Just as virtual analogue synths dominate the software instrument market, analogue-style effects have become increasingly popular in recent years, as more producers realise the value of injecting extra character to music produced in the digital domain. The sonic characteristics that tape plug-ins attempt to emulate are some of the most subtle. Vintage tape machines affect the signal in a number of ways, introducing mild harmonic distortion, non-linear compression, a glue effect, uneven frequency response and, depending on the machine, pitch instability known as wow and flutter.
There are plenty of options in this field, notably Universal Audio's painstakingly authentic Studer and Ampex emulations, Waves' Kramer Master Tape and Slate's Virtual Tape Machines. But U-he's Satin takes a slightly different approach. U-he have employed the same methodology used to develop their excellent Diva virtual analogue synth—rather than modelling the system as a whole, each individual element of the circuit is modelled separately. As such, Satin offers a very thorough set of features, with the main focus being Studio mode for standard tape emulation. Separate delay and flange modes offer tape-based implementations of the two effects.
In Studio mode, you can immediately hear the range of sounds Satin is capable of. The main controls are fairly straightforward. Turning up the input gain gradually increases the level of compression and saturation. A very useful automatic make-up gain feature compensates for the chosen level of input gain, maintaining a consistent output level no matter the input setting. Switching between Vintage and Modern tape modes has a noticeable impact on the sonic character: vintage tape distorts more easily, with a less even frequency response.
I've previously found some tape plug-ins to be quite all-or-nothing in operation. Partly, that's a user error—the temptation with tape plug-ins is always to crank them up until you hear them working on every channel, but that's not necessarily a good way to get the best results. Satin is much more progressive as you adjust the parameters. Drive the input harder and the tape starts to break up subtly at first, before gradually compressing and saturating harder until the signal becomes warm, fuzzy and imprecise.
You can adjust tape speed continuously from 7.5 to 30 inches per second with controls on the middle panel of the plug-in window. Lower speeds are noisier, with a significantly reduced high-end, but higher speeds sacrifice low-frequency response. Pre-emphasis and five noise reduction modes allow you to tailor the behaviour further.
The Service panel, hidden by default, allows access to more complex parameters including wow and flutter, bias and the physical attributes of the repro head. So many arcane options could easily overwhelm, but the clear layout makes them relatively easy to use, particularly with one eye on the frequency response curve to help visualise the impact of changes. The 43-page manual is also incredibly thorough and clearly written.
The classic tape sound derives from two separate processes. When you listen to a recording made entirely on tape, you're hearing the cumulative effect of each individual track being recorded to a multi-track machine, then all of those tracks being mixed down to stereo tape. In the digital domain, that process can be replicated by applying instances of a tape plug-in to individual tracks, then adding another instance directly across the master bus. Satin excels in both cases, and the easiest way to use the plug-in is arguably the most immediately impressive—placed on the master bus or a sub-mix such as a drum bus, it can colour the signal subtly while compressing the mix as a whole, gluing the sounds together, smoothing out transients and giving the signal a cohesive, finished sound. It could easily take the place of your usual mix bus compressor and, in some cases, maybe even your EQ.
Like the UAD Studer and Slate VTM, Satin offers a neat solution to replicating the sound of multi-track recording in the form of eight groups. With multiple instances of the plug-in applied to tracks in a project, each can be allocated to one of up to eight groups. In essence, each of these groups acts like a virtual multi-track tape machine; adjust the settings on one plug-in in the group and all the others are automatically adjusted to match. Individual parameters in each instance can also be locked if necessary, meaning they become immune to changes made in other instances within the group. As an example of how that might be useful, running the kick drum at a lower speed than the rest of the drums could be logical in terms of low-frequency response, but other parameters in that instance of the plug-in would still follow changes made to others in the drum group. The same feature also allows you to hold locked parameters in place when flicking through presets.
The flanger and delay effects built into Satin are unlikely to be the main selling points, but they're excellent in their own right. The delay offers four virtual repro heads that can be adjusted independently. You set the delay time manually by adjusting the tape speed and head distance; you can also sync it to DAW tempo, in which case the tape speed adjusts the colour of the sound. The combination of delay time modulation, feedback, filtering and three routing modes allows for a range of sounds, from clean tempo-synced delays to dirty dubby effects.
The flanger is slightly different than most other flanger effects, replicating the original tape flanging sound created by playing the same signal from two tape machines simultaneously and manually manipulating the playback speed of one unit. Satin's implementation lets you introduce the effect manually or have it triggered automatically. Both approaches can be controlled via MIDI. (Most of Satin's parameters offer MIDI learn options.)
Overall, Satin is the most impressive tape emulation I've come across. Where so many other tape plug-ins seem to offer a choice between subtle colour or complete saturation, Satin's approach makes it easy to find useable settings in between the extremes. And it's precisely those in-between settings—the points at which you don't hear an obvious effect, but the second you hit the bypass button you hear the life get sucked out of your mix—where the plug-in excels. The results are excellent, whether on individual tracks, grouped sub-mixes or the entire stereo master. When used with restraint and dialled in to suit the material being processed, Satin adds that magical tape quality to a digital production—the subtle compression, glue and saturation that make it feel like a finished track.
Ease of use: 4.5/5