nebula libraries on more tracks than any other. The company uses a “three stage” approach with a different product for each stage. The first two stages come from CDSoundmaster’s Nebula libraries using V.V.K.T. sampling (also available as standalone plug-ins). The first stage is “R2R – The Essential Tape Collection” capture the tonal response of a variety of different tape decks, including Studer A800 and A820. The second stage is “Tape Booster Plus” was designed to handle the harmonic effects of tape saturation, without specific reference to any particular tape deck. The third stage is “VTM-M2 – The Vintage Tape Machine” and uses normal native DSP code instead of Nebula sampling to handle tape compression characteristics and more. There are pros and cons to this modular approach when compared to Slate Digital’s Virtual Tape Machines. CDSoundmaster’s offering is more expensive, introduces more latency (up to eleven times more) and takes longer to process or setup – especially since it is much more sensitive to gain staging and should not be “driven hard”. For these reasons, Slate Digital’s Virtual Tape Machines is better both for beginners and for those on tight deadlines than CDSoundmaster’s offering. Slate Digital widens the gap on these counts greatly with its Group features – especially since for CDSoundmaster you’d have to change settings up to three plug-ins for every sound to audition the results for a whole group. On the other hand, more advanced users (or those working without such tight time constraints) will find that CDSoundmaster’s tape offerings bring something very different to the table from Slate Digital’s.
My favorite thing about the CDSoundmaster approach was how well it could capture a grainy and feathered sound. When I wanted to get a aggresive sound, I’d generally opt for Slate Digital’s VTM, but when I wanted a tape sound that was more relaxing or dreamlike, I opted for CDSoundmaster’s offering. Both are great offerings for their respective applications.
For UAD users, Universal Audio sells both Studer and Ampex tape emulation options. For those looking to avoid using either a DSP card or a dongle, Waves sells several tape plug-ins. However, since I haven’t spent time with any of those suites, I cannot offer a comparison.
Is It Right For You?
Slate Digital’s Virtual Tape Machines is great for quickly reigning in your mix or bringing it more up-front. It’s quick and easy to use that lets you get good results quickly, but offers many permutations if you want to experiment. For users that have (or are ready to get) an iLok2 or iLok3, it’s a great mixing and mastering tool that can add some heft to your tracks. The plug-in practically brims with energy. I find it makes putting together rock and pop mixes in the box much faster and easier. Users looking primarily to use tape to “take off the edge” of digital recordings or to use the tape primarily for a dreamier sound may want to look elsewhere.