The Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-in from Universal Audio is one of the latest in a series of classic hardware emulations made for the UAD-2 series DSP Accelerators (Tape Op #57, #73, #76, #83). Having long been a convert to the UAD DSP platform, I had to check this out but had only one problem. I’m still using (with great success) an older Mac G5, PCI-based Pro Tools rig with 4 UAD-1 cards (#41) in a separate chassis. The Studer A800 plug-in requires a UAD-2. I decided to call Will Shanks at UA and convince him to give me a tour of the new plug-in at UA headquarters, with the advantage being that I could compare the plug-in side-by-side with the actual machine that was used for the modeling. Plus, I could get more detailed info from Will than I could if I had just tested the plug-in in my studio.
A ton of tape emulation plug-ins are currently available, including Crane Song Phoenix (Tape Op #46), which I use in every mix. So you have to ask, “Do we really need another one?” Having known the UA folks for some time, I understand the level of detail and amount of time that goes into their plug-in releases, not to mention the brain power at the company, so I think for me, the answer is most definitely.
Jumping right in, the plug-in gives you the ability to adjust all of the same settings one would associate with a real Studer A800 multitrack tape deck, as well as some other tweaks that don’t exist on the original. You can choose tape speed (7.5, 15, 30 ips), tape formulation (3M 250, Ampex 456, BASF 900, and Quantegy GP9), and operating level (+3, +6, +7.5, +9 dB). The original Studer A800 had 24 sets of color-coded cards with adjustments used to calibrate each track on the machine for recording and playback. Each instance of the plug-in gives you a set to calibrate as well. The cards and the adjustments available are the HF Driver or Red card (high frequency and bias); Sync EQ or Yellow card (HF and LF); Repro EQ or White card (HF and LF); and Noise or Blue card. The latter was not on the original machine; it allows control over how much hiss and low-frequency hum you want added to your signal. Apparently, the real A800 was susceptible to hum depending on where it was sitting in the room, so UA has provided the ability to keep that sound in if that’s your thing. Of course, hiss is something some enjoy, and others run from.
Another set of controls to the right of the calibration settings include Equaliser for switching between NAB or CCIR operation; Noise for simply turning the noise on or off; Auto Cal, which allows the plug-in to choose the calibration settings automatically depending on the type of tape formulation used; and Gang Controls on/off. Ganging allows you to have multiple instances of the plug-in running yet control them all with just one instance open. Very handy! One thing to mention is that even though you have the Auto Cal feature, you can turn it off and go crazy with bias and the other calibration controls to achieve some pretty radical sounds. Of course, you can over or under–bias this plug-in!
The transport controls are Thru, Input, Sync, and Repro. Thru acts as a true bypass of the plug-in while Input allows you to just have the signal hit the electronics of the tape machine and not the tape. Sync and Repro heads on the original were exactly the same in response, so why have them both on the plug-in, since overdubbing with a sync head is not going to happen or matter in this case? Well, options and familiarity I guess. On the plug-in, they each have their own EQ adjustments, so use your imagination and your automation, and go nuts. All of the calibration controls can be hidden so that you can look at spinning tape reels complete with logos from each tape manufacturer. The spinning reels can be stopped by clicking on the label below the IPS control.
OK, but how does it sound? I had Will Shanks hook up a situation where I could A/B the results between the original A800 and the plug-in in real-time. This setup had signal going to the real tape machine and was monitored off the repro head with the plug-in setup to be identical to that. At first, I sat and listened and was able to pick out the original machine each time and was disappointed by this until Will realized he had the settings left over from our initial experiments and tour of the plug-in. Once Will hit Auto Cal and switched over to the 250 setting, which was the tape we had up on the original machine, I lost all ability to discern between the original and the plug-in. I was able to use the A/B test to try things like over and under–biasing. The results were identical between the original machine and the plug-in. I also had the chance to try the plug-in on a project I tracked, and I was floored by the results and instantly sold. This level and quality of emulation makes me desire other tape machines like the Ampex MM1200 or even an MCI JH-24. Maybe if I bug Will and his team enough, I can own an army of multitrack recorder plug-ins!
The Universal Audio folks really have done a fantastic job on this plug-in. It sounds exactly like the real deal. You are getting the benefits of analog without the traditional hassles and cost that come with operating a tape machine. The only thing they can’t give you is that tape smell. In my opinion, the Studer A800 plug-in is well worth its price.
($279.49 direct; www.uaudio.com)
–Matt Boudreau, www.mattboudreau.com
Brainworx bx_XL mastering limiter, Elysia Alpha compressor, Vertigo VSC-2 compressor, SPL Passeq passive EQ, Brainworx bx_stereomaker
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