Review: Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machine (VTM) Plug-in

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VTM adds “an almost indescribable, warm, spongy sound that makes my ears smile,” says our Software Editor.

As a long-time proponent of digital recording, I’m fully aware of its pros and cons. One of the biggest downsides has traditionally been its associated aural harshness, which can be attributed to anything from converters to a bad recording signal path. But with today’s new generation of gear, if the audio sounds bad, it probably can’t be blamed on the technology. With that in mind, one thing that has also helped us warm up our productions has been the release of analog tape simulation plug-ins. 

Now add another one to that growing list: Slate Digital’s Virtual Tape Machine. Sure, the argument can be made that there are enough of these on the market, and many engineers have one in their arsenal already. But to me, they are like compressors or EQs: not just one fits every job. Therefore, I need to have several different ones available to best fit the task at hand. After just a few minutes of use, I realized that the VTM deserves a place in my toolbox.

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Features

Algorithm engineer Fabrice Gabriel and the crew at Slate Digital modeled this plug-in after two specific tape machines: NRG Recording Studios owner/engineer Jay Baumgardner’s 2-inch 16-track Studer 827 and Howie Weinberg’s Studer A80-RC 1/2-inch. They went for the authentic sound of not just tape, but these two machines in particular. This approach is intended to let the user add tape sound either to individual channels, groups, and/or the stereo mix bus. Slate Digital suggests placing a VTM with the 2-inch 827 setting on the first insert of a selected channel(s), and a VTM with the half-inch settings on the last insert of the Master Fader. But those are just the suggestions; anything goes as far as tape simulation plug-ins go, as whatever works is correct.

The first thing I noticed about this plug-in is its simplicity. It provides two large knobs for Input and Output with a pair of VU-style meters sandwiched between them. The Input knob adjusts the level to tape; the hotter I hit it, the more saturation and compression I heard. The Output knob is simply the level coming out of the plug-in. The Process switch (defaulting to the Up/On position) can be switched to Bypass, allowing me to immediately hear the difference in the processed/unprocessed audio. 

The red Settings switch opens up a Setting Panel. When selected, the Input/Output Link allows for what Slate Digital calls Constant Gain Monitoring, making it easier to listen to the process/bypass signal without any volume difference. For example, as I turn up the Input, the Output will adjust accordingly, and visa versa. The Group Assignment Selector assigns the plug-in to one of eight Groups (more on that shortly, too).

On the right side, Bias can be set to High, Normal or Low. Speed choices are 30 or 15 ips. Machine Type selects either the 2-inch 16 track or half-inch 2 track. Tape Type is either the “vintage” FG456 or “modern” FG9. Down below are two large spinning reels of tape, which can be stopped with a click, but it’s fun to just let them spin.

It’s nice that the basic GUI is easy on the eyes and is quite large compared to others (as I want resizable plug-in GUIs in the near future). With just a few twists and flicks, I had some good analog punch. If I want to dig in a bit, the Settings Panel offers extras such as Noise Reduction, where the slider lets you minimize the authentically modeled hiss. I could also adjust the Wow & Flutter and Bass Alignment sliders. The Hiss Automate switch will automatically mute the tape hiss when no signal is present. The VU ballistics adjusts the VU needle response between Fast, Mid and Slow, and the Default Group let me create a basic VTM setting that will appear each time I instantiate the plug-in. I can also choose to adjust the Calibration levels on a Global basis and/or with any of the eight groups. 

However, I don’t like the fact that the changes made in the Settings panel are global and assigned to every VTM plug-in within your mix. So if I want to add some bass by increasing the Bass Alignment on my Kick only (which sounds very nice), it will add it to all of them. I hope that changes in the next version. 

In Use

I find the VTM to be beautifully subtle. It performs as advertised, adding sweet sonic warmth to your tracks. The process, when added across a group of tracks, is cumulative, like running through a good tape machine and/or analog console. I could push it into distortion if I desired (by cranking up that Input), but it never got fake or annoying; it’s actually pleasing and smooth. 

Is it always necessary to add tape sound to my tracks? No. But there is no denying that the proper use of analog tape simulation, and specifically that of the VTM, can make for better sounding mixes – with a fuller, thicker bottom and a smooth sweet top. 

I found the VTM especially useful when placed across drum loops, where it easily tames the sonic harshness that can arise, especially when driving them hard with a compressor. A flick of the Bypass switch delivers that “oh, yeah!” moment, allowing me to quickly move on to tweaking the next track. It certainly works well on bass and drums (even across Slate’s own drum program), adding a nice punch that’s different than EQ and compression. I liked it on overheads as well, as I used it to tame the high edge of the cymbals.

On vocals, it again delivered, to me sounding best with the 2-inch/16-track FG9 tape at 30 ips and High Bias. To me, that is the cleanest, purest sound of the plug-in, with the other combinations having more of a beefy character. I did experiment by placing the half-inch machine across the stereo bus and was able to add a nice tape compression to a heavy rock mix. I had to have a light touch with that to get it to sit right, but it works. 

One of the useful design aspects of this plug-in is its Grouping feature. By simply adding my VTM to a group, its settings can be easily recalled and placed/copied across as many tracks as you desire. Up to eight groups can be assigned, allowing you to place different presets across various groups in your mix with different types of tape, speeds, bias, etc. 

But as one might expect, not every group sound will work individually, so there will probably be some tweaking of each VTM as it is assigned. Since any adjustment I make to a group will reflect across it, I clicked on the Link symbol (next to the Group Assign) to isolate that instance’s Gain Section, allowing for independent adjustment. Also, I needed to assign the group before tweaking; if I have settings I like and assign it to a group, the VTM will default to its null position. I have to remember that when first choosing a Grouping.

Summary

Overall, the Slate Digital VTM adds to my mix what a great tube amp adds to a guitar tone. It’s an almost indescribable, warm, spongy sound that makes my ears smile. As I previously mentioned, there are several different tape simulators available, and they all have their own “thing.” VTM’s niche within that group is all about delivering a sonically pure tape sound that will find its way into many of my mixes. Nice job on this one, Slate.

Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer, mixer and composer as well as PAR’sSoftware Editor.richtozzoli.com

Price: $249 (AU, RTAS or VST, running in mono or stereo)

Contact: Slate Digital | slatedigital.com