Continuing this series of posts on software and plug-ins, today’s post has praise for the one I use more than any other: Universal Audio’s Ampex ATR-102 plug-in. (On sale through the end of december for $299, or $499 as a bundle with the complementary Studer A800 24 track emulation, also mentioned below.)
While I’m critical of analogue snobbery overall, this one proves that there’s good reason for such snobbery to exist. Simply put, every instrument sounds better when you apply this plug in across the master channel of … any track at all. It emulates a classic analog tape deck, not a multi-track one you use for tracking, but one that you use to “mix-down to” in a studio. While this might not seem as obvious a thing to add as something like reverb or a delay effect, it actually does wonders. Some people say that you don’t really need other things like compression if you use it because of the way it pulls everything together, like a camera that snaps into focus.
Universal Audio’s stuff presents a contrast to the Kush Audio/UBK company that was the subject of the first post in this series. UA focuses on emulations of classic studio equipment of the past, rather than original creations. (Though they do offer some features on some these emulations that did not exist in the originals.) The second important difference is that you have to purchase a hardware component or memory card to upgrade the processing power of your computer to run UA’s stuff. The UBK is a “native” plug-in, meaning you can run it direct off your hard drive without any additional expense. What does this mean? UAD’s stuff costs more cuz you have to buy a platform to run it off of.
They come in two forms, cards you inset into a computer, or satellites, which look like external hard drives. The cards start at $299, and the satellites at $699, though you can get them for cheaper with the discount coupons the major online stores offer regularly. They go up in price from there based on how powerful they are, ie, how many plug-ins they can run at once. Still, since a refurbished ATR-102 can run for $10,000 dollars on the used market, you’re still looking at a tiny fraction of the real thing in terms of cost.
There’s all kinds of paramaters you can mess around with to get different sounds, and lost of pre-sets to give you an idea of how they work together. You can combine it with a Studer A800 emulation that is designed to be used on individual tracks to get two layers of different tape characteristics. The Studer’s presets are more focused on different calibrations for specific instruments. They work very well together but to my ears the Ampex makes a bigger difference.
I had no idea when I was working in analog studios how many different kinds of sounds a tape deck like these can really make. (IE, slapback, chorus, saturation, eq…) One thing I like about plug-ins is they can serve like training wheels for artists who want to learn more about production and audio engineering. When you’re paying hundreds of dollars a day to work in a studio, you can’t really afford to spend the time just messing around with things like compressors, eqs, reverbs, tape machines to learn how they work. So you tend to leave that to the engineers who “know what they’re doing.” Many audio engineers will say in interviews that it took them hours of practice to learn how to play these things, like instruments. Some of them say they would stay in the studio after the end of a session when they were an intern until the wee hours of the morning to get a chance to practice on these things. One guy I read an interview with said when he was starting out that he used to buy one such outboard unit and “practice” on it till he learned how to use it, then sell it and get another one and practice on that.
Once you own an emulation of a piece of analog hardware and have access to it at home (without as much of a drag on your electric bill!) you can experiment and find your way around it to your heart’s content. I never was able to do this when in studios in the 1990’s, and as a result, I didn’t really know how to give input on or interact with engineers when they’d be trying to translate certain ideas we’d suggest. (“Can you make the snare drum sound like a firecracker?”)
Some might say this is a bad thing. I’ve read interviews with engineers and producers who say that it can be an adjustment for them to deal with musicians these days who come into the studio with preset ideas for how they want their parts to be mixed or processed after working at home with plug-in software. Sometimes too many cooks can spoil the pudding. You can get attached to a certain sound you get with a plug-in on a single instrument at home that may not work in the context of putting the song together as a whole in a studio with new parts added. It adds another dimension to the relationship between engineers and producers and artists. Like anything else, the way you handle that dimension as a relationship determines whether it works or not.
One thing on the positive side is that it removes the notion that these kinds of studio gadgets must be used to make things sound bigger, slicker, shinier, sheenier. Most engineers are trained to make things sound more, er, mersh, though less so now in the past. It’s weird having been involved in l0-fi indie rock in the ’90’s to see how much that aesthetic has seeped into the mainstream. Nearly all of Universal Audio’s stuff – which is used by very mersh producers – contains presets that make things sound full of static, distortion, chaos and grime. When I started messing around with these plug-ins, it dawned on me that the association of these tools with the slick and the big had to do with the way they were used, rather than with qualities inherent in the components themselves. So from that perspective, artists can have a positive impact on the use of these tools if they know more about what they do.
Most of all, this Ampex is just a blast. If you can swing the dough for a Satellite to get you on board the UA system, check it out. Be warned: once you do have a UAD platform, you can demo all of their plug-ins, which will make you want to have more….it’s a slippery slope!
P.S – There are cheaper options for this kind of thing made by Waves and Slate Digital, but I have not hear them myself.