For those unfamiliar with his work, Joey Sturgis is a renowned producer in the metal and hardcore world. As well as being credited on a vast number of heavy albums, Sturgis also dispenses a great deal of his knowledge through the URM podcast and is involved in the mixing subscription service, Nail The Mix.
A lot of my own knowledge has come from Joey Sturgis tutorials, who seems to have a very direct and no-nonsense method to his teaching which I find helpful.
A Tape… Delay?
Alongside all of this work, he also runs JST, or Joey Sturgis Tones, which provide audio plugins ranging from amplifier sims to transient designers. This review focuses on Soar, a tape delay plugin developed by JST.
Tape delay might seem like an antiquated practice in the digital age. Analog tape itself has followed the floppy disk on its journey out of general use, and aside from nostalgic enthusiasts and the odd joke about how to use a biro pen to fix a cassette tape, it’s becoming rarer to see an actual audio tape in almost any context. In fact, in my place of work, I was recently shocked to meet a new member of staff who, when she was shown an audio cassette, didn’t know what it was.
The premise is actually quite simple. An early tape delay unit would consist of a recording head and a playback head, which would essentially give you the original recorded sound, and a copy of that same sound several milliseconds later. This effect was heavily used in early rock n roll and rockabilly guitar recordings and almost defined its sound. Tape delay or tape echo became more popular, and larger, more complicated units were developed, with multiple heads and adjustable tape speed.
Chances are that, if you’re producing music now, you haven’t been doing it since the 1950s and most likely your first encounter with delay would have been a digital unit. The main difference between a digital delay and a tape delay is that digital delays will produce exact, precise copies of the original sound, which will then be repeated based on the delay parameters like repeats, feedback, wet/dry mix, etc. As the analog tape is an imperfect medium, those imperfections affect the delays in interesting ways that are very pleasing to the ears. Tape saturation is a highly desired effect, and although most would agree that working with tape was arduous and filled with problems, producers still go out of their way to replicate the gentle saturation that tape can give to a mix.
Onto the plugin itself, Soar is designed to be a faithful emulation of a tape delay unit, in the handy plugin format. The parameters and types of effects available are fully editable, a feature that would require a set of entirely different machines in the hardware realm.
One of the things I like to do a couple of days before properly sitting down to review a plugin is to spend five minutes and throw it onto a track to see how it sounds and get an honest first impression. In the case of JST Soar, it was a boring piano melody I was about to scrap before calling it a day and going to bed. Having opened JST Soar, I can honestly say that I’ve never been so instantly impressed with a plugin’s sound. Without even touching a dial, my uninspiring piano line was transformed with a lush, haunting delay. I wasn’t in the ballpark, requiring further tweaking, I was at my finished piano sound. I was so pleased with the tone that I didn’t go to bed. I stayed up and finished the track.
Once I’d got past my initial glee from Soar’s excellent delay tone, it was time to properly analyze the plugin. The interface is cleanly done and well laid out, with the expected (although not necessary) animated tape head graphic at the top. Centrally, there is a vintage looking backlit VU meter, and the whole plugin has a wooden box graphic encapsulating it. Weirdly enough, it reminds me of the graphics of late 90s PC games, which I like.
Below the tape head graphics is a slider allowing you to control the tape head settings. Although there are three tape heads to choose from, the slider allows you to select different combinations of them for a variety of effects. Tape head 1 gives 16th note delays, tape head 2 gives dotted 8th note delays, and head 3 gives 1/4 note delays. Therefore when you select the “3/1” setting, you will get both quarter and sixteenth note delays. The available settings are “1/2”, “2/3” or “3/1”, as well as “single” mode, which gives you just tape head 3 on its own, and “multi” which gives you all three.
There are several ways to set up your delay sync in Soar. Firstly, you can tap a tempo into the plugin which will then remain constant. Host sync allows you to instantly match the tempo setting in your DAW, which tends to be my go-to approach unless I’m doing something a bit experimental. Finally, you can manually set the tempo via a dial on the far right of the plugin, which can be switched between BPM and milliseconds. This gives you a high degree of control over the synchronicity of the delay sound, as some will desire precise rhythmic repeats, whereas others will want a more organic, imperfect sound. Although this might seem like an obvious feature, it does go a long way in making the plugin versatile, as it does not exclude any of its possible applications. Both 4/4 EDM producers and experimental guitar pedal junkies will be able to use Soar for their applications.
Located on the left side of Soar’s user interface is a series of five dials that set this plugin apart from other delays I have used. Let’s take a quick look at all five.
“Repeats” is similar to a feedback control in most other delays, in that it controls the strength of the repeats.
“Age” is a wonderful control, effectively taking the tape sound from brand new to ancient and beat up. As you increase this control, the delays appear to lose their top end as well as the intensity of the transients. As it approaches 100%, you can end up with a soupy tone which just sounds great. I found that automating this control over time gave interesting results as well.
“Health” is similar to “Age” but relates to the machine rather than the tape. When set to far left it recreates a faulty machine, whereas setting it to the right emulates a tape delay mechanism in perfect working order. As you reduce the “Health” knob, the delays become less uniform. Having the age set high, and the health set low gives a tremendously unstable delay effect.
“Flutter” controls the mechanical error of the machine, a feature that does not exist in digital delays. This control goes hand in hand with “Age” and “Health” to craft those gritty, saturated delays, or can be backed off for a cleaner effect.
Finally “Contour” is a little like a high-pass filter which can be set up to 400 Hz, and is designed to combat lower frequencies that can build up when heavy delays overlap. I particularly like this control as filtered delays tend to fit the mix better and create fewer problems with other instruments.
With the main controls set, the tape speed, or IPS, can be switched between 15 or 30 inches per second. The imperfections and changes to the delays that are imposed by the main five controls will be slightly different in either IPS mode.
On the right of the plugin is a mono/stereo control, which is set to stereo by default. There is also a wet/dry mix control, allowing Soar to be used as a blended in-line effect, or set to 100% wet and used on a return channel.
Finally, there is an option to turn the feedback on or off, which is set to on by default. If there is a little bit too much going on with the delays, but the tone is great, I found flicking the feedback off can clean it up a little. Under normal circumstances though, I like it on, because it adds to the character of the tone.
The word character leads me nicely into the summary of the plugin. What astounds me the most about Soar is that there are no dead spots on the controls. There are no bad sounds to be found. You literally start with a great sounding delay, and then alter the dials to taste, in order to determine the character of the delay.
Before checking out Soar, I was vaguely aware of tape delay effects and that they were slightly different to the digital delays that I’m used to. This JST plugin has demonstrated to me that a huge degree of atmosphere and sonic interest can be achieved by the use of tape delay.
This is not a plugin which forces me to dive deep into the controls to find my ideal settings, nor is it one where I might have two or three favorite combinations. It sounds great from the outset, and all that needs defining is the specific tone required to fit the project.