Tape Plugin vs. Reel-to-Reel Tape Machine

While mixing an album for one of my guitar students, I found myself reaching for a tape emulation plugin. The Kramer MPX plugin by Waves to be exact. The album has an old school, Rockabilly / British rock vibe to it and it is certainly appropriate to emulate that vintage sound.

As I reached for the plugin I had a guilty feeling come over me, Just an arms length away was my Teac A-4300 stereo reel-to-reel tape machine, as if coming from inside the machine “all by myself…”

I decided it would be an interesting shoot-out to pit the real life tape machine against the tape plugin.

Now certainly reaching for the plugin was a lot easier, and if time was money then I think that it would definitely not be worth the time of running the audio through a real tape machine.

Now the trickiestĀ  part of setting up the reel-to-reel is routing. You really need an audio interface that has a couple extra line level outputs and inputs. Then you have to send your DAW out to the tape deck, and then route it back into the computer through a couple line level inputs.

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The actual dubbing is made easier by using a three head tape deck. This means that there is a separate play and record head on the machine. Which means that you can listen to what has just been recorded to the tape with a slight delay. Rather than having to record your audio to the tape, and then rewind, hit play and then record the audio back into the computer. You can send the audio out of the computer, record to tape, and then play the audio off the tape and record it back into the computer with a slight delay.

For my setup I got everything ready and then just played the entire album once through while recording to tape, and back into the computer. Then I could scoot the audio back after it was done to account for the slight delay and that was it.

In this video you can see the process, as well as listen to some samples of the Kramer plugin vs. the Reel thing…


My opinion:

The Plugin –

Pros: way faster and easier to apply, consistent, and cheaper

Cons: Consistency can make it predictable and thus a little stale.

Actual Reel-to-Reel –

Pros: Unique, just plain cooler because it actually exists

Cons: Just about everything else, cost, practicality…

Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below!

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