Over the past several years, perhaps no category of analog emulation plugins has exploded as quickly as those modeling classic tape machines. Currently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single major plugin manufacturer not offering one—or in many cases, several—emulations of various tape units.
Until fairly recently, one heavyweight plugin company, Acustica Audio, was conspicuously absent from the tape emulation world, which was surprising given their well-known skill at producing authentic recreations of some of the world’s most revered analog gear. With the release of Taupe, Acustica’s first and only tape emulation plugin, the company that many elite engineers believe is at the apex of analog plugin design now has an offering in the crowded tape marketplace.
Designed to be a desert island tape plugin, Acustica claims Taupe is the most fully-featured and authentic emulation of tape machines on the market. Does their promise live up to the hype? In this review, we’ll put Taupe through its paces to find out.
Setup and First Impressions
As I’ve noted in prior reviews of Acustica’s plugins here on DJBooth Pro Audio, the company has come a long way in the last several years with making installation and setup more user friendly. If you were an early adopter who tried Acustica’s initial flagship plugin, Nebula, you likely remember less than ideal installation and authorization procedures—issues which, for the most part, are now a distant memory.
Acustica’s new Aquarius installation and authorization manager offers a relatively straightforward way to manage your Acustica Audio demos and full licenses, with easy format selection (AAX, AU, VST2/3) and a unified installer. While there are still some oddities here and there—most notably the program’s requirement of creating a “Staging Space” for plugin files which eat up additional hard drive space—for the most part, Aquarius makes things very simple. Simply enter your demo or full license authorization code, pick your formats, and let Aquarius do the rest.
Taupe ships in all major plugin formats (AAX, AU, and VST), and installing the plugin gives you both the Taupe master plugin (which combines various modules) and individual plugins for compression/limiting, EQ, and tape saturation.
Before we dive into the specifics of Taupe, I think it’s again worth noting how much Acustica’s plugins have improved from a usability standpoint in recent years. Older versions of Nebula and Acqua plugins, such as Taupe, sounded stellar but often suffered from clunky and slow user interfaces. Due to the particular nature of Acustica’s analog sampling process, and the large files it produces, you would often turn a knob and then have to wait several seconds for the updated processing to kick in. While it wasn’t always a dealbreaker, it was hardly ideal. Additionally, many of Acustica’s analog models were stepped, meaning, for example, an EQ band could only be adjusted to provide specific amounts of gain (e.g., +- 2dB, 4dB, 6dB), rendering them less flexible than many digital counterparts. Thankfully, with the release of Acustica’s Core 13 and later technology (which is built-in to Taupe), many of these issues have been entirely or mostly resolved. Knobs are snappy, sound adjustments are instant, and many controls are no longer stepped.
For starters, let’s dive into Taupe’s standout plugin: Taupe Tape. Opening Tape for the first time reveals an uncluttered, simple interface offering a range of buttons for selecting various tape models, input and output gain controls, a mix knob, and an intuitive frequency spectrum, providing insight into the tonal characteristics of the selected tape model. While Acustica cannot officially divulge what tape machines they sampled for the plugin, you can easily find a list of the highly likely candidates online, and a quick review of the list reveals a who’s who of legendary tape gear. All of the usual suspects, including machines from Ampex, Otari, Studer, and more, are here.
Put plainly; Taupe sounds phenomenal. In the spirit of objectivity, I have to disclose that I’ve never had the good fortune of working on real analog tape. However, my go-to mastering engineer often prints my mixes using the medium. While I’ve never used the real deal, I have owned or tried just about every tape plugin on the market, and I can confidently say Taupe exceeds every single one of them in terms of sheer flexibility, sound quality, and tonal enhancement. Part of what makes Taupe Tape so useful is the range of tape machines and sounds it offers, which by my count stands at 40 (note that in many cases, a machine was sampled at different settings, i.e., 15 and 30ips, which results in 2 models).
Tape does an incredible job of adding glue and overall magic to the master buss, particularly on dance, pop, and EDM; many of Taupe’s tape models are excellent for removing digital harshness, particularly in the upper mid and high frequencies. On drums, Taupe Tape is capable of beefing up the low end in a natural way no EQ can. And when it comes to the natural limiting effect, which many engineers revere analog tape for, Taupe provides it in spades: driving the input hard, pushing the mix knob to 100% wet, and turning off “Econo” mode will, much more often than not, provide a beautiful rounding of transients and up to 6dB of natural, smooth limiting behavior. To my ears, many of Tape’s models sit beautifully on an electronic master buss, notably the “Final Countdown” and “Rocky” 30 IPS settings.
Although the tape emulation portion of Taupe would seem to be the main attraction here, it’s worth noting how outstanding Taupe’s other individual plugins are. Taupe’s EQ plugin provides three classic analog EQ’s, each with substantially different sound and tonal behavior, along with a switchable preamp and dedicated high pass filter. As with any Acustica EQ, these equalizers are not for the fainthearted—these units are capable of radically reshaping your audio, just as the analog gear they’re modeled on does. While these might not be the first EQ’s that I’d reach for if I need to carve out a small notch at 2K, they’re among the absolute best in-the-box options for generous boosts just about anywhere in the spectrum. Much like their real-world counterparts, it’s simply tough to make these sound harsh, even at high gain settings.
Likewise, Taupe’s compressor module is equally fantastic, albeit not quite as versatile as it offers only one compressor and one limiter model. To my ears, the compressor is capable of what I expect from an analog compressor: heaps of gain reduction and overall sonic enhancement without troublesome pumping or distortion. In my experience, many digital compressor plugins work just fine for subtle amounts of gain reduction (say, 1-3dB); however, they quickly break up and sound markedly different from their analog counterparts once you push beyond 6dB. There’s none of that here; Taupe Compressor was able to effortlessly compress upwards of 12dB on numerous drum loops I fed into it, offering a marked improvement in punch, clarity, and overall tone.
In addition to its constituent plugins, Taupe’s main plugin offers all of its sub-modules within one unified interface, which might be better or worse for you depending on your particular workflow. One fairly substantial pain point is how you’re forced to browse presets. Rather than offer a button that quickly allows you to browse through presets, you have to click the preset menu, find your preset subgroup, and then select the preset you want each time you’d like to try a different sound. This gets even more confusing once you notice that there’s no indication of the preset you’re currently using, offering what seems like a bit of a clunky preset browsing experience. This issue aside, Taupe’s flagship plugin sounds fantastic, and many of the presets offer quick starting points for radically reshaping a sound, buss, or entire mix.
Aside from the aforementioned preset browsing issue, the only thing I’d call out about Taupe is that, like all of Acustica’s offerings, it occupies quite a bit of hard drive space. If you’re accustomed to algorithmic plugins that might only take up ~50mb of storage, this is in a whole other league, clocking in at nearly 4GB. Additionally, Taupe requires a reasonably new CPU and a powerful computer to be usable, as the plugin does eat up a good bit of processing power. So long as you can stomach these requirements, however, Taupe offers a whole lot of value for the price.
Acustica Audio’s Taupe is, hands down, the best tape emulation plugin. With 40 tape machine models, phenomenal EQ and Compressor plugins, and a sonic palette unlike any other emulation on the market, Taupe is, to my ears, the best option in this space by a fairly wide margin. So long as you can accommodate its need for hard drive space and processing power, Taupe is an absolute beast of a tape plugin and one that just about any producer or engineer would benefit from—highly recommended.
DJBooth Rating: 9.5/10
- The best sounding tape plugin we’ve tried.
- A broad range of sonic options.
- EQ and Compressor plugins are similarly outstanding.
- Usability offers significant improvements over older Acustica releases.
- The preset menu could be improved.
- It requires substantial hard drive space and processing power.