IK Multimedia Tape Machine Collection by Sound-Guy
IK Multimedia T-RackS Tape Machine Collection
OK, like many out there I was glad when I replaced magnetic tape with a hard drive. Tape has many problems, even beyond noise, wow & flutter, print-through, and needing frequent adjustments. I’ve had the experience of pulling out a 20 year-old tape and found it pretty well unplayable. Even baking it in the oven along with a batch of cookies didn’t help! I’ve had tapes break, get stretched, had splices come apart, and other issues I do not miss one bit. But there is the undeniable factor of the “tape sound” I grew up with. A great tape deck properly adjusted (I used to service decks for other studios myself) with the right tape formula, imparts a subtle “magic” to a recording.
In this age of digital audio many have tried one or more of the tape emulation plug-ins that have been developed over the past couple decades. Many have proven to fall short. It takes a lot of research and requires significant computing power, to emulate the subtle interactions of the magnetic, electronic and mechanical effects of a real tape deck.
The four tape machines posing together. Not only are the graphics ‘realistic’, but the tape reels change appearance with different tape types and they spin at different rates depending on tape speed!
What Do You Get?
The new IK Multimedia (IKM) T-RackS Tape Machine Collection includes four different iconic tape machines, an Ampex 440B (a 1/4” two-track recorder from the 60’s), a Studer A80 Mk II (a 2” 24-track recorder from the 70’s), the Revox PR99 Mk II (a 1/4” two-track recorder made by Studer in the 80’s), and MCI JH24 (a 2” 24-track recorder from the 80’s). Each of these can operate at two tape speeds. In addition, you get to use four different tape formulations which create differing levels of saturation and harmonic distortion (3M/Scotch 250, Ampex 456, Ampex 499, and Quantegy GP9). They work both in the T-RackS 5 shell or as standalone plug-ins (64-bit only in VST, VST3, and AAX at sampling rates up to 192 kHz).
These tape deck emulations include saturation, compression, and frequency issues, and the sonic effects of tape deck mechanics, including wow & flutter and subtle variations in tone between channels. You can turn different elements on or off - use True Stereo for “realistic” reproduction or turn it off for “perfect” left and right stereo tracking. You can turn Transport Modeling effects on or off to incorporate or eliminate wow & flutter. In addition, you can process audio through only the electronics or through the full recording/playback path with separate adjustments for the recording stage (bias, level and HF EQ) and playback stage (level, HF EQ and LF EQ). Note that the recording bias adjustment can be used to create crunchy distortion if you wish, though that is not its main intent - bias in a real tape machine is needed to reduce tape hysteresis distortion, so setting it low will create more distortion than optimal, and setting it too high will adversely degrade high frequency response, though that may be desirable! These controls greatly expands the uses for these tape machine simulations. And you can instantly auto-calibrate the settings, unlike a real tape deck!
How Do They Do?
I won’t show all the plots and measurements I made but each deck has different frequency response characteristics, with the oldest, the 440B, having the narrowest frequency range, even more so at its slow 7-1/2 ips speed, and the newer machines providing wider, flatter frequency responses. The plot below shows a few examples (note levels were shifted to make viewing clearer - not representative of relative recording levels which were all the same at about -10dBVU as measured by the tape deck meters ).
Frequency Response for the four tape machines at one tape speed - note variation in left and right channels obtained using the True Stereo mode. Also note scale is 2 dB per division, so over most of the frequency range these are all reasonably flat.
The MCI JH24 has the best performance overall, both in frequency and distortion measures but the Revox PR99 is close. Changing tape formulations has a rather small effect on frequency response, but can make a big difference in compression effects and distortion levels. I found Quantegy GP9 and Ampex 499 reduced THD by a factor of about four compared to 3M 250 in mid-frequencies when used in the MCI JH24.
Total Harmonic Distortion for four tape formulations in the MCI JH24 - note how 499 and GP9 are almost identical up to 500 Hz, then go different ways.
Detailed distortion characteristics show odd harmonics are the principal component of THD, as expected for tape recorders, but usually the third harmonic is the main contributor. I was surprised to find a deck and tape combination (MCI JH24 with Ampex 250 tape) where the fifth harmonic was much higher than the third. As you can see, these emulations produce rather complex detailed harmonics, even changing haronic content with recording level.
THD variation with recording signal level
While I don’t have the actual hardware to check out all these details, I’d believe them to be realistic - it appears that IKM engineers really dug into the minutia of these machines!
Wow & flutter is subtle - these emulations will not deliver the warbly tones of a 1974 Radio Shack Portable Cassette Tape Player! These iconic tape machines were all top professional recording/playback decks and delivered wow & flutter that was typically well under 0.1% rms. I found it very difficult to observe this, and could not make quantitative measurements, but did observe very slight frequency oscillations that stopped when the transport modeling switch was deactivated. The effects are slight, but part of the “glue” that tape provides to a mix.
Missing But Not Missed
One tape effect missing that I would love to have had missing back in the 80’s and 90’s is tape noise - the hiss that engineers spent considerable effort trying to minimize. There were some electronic fixes developed, like Dolby NR or DBX, but many recording engineers found they colored the sound unacceptably. They tried various ways to gain higher signal-to-noise ratios such as recording at a higher level (which created more saturation/distortion), and higher speeds (which burned through costly tape faster), and over the years better tape formulations like Ampex 499 and Quantegy GP9 helped. I’m not sure why IKM decided to leave out tape noise, but it’s not hard to add some using a white noise generator. It should be in the range of 60 to 70 dB below the maximum playback level.
IKM set out to create high quality emulations of these classic high-end tape machines and four popular tape formulations, and from both my quantitative tests using frequency, dynamics and distortion measurement tools, and listening tests using clean mixes with no printed tape or distortion effects, I’m impressed with the results. Although I don’t have any of these tape decks to compare directly, the attention to detail I found in my testing indicates IKM spent considerable effort replicating the drives they used for reference. If you are looking for the sound of high end tape decks from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, these are worth a test drive! And at the introduction price, cost is very reasonable.
Complex processing does come at a cost - in my test system (PC Audio Labs Rok Box PC with Windows 7, 64 Bit, 4-Core Intel i7-4770K, 3.5 GHz, and 16 GB RAM) each tape deck model uses about 3.2% cpu resource and adds 595 samples of latency. Changing tape type or settings has essentially no effect on cpu use or latency.
As usual, IKM have different prices depending on what you buy. The intro price for any one tape deck emulation is US$80, but all four are only US$100. When the sale is over they go to US$100 and US$200 respectively. As usual, you can check them out for 14 days before purchasing them.
Four beautiful looking and sounding tape recorders that cover a range of professional machines from the analog era.
Subtle effects of tape formulation and drive model interaction, as well as tape speed, bias and recording levels make these respond much like the real thing.
Ability to separately turn transport mechanical effects, channel tracking and even the recording/playback effects on and off (to use only the tape deck electronics) provide good flexibility.
They work both in the T-RackS 5 shell and as standalone plug-ins (64-bit only in VST, VST3, and AAX at sampling rates up to 192 kHz).
I can use a Revox PR99 Mk II or MCI JH24 anytime, without needing to adjust and align it!
These emulations do not include specialty applications like tape delay or drag-stop effects, but there are easy ways to create those effects with any DAW I’ve used.
No tape hiss - wish I had no tape hiss back when analog tape was the only choice!
Rather high cpu processing, but they are replicating many complex interactions.