Introduced in 1976, the Ampex ATR-102 2-track tape recorder is often cited as the finest tape handler invented. Not limited to one width, users can swap head-stacks and guides, permitting a single machine to handle 1/4'', 1/2'', and even 1'' (when modified) tape. For decades, the ATR-102 became one of the most popular mixdown decks. As Universal Audio notes, "it would be easier to list classic albums that weren't mixed down on this machine, rather than to try to list all those that were."
Unfortunately, only about 3000 ATR-102 machines were produced (including variants such as the ATR-104, which allows up to 4-track operation). We don't know how many were scrapped in the digital purge of the '90s, stored in vaults for future archive playback, or slumber forgotten in the basements of broadcast stations. Perhaps there are 2500 in circulation today. It's hard to say. But we can agree that there are not enough for every user of a digital audio workstation. But now, owners of Universal Audio's UAD-2 systems (Tape Op #67, #73, #76, #83) can purchase a "virtual" Ampex ATR-102 for their computers.
The Ampex ATR-102 is one of Universal Audio's most ambitious and detailed plug-ins to date. I'm going to cover some of the features of the software, talk about its performance, and finally discuss how it fared in a head- to-virtual-head showdown with my hardware Ampex ATR-104. I'll barely touch on the depth and flexibility of the plug-in, so please check out the website and manual for more information.
With this plug-in, you can very quickly choose a speed, formulation, and calibration level - and just get "tape" sound. But there's much more than that. Almost every meter, knob, and potentiometer found on the hardware unit has been modeled and is available for user adjustment. Pressing the Open button exchanges the animated tape reel graphics with the adjustment pots found on the audio channel and control cards. Now, I suspect most users will be happy with auto calibrate, which keeps the unit set up. But, if you're more adventurous, or have secret techniques of your own, there is a built in MRL alignment tape and oscillator, so feel free to set up the plug-in to your own tastes. Alternately, many presets from famous users include their favorite setups.
In use, the UAD Ampex ATR-102 sounds convincing. Things like head bump (bass boost), transient smoothing, hiss, and even crosstalk are all part of the package. I must confess that I was outright giddy for the first two days using this plug-in. Why? Well, it allows you to do something that is almost impossible in the real world: instant and immediate comparisons of tape stocks, operating speeds, head widths, and calibration levels. Normally, you choose these variables before starting a project. And with the exception of changing tape speed on the fly (assuming you have different speeds calibrated to the same output level), you really can't do an immediate comparison. At 15 ips tape speed, you can even swap between NAB and CCIR equalizations.
Another blessing is the ability to shut off the modeling for tape hiss, wow & flutter, and crosstalk. Normally, this doesn't make sense, but I can point to some real-life examples when I gave a mix a tape-bath prior to mastering, only to have the band complain about this "funny high-end steam sound." No matter that the producer, mix engineer, and label were in love with the effect real tape had on the album - the artists, raised in an era of little white earbuds and digital sound, were adamant that they could not bear the tape hiss. As I re-ran
the album without tape and banged my head on my desk, I lamented, "You want hiss, try a Tascam Portastudio!" (That's not hyperbole. I had a bruise.) This was a few years ago. Had the UAD Ampex ATR-102 been at my disposal, I could have made all parties happy.
To test the plug-in beyond my own ears, I started giving mastering clients two versions of a song to choose from. One used the UAD plug-in and the other used my real ATR-104, which is equipped with newer flux magnetic heads. I put the following limitations on the tests: 15 ips, as that's the most often used speed for rock; NAB equalization; and 1/4'' or 1/2'' tape widths. (I don't own a 1'' head stack. I feel 1'' tape at 30 ips is as close to no tape machine as you can get, which is a compliment and desirable for classical and jazz projects, but not what most of my clients want.) Finally, the tape choices were limited to the following comparisons: RMG Studio Master 911 versus the UAD's virtual 456; RMG SM 900 versus UAD 900; and ATR Magnetics Master Tape versus UAD GP9. (Readers wanting more permutations are free to set up and pay for tests that cover other options; I'm not writing a dissertation here.) I always started by first choosing the most favorable-sounding settings in the UAD plug-in. It was faster, and as the challenger, UAD had the right to move first. Then, I would run the same mix through the appropriate tape stock and width. After three months, I had completed comparisons with 14 mastering projects (where I thought tape was appropriate), and clients chose the winners. The score was tied, which I found shocking; I expected a majority for tape. But the client is always right. Going back over my notes, I found a trend worth sharing. When I used SM 911 versus the UAD 456, two clients favored tape and five the plug-in. On SM 900 versus UAD 900, it was split one to one. And on ATR Master Tape versus UAD GP9, all five clients chose the ATR Master Tape.
Some additional notes and observations from the testing must be shared. There were four projects where the clients "liked the warmth of the masters," but wanted to know if I could "get rid of that hiss that just appeared?" In those cases, the UAD ATR-102 set with no noise, crosstalk, or wow & flutter won the day. As to why the ATR Magnetics tape was undefeated, I have some theories. ATR Master Tape is my tape stock of choice, which means my machine is set up using it. Now, when the UAD team calibrated their reference machine, they used an MRL but chose not to adjust the Repro LF gain with external test tones. However, I spent extra time going back and forth where the UAD team chose to stop. This is definitely an aesthetic choice, but I don't think my machine running ATR Magnetics tape is the same as the GP9 setting on the plug-in. Also, my over-bias settings could be different than what Universal Audio chose when they did their modeling. For example, Scotch 250 at 15 ips often performs best at 1-1.5 dB over at 10 kHz, while Ampex 456 likes 2-3 dB or more. The UAD team may have used different settings. But overall, this plug-in fared very well to the ears of my clients, with one commenting that the "tape" (really the plug-in) really glued the mix together. I think that's strong praise.
That is not to say the UAD Ampex ATR-102 plug-in is not without fault. It plays back mix tapes for sh*t - so that's no good! In all seriousness, I still get a fair number of mixes on tape, and the plug-in is no help in that department. It's also fairly resource intensive, which isn't a problem for mastering engineers but could come into play for mixers. Plan accordingly.
If you own a UAD-2 card, you have a dilemma on your hands. Do you buy the Studer A800, FATSO Jr/Sr, or Ampex ATR-102 emulation? Good luck, because I can't answer that. As a user of all three, I can suggest that if you want to impart "tape" to individual tracks, the Studer could be the solution. I find the Fatso Jr/Sr to be unstoppable on bus work, and the ATR-102 remains the consummate mixdown deck. Looks like you're waiting for a sale at the UAD store. I know I am.
While I'm not about to sell my ATR deck or stop buying fresh tape stock, the fact remains that there are not enough of these beloved machines for everyone who wants one. Moreover, owning a tape machine requires a level of maintenance, commitment, and geeking that may not be appropriate for every engineer. We've had "models" of analog tubes, tape, and other gear since the first days of plug-ins, but it has been the investments of companies like Universal Audio that have transformed such titles from toys into truly professional tools. I have no reservations suggesting readers demo this plug-in, even if you have to purchase a UAD-2 system to do so! You will not be disappointed. ($349 direct; www.uaudio.com)
-Garrett Haines, www.treelady.com