The Tape Test

Every now and then someone, somewhere on a forum will inevitably ask the question “What’s the best plugin or VST to get that Com Truise, GloFi or LoFi VHS sound?” And more often than not, the answer is a pretty simple “Why not get a VCR from a thrift store and try it yourself?”

Oh sage wisdom! Surely a cheap thrift store bought VCR is easier and cheaper than throwing a couple hundred bones at a fancy plug in right? And you know what’s even easier than getting a cheap thrift store VCR? Having me do all the work for you, right here!

For the purposes of this test, I used a Sharp 4 Head HiFi VCR that was recorded to from Ableton Live via a Cakewalk UA-1G USB audio interface. The drum loop was written in Impulse with no effects added and then played from there into the VCR. Once it was recorded, I rewound the tape, recorded it back into Ableton Live and exported the audio as a WAV file; I also uploaded the file to Souncloud as a WAV to preserve the audio.

I intentionally kept the source material simple so that it would be easier to see what was really going on and what effects were being imparted into the audio from the tape. As you can see, there certainly is something to the tape process. There definitely seems to be a saturation that peaks around the low end but persists into the highs to the point where they become quite crisp. I’ve also taken the waveform from within Sound Forge and placed it below so that you can get a good look at the difference.


Click to enlarge.

Now keep in mind this was only one example of what can be done with tape; I think my test in particular leaned towards the distorted side because the sample material was already a bit punchy and hot before being recorded. If you were going to try this yourself, you’d need only to procure a VCR and to set it up on a simple in and out loop from your sound card or mixer. Now there’s many, many factors that will contribute to the sound that you will achieve such as the condition of the VCR and tape that you are using, the tape speed you’re recording at, the levels you recording at and the nature of the source material. All of these things work together in combination to create unique artifacts that are as unique as the music that you are writing.

So as we’ve seen, there certainly is something to recording down to VCR and I encourage you to experiment with various tape decks as they can be had quite cheaply. But on the other side, back in the day when the first VCRs came onto the consumer market, they were seen by some hobbyists as way of achieving that big reel to reel sound for relatively little money as VCRs went for about $300 new as opposed to the many thousands that could be spent on studio quality tape decks.

But back then, VCRs were also new and pristine. And I think also like with analog synths and other music gear, much of what we attribute to “that sound” is the way they sound now, due to their aging components and wear and tear that has accumulated over the years and it’s not really representative of the way they sounded when they were new.

With that in mind, I’ve read quite a few reviews of VST tape emulation and most of the people reviewing them said they impart a soft and subtle saturation that is pretty close to what can be expected of recording down to tape. As we’ve seen in the example above, that definitely is true. But I think the downside here is that what you’re most likely to pull out of a thrift store will have much more noise and distortion than you may or may not want just due to the age of the machine. My VCR was stored in a stable environment and it’s pushing nearly 20 years old now (and to think I”m actually old enough to own an 20 year old VCR! ugh..) and I think that the distortion we are hearing partly comes from the age of it. The tapes I used, in contrast, were brand new.

So in practice, a thrift store VCR can serve as more of an effect in your setup for getting lo fi and gritty sounds. One thing to do would be to record down drum one shots. You can then record them back into your drum sampler and have them already processed and ready to go. Of course you can also add in guitar pedals and other effects before the VCR as well to create your own unique signal chain.

And then if you do find a VCR that has a rather clean and warm sound to it, you know it’s a keeper! And if you don’t and you’re leaning towards the ideal studio sound, then there’s no shame in giving some of the software a try either. I’ve had my eye on some for a while and once I get around to buying it, I’ll definitely post another A/B session.

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