U‑he's Satin is one of the most comprehensive tape simulations yet devised.
Whether I'm wistfully remembering girlfriends, bulky hardware synths or clunky tape recorders, there's a recurring theme: I best appreciate their qualities when they're long gone. U‑he don't yet offer a girlfriend plug‑in, but as they have already created a seriously analogue‑sounding synth in Diva, I couldn't resist checking out Satin, a celebration of tape and its foibles.
Satin is not a virtual recreation of a single tape machine. Rather, it aims to imprint your audio with a range of familiar tape characteristics, therefore delivering much that is loved from a medium often viewed through misty eyes. The 'warmth' of tape refers to a complex mixture of saturation, harmonic distortion, transient smoothing and the glueing‑together of multiple tracks, not to mention the slew of instabilities we tried desperately to minimise back in the day. Not content to be a highly configurable virtual tape simulator, Satin includes a pair of tasty tape‑based effects: a flanger and a delay with either two or four virtual heads.
Clean, functional and accessible, Satin is built around the kind of no‑nonsense interface that will make users feel comfortable in seconds. It's divided into three areas: the upper and lower panels, plus the 'service' panel. The lower panel changes according to the mode selected, while the service panel has a lid to keep complexity at bay until required. To get you up and running, the manual is laced with hints and tips, plus there are a good collection of factory patches, including example mastering start points. Some adopt the characteristics of specific high‑end tape machines, while others are tailored for adding presence to vocals or dirtying up drums.
There are six screen resolutions available, from 'cute' to 'huge', and the all‑important input and output controls are large and unambiguous. Continuing with the theme of familiarity are bold VU meters, with an optional RMS mode that restrains their reaction to transients: a purely visual effect, but usually more comforting.
Fine control of parameters is achieved by holding down the Shift key before moving a knob, while right‑clicking a control opens a small context menu with a MIDI learn function and a Lock option, which freezes the selected control. This can be useful when you're flicking through the presets and you wish to keep specific parameters unchanged; for example, you might want to lock the wet/dry mix balance when Satin is used as a track insert.
The Vintage/Modern switch determines the base character of the virtual tape, with vintage prone to greater harmonic distortion compared to the cleaner, brighter sound of modern tape. Satin's tapes don't age, wear or snap, and there's no variation of quality between reels — unless you specifically ask for it. Each spool is therefore endlessly reliable, unlike the many boxes rotting gently in my attic.
Enabling the 'Makeup' option keeps Satin's output at a constant level, making it easier to compare settings. You simply crank up the input and wallow in the saturation. Be aware that with Makeup active, low input levels will dramatically boost the tape hiss, as my early experiments with the two main controls soon demonstrated. I found the bypass button invaluable in the first few days, while my ears became educated to the charms of 'pretend tape'.
Satin operates in three modes, of which the default 'Studio' is Satin's main tape simulation, and it goes out of its way to be straightforward (the others are for creating delay and flanger effects — see box). Tape speed is continuously variable from 1.875 to 30 inches per second; naturally, the fastest tape speeds offer the least noise and best audio quality, although these characteristics can be fine‑tuned in the service panel. Very low tape speeds are more suitable for special effects and cassette nostalgia, but if ever you feel Satin is too subtle, slowing down the tape usually serves as a wake‑up. Underneath the tape speed control is pre‑emphasis, which simulates the effect of 'gap loss' in the repro (replay) head. Its effect is to alter the head's frequency response, and at its maximum, it acts almost like an enhancer, especially at low tape speeds.
The compander section simulates five different types of professional or consumer noise reduction, including Dolby A and B, plus Dbx type I and II. Of course, noise reduction isn't a necessity with virtual tape, but its inclusion allows many of the beneficial side‑effects of classic compression/expansion to be exploited. I was able to revive a favourite cassette trick of recording with Dolby B active then listening back with it turned off. Once upon a time, the additional noise seemed a worthy trade‑off for the high‑end buzz — but I never thought I'd be reminded of this, let alone doing it, in 2014! A bypass tape button removes the tape emulation from the signal path, but leaves the compander and record/repro circuits active.
Satin features a Group mode that is a Godsend when using multiple instances in a DAW. Any instance can be assigned to one of eight named groups, each of which can be accessed and adjusted from a single interface. The more tracks that receive the Satin treatment, the more generally tape‑like the impression. Dynamic instruments, in particular, squash together with fuzzy realism, transients softening and blurring. At this point I realised my initial idea of Satin as a blanket saturation effect was far from the whole story, because multiple instances offer the greatest flexibility and cohesion. Naturally, using it in that way can consume more CPU than you have spare, so it's fortunate that Satin isn't a CPU‑hog like Diva! I found putting three or four instances on Logic's buses was a balance that worked for me in most cases.
Having grasped the basic operation of Satin, the Service panel should hold no terrors. Best of all, it offers an 'analyser window' that's so informative I keep it permanently visible. This provides a real‑time display of the virtual tape's frequency response, so you can see as well as hear the effect of every tweak.
Personally, I didn't realise I missed tape hiss until I got my first DAT recorder and it mysteriously vanished. Even then, I had hissy analogue synths — some with hissy ensemble units — so it was only when I started producing music entirely 'in the box' that I noticed how deathly silent everything had become. In Satin, not only can you add exactly as much tape hiss as you wish, but you can add 'asperity noise' too: enharmonic distortion caused by imperfections in the tape, particles of dust, and so on. Asperity's characteristic harshness might be a step too far for most, but for adding raw grit to drums or other dynamic material, it's a potent tool to have available. Soft‑gating is available to minimise the intrusion of both types of noise.
The remainder of the panel leads you deeper into tape's magnetic mysteries. Turn up the wow and flutter and you won't be surprised at the characteristic wobbles. These are only slightly too wobbly for comfort at the maximum setting, and I'd have liked the opportunity to push further into the extremes and replicate truly sick tape recorders. However, for adding eeriness to string pads and tinkly pianos, the slowest tape speeds deliver pretty well.
Of the other controls, crosstalk simulates the bleed from adjacent tracks that can occur on even the best maintained machines. Bias is a bi‑polar control used to juggle tape distortion and upper‑range frequency response. Double‑clicking the control sets it at zero, which assigns a fairly even frequency response without excess distortion. Lower values crank up the distortion and the highs, which gives the impression of adding 'air' to instruments — it gave a lovely warm sizzle to my new gong!
Gap width and bump are related to the performance of the repro head, with adjustment of Satin's gap width requiring no screwdriver. Width interacts with other settings, while bump relates to the low‑frequency response of the head, higher values encouraging more resonance.
What's most impressive about Satin is how a little of it can go a long way. Capable of subtle warming, compression or blatant, fuzzed‑up coloration, Satin starts at almost completely transparent and can go to heavily saturated, bloated and crunchy. If it has a weakness, it's that the emphasis is firmly on the desirable aspects of tape. Not that I'm knocking the work involved in simulating well‑maintained machines, but I'd love to be able to mimic broken ones too!
Above all, Satin has the same quality I appreciate in U‑he's Diva: attention to detail. This makes all the difference between a plug‑in you quite like, and one you know you'll use regularly. Considering the bundled delay and flanger, I don't think it's expensive either. I've thrown Satin over most tunes lately, although I fell into the trap of overcooking them at first. If your in‑the‑box recordings still need a certain something, it would be reckless not to take the demo for a spin.
There are numerous tape‑emulation plug‑ins available, of which perhaps the most celebrated are Slate Digital's Virtual Tape Machines, Waves' Kramer Master Tape and Universal Audio's Studer A800; however, all these are geared more to subtle warming effects than flanging or lo‑fi tape delays.
As well as serving as a tape emulation for treating recorded tracks, Satin has two other modes that emulate the classic tape‑based effects: delay and flanging. Tape delay is a particularly attractive spin‑off that can summon up ensemble and flanging effects, tape reverb and countless repeating delays. You might consider it worth the asking price alone. A slider sets the space between the record and repro heads and therefore the delay time, which (as always) is tied to tape speed.
Crank up the feedback and the regenerations build convincingly into a mush that does resemble saturated tape, with an optional limiter on hand to control the madness. I especially liked the slowest possible tape speeds, with as much wow and flutter as I could dial in. The resulting mush may be fine‑tuned via low- and high‑frequency cut knobs.
For the cost of a little extra CPU power you can switch from an already‑cool two heads to four, each having individual modulation, stereo panning and level. With the shortest delays you can create a spooky tape reverb and with enough feedback you can hint at spring reverbs too. Perhaps the biggest and most welcome surprise is the inclusion of tempo sync. With sync activated, the distance slider snaps to 16th‑note values, although you can Shift‑click to make subtle variations between heads. The delay's output has ping‑pong and crossover modes for extra spaciousness. I had hoped to compare its dubby excesses to those of my Roland RE201 Space Echo, but unfortunately the poor thing awaits repair. In its defence, it's been in service longer than any of my computers, but with Satin installed I'm in less of a hurry to get it sorted.
Not quite the continuous LFO‑sourced 'whoosh' of standard effects pedals, Satin's flanger is a one‑off manual effect, just as flanging once was when two identical recordings would play and the speed of one machine would be manipulated. Satin's slider is far easier to handle than the flange of a tape reel! The effect can also be triggered using a button or via MIDI, with the fade in and out neatly automated. Furthermore, the fade shape and time are tailorable and a range knob sets the overlap between the two imagined tape recorders. In the background this knob also sets the delay of the first machine and, crucially, the latency of the flange process. Latency is an inevitable cost because even a U‑he plug‑in can't travel into the future — which is what you're doing when you treat an audio stream like speeding up tape. Finally, the phase invert button prevents the volume increase that playing two tape machines side by side would inevitably bring, giving cancellation instead.