You’re getting warm: Software Distortion Plugins

Tube simulators, tape simulators, tube warmth? What in the world is this all about anyway?

Our fearless editor has commisioned me to write a report on these plugins, but I don’t think it should be done without a little background info.

First of all, I would like to stress that overdriven tubes (and overdriven tape) add distortion! If it’s very light, they call it “warmth”, if it’s really heavy they call it “Marshall stack turned up to 11!” Regardless of what you call it, it is distortion. Maybe it’s pleasant distortion, but it’s still distortion.

The only reason I mention this at all is because ever since the dawn of digital audio, them good ol’ boys and girls in the marketing department of damn near every audio-oriented company on the planet have been throwing tubes into anything they can get their hands on, running up and down the banks of the river and screaming “warmth” to the top of their lungs! What this really amounts to is an attempt to cash in on the fear of the unknown. The unknown in this case being the “sound” of digital audio as compared with analog audio.

As a result of these hysterics, you can now purchase damn near anything with vacuum tubes thrown in the gain stages. I’ve seen CD players, A/D converters, even equalizers with tube circuitry. Strange places to be using tubes! I’ll go out on a limb right now and tell you that some of this is ridiculous, and some of it pure marketing strategy and little else. If your goal is to do nothing but amplify, not alter a signal, this can probably be done better, and more economically with solid state devices. I guess my point here is to differentiate between the use of tube circuitry as a stage of gain, or as a means to alter the signal.

What was that? You say you still want to add “distortion” and alter the signal? You say you really *like* the sound of that even order harmonic distortion those 12AX7 tubes add to your tracks? Ok, you caught me, I admit it. So do I! Still, it’s best to think of “tube warmth” as an effect, and not a linear stage of amplication. Ok, nuff said ’bout that, and on to the review.

At the time of this writng I have 3 of these babys installed: Tube Warmth from 3rd Ear audio, Magneto from Steinberg, and WaveWARM from Gadget labs.

Tube Warmth from 3rd Ear Audio

This product from 3rd Ear Audio is very simple, and also very subtle. You basically get a nice simple interface with 2 main sliders: one that lets you choose between full left (tape saturation), full right (tube warmth) and anywhere between, and one main “drive” slider that is really an effect level control. As I stated earlier this plugin is very subtle, and unlike the other two, can’t really be overdriven to create effects such as guitar-amp-like distortion. there’s not a whole lot else to say about Tube Warmth other that it seems to do it’s job of simulating a vacuum tube amp, and slightly saturated tape fairly well, just don’t expect to get a Mesa Boogie type guitar amp sound with it, it’s not designed for this.

Magneto from Steinberg

This processor from Steinberg is pretty cool, and also it’s just plain pretty. Bright red, with analog type L/R meters, tape speed select (15 ips or 30 ips), a high frequency roll-off knob, input and output level controls, and drive (effect level). I’m really impressed with the sound and range of this plugin. You can achieve almost any kind of “tape” sound out of it ranging from very clean, to a very smooth sounding overdrive. I use it on guitar tracks and it really rocks, adding just the right amount of even order harmonics and compression. If you are looking for the sound of tape saturation and compression, this is the one to go for.

WaveWARM from Gadget Labs

The people at Gadget Labs have a habit of thinking things through before they release a product, and this one is no exception. There is a lot of brainpower in the northwest, and not all of it goes into to making airplanes: there are also a lot of audio-oriented companies, and a lot of sonic research going on.

To summarise, Gadget Labs teamed up with another northwestern firm (AIPL) which was already doing research into psychoacoustic principles and the result is a tube and tape simulation plugin that is extremely realistic and versatile. You could just about take all of the good points that I’ve made about the preceeding products, apply them all to WaveWARM, plus add a few points.

For one thing, when you crank up the tube drive on this baby, it’s capable of sounding like a guitar amp. In fact, a lot like a guitar amp. So much so that I became curious enough to make a few calls and found out that a Fender guitar amplifier was analyzed and modeled for the “tube” section of the plug-in. I didn’t ask about the process used to create the “tape” simulation, but suffice to say that it is equally convincing . You can get anything from subtle warming, and tape saturation effects, to full blown, purple glowing 6L6 Fender overdrive with this thing.

The interface is colorful and easily interpreted. Tube and tape icons switch each effect in or out and there are sliders for effect gain, tube mix, tube character, tube dynamics, tape knee (a kind of sharpness control for the tape simulator) and tape limiting. In particular the tube character control is very exciting, modifying the added harmonics from “fuzzy and buzzy” to “harmonic and singing.”

With all of these options, the help file better be complete and lucid, and I’m happy to report that is the case. In short, this is the best of the bunch, and if you can only afford one plugin of this type, this could be the best choice.