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Aardvark Aard Scape

Tape Saturation Emulator By Hugh Robjohns
Published April 1997

If digital perfection leaves you cold, the Aardscape can lend an analogue quality to your recordings. Hugh Robjohns warms to the idea....

Digital recording technology is now widespread and is rapidly becoming the norm rather than the exception — even in semi‑professional and home studios. While digital recording offers some very useful advantages over analogue techniques, such as greater dynamic range, freedom from generation loss, faster access times and a much better performance/cost ratio, some people find that its inherent lack of harmonic distortion lends a rather flat and unexciting quality to recordings — the old argument about 'analogue warmth' versus the 'cool digital' sound.

The Aardscape is a new product from an American company, Aardvark Computer Systems, which has been designed specifically to re‑introduce some of that characteristic analogue warmth to any signal.


The Aardscape is a single‑channel signal processor incorporating a technology called 'True Analogue', which, the manufacturers claim, will "achieve the unique sound‑quality of analogue tape recording while preserving the advantage of digital recording". In essence, the unit uses non‑linear solid‑state circuitry to add odd‑harmonic distortion to signals, thus simulating the characteristics of heavily over‑driven analogue tape recording.

The Aardscape is a free‑standing unit, encased in a steel enclosure with rubber feet and is relatively small: 4cm high, 18cm wide, and 24cm deep. The rear panel has five connectors, and a slide switch to select the appropriate input connection. Audio inputs are catered for with an unbalanced quarter‑inch jack socket (‑10dBv) and balanced 3‑pin XLR (+4dBu). Outputs are simultaneously available on both unbalanced jack socket and balanced XLR, and the final connector on the rear panel is a co‑axial low‑voltage (16V) AC power socket which interfaces with the supplied plug‑top power adapter.

The front panel contains an LED bargraph meter covering a 24dB range; three rotary controls to adjust the input level, output level (labelled Drive), and amount of tape saturation effect (Warmth); two slide switches, and two push buttons — all labelled in yellow on a black background. To the extreme left is a Bypass button with associated red LED and on the extreme right is the power switch with a yellow LED.

Rotary Controls

The audible effect of the Aardscape depends very heavily on the input signal level, because the process is based on a level‑dependent non‑linear transfer function. The strongest effects occur with an input signal peaking towards the top of the 9‑step bargraph meter. The output level control optimises the output signal level with the input sensitivity of a recorder or mixing desk. The Warmth control adjusts the amount of the tape saturation effect, but is really provided for fine‑tuning, since the overall quality is more dependent on the two slide switches. The first of these, labelled Saturation, alters the type of tape saturation between three presets — Soft, Medium and Hard — mimicking different recording tape characteristics. The second switch, Brilliance, also has three positions, Full, Clean, and Brite (sic), and these extend the upper harmonics, lending an edge or sharpness to the sound quality.

In Use

Using the unbalanced connectors, I found that the Aardscape worked satisfactorily, although the settings of the input and output level controls were surprisingly critical. The input level affects the quality of signal processing considerably, while incorrect setting of the output control upsets the level matching between processed and bypassed signal paths, making it difficult to judge the benefit of the saturation process.

The unit is also fiddly to set up because of the interaction between controls, and the subtle but audible differences between every switch position. There is no 'ideal' setting, as the most appropriate signal processing is very dependent on the programme material and its position within a mix. In this respect, the Aardscape is much like an equaliser or compressor, and I found using it while tracking gave rather unpredictable results at the mixdown stage.

The unit does precisely what it is claimed to do — the question is how much you like what it does!

While I appreciate that the tape saturation effect the Aardscape is emulating is conventionally achieved by recording very hot signals onto multitrack tape, I think that the unit produces better results if signals are processed at the mixdown stage, when the saturation quality is easier to judge. Perhaps greater experience with the unit would allow appropriate settings to be selected at the track‑laying stage, but the user should be aware that excessive use on too many tracks will tend to create a very fatiguing sound and could give the impression of a badly recorded track, rather than an effectively processed one!

The Aardscape certainly adds harmonic distortion to the signal path — a fact made very obvious when you pass a sinusoidal tone through the system. Even at very low input levels (‑18 to ‑24dB on the input meter), the harmonic distortion is quite evident. In bygone days, I would have rejected any analogue tape machine that bent the signal this much at such a low level...

The saturation effect becomes stronger and more obvious with higher input levels, the quality changing with the Saturation switch and Warmth controls. The Aardscape is particularly effective in thickening drums or percussion, but I'm not so keen on its use with vocals or most other harmonically complex instruments. As Aardvark's own handbook states, "Every engineer is different and has their own taste", so it's probably worth testing the Aardscape yourself to make up your own mind about its usefulness in your application. I can confirm that the unit does precisely what it is claimed to do, so the question is how much you like what it does!

Quality Controls

The unit was rather less impressive via its balanced connections, as there was a very pronounced increase in electronic noise — to the extent that the unit was unusable in this mode. After checking with the manufacturers, I discovered that the problem was thought to be a fault condition not typical of 'normal' units. However, this was the second sample of the Aardscape I've had for review, and the first was rejected because of similar, but worse, problems. I strongly recommend that before purchasing an Aardscape, you test it very thoroughly, as it seems that quality testing at the factory, or reliability in shipping, may be a problem.

The Aardscape is the kind of product that some users will swear by, while others will find it little more than an interesting diversion. As I mentioned earlier, the whole raison d'être of the Aardscape is to add the kind of distortion obtained by overdriving analogue tape — a creative and effective technique on certain instruments or sounds — but one of the key advantages of digital recording (as far as I am concerned) is a freedom from exactly this kind of distortion, allowing a closer fidelity to the sonic characteristics of the original instrumentation. So the usefulness and appropriateness of the Aardscape is very much a personal decision.


  • Does all that it is supposed to... if you like that kind of thing!


  • The process is very dependent on personal taste.
  • Over‑use can result in a fatiguing sound.
  • Questionable reliability.


A powerful signal processor which effectively replicates the odd‑order harmonic distortion characteristics of severely overdriven analogue tape recording. Slightly fiddly to set up, but with a useful range of processing qualities.