The Tape Emulation Hot Input Problem

In my opinion, the recording arts peaked in the late 70s and, ever since, every cohort of musicians / engineers / producers has found a way to screw things up in one way or another.

In the 80s it was fizzy preamp gain on master volume metal amps and horrendous overuse of digital reverb on everything.

We had The Loudness Wars that have rendered mountains of albums all but unlistenable due to the misuse of brick wall limiters.

A problem I hear a lot in contemporary releases relates to slamming the front of tape recorder emulations or tape saturation plugins.

This is a variation on the problem of compression being the single most overused effect in recordings.

Just the other day, on NPR, I heard a great song by a new duo, and, while the song was good, the production was horrible because the tape emulation plugin (and I could tell right away that it was precisely a tape plugin) mangled the hell out of some of the instruments, creating not the intended compression and harmonic richness, but, rather, a mangled pumping mess that did not enhance the song at all. Compression pumping can be useful if it brings a track to life but it has to lock into the tempo of the song not grind up against it or stick out of your speakers like a mass of throbbing gristle.

I use a Studer tape deck emulation (UAD) on some instruments and buses but what I've noticed is that every time I use it, the input, while set to zero, makes everything sound horrible.

I think a lot of people naturally assume that setting the input to zero (where it starts at when you open the plugin) is where you want to be -- nobody wants to turn anything down!

But what you get is all redline and tons of distortion. Remember, kids, in the digital domain there is no such thing as headroom. Now, I'm all for distortion (harmonics) but not everything can be slammin' hot or you just get a mess.

Turn the input down so that your fake VU meters actually dance, stay out of the red, and then turn up the output to make up any loss of volume. The result will sound more natural and ten years from now you won't cringe when you listen back.