What a lovely coincidence that tape, originally a recording medium, works beautifully for distortion and saturation. Whatever the reason, tape saturation is a popular effect. If you want subtle, pristine saturation, there are various meticulous models of high-quality studio equipment. That was one topic in our interview earlier this week with Universal Audio’s Dr. David Berners. (UA’s model is intended to model the entire multitrack tape deck, so quite a bit different.) There’s also, on a much gentler budget, a simple saturation effect in the US$79 Harrison Mixbus, intended more for the saturation behavior on main or submix buses than for replicating the tape equipment itself.

But sometimes pristine, high-fidelity tape equipment is the opposite of what you want. You want, instead, raunchy, destructive, dirty distortion. To me, like many others, that’s more valuable. And it can cost nearly nothing, if you’re willing to scrounge.

You don’t need any pricey equipment: just one unwanted tape deck and a CD-to-cassette adapter you almost certainly have buried in a drawer or closet.

And yes, as many have noted, this is really best considered an overdrive effect rather than tape saturation. (Tape player saturation? There is a faux cassette tape in it, at least. But it isn’t saturation created by the tape medium, so technically, it’s really just a clever overdrive distortion hack; I agree with commenters.)

Helsinki-based producer and musician Riku Annala shares in a video tutorial how this works.

He writes:

Really, it’s just a simple, almost stupid trick and I’m 99% sure that many others have realized it too, but I’ve never bumped into it anywhere. It seems at the moment that producers are trying to get away from the clean digital sound and there is a clear lo-fi trend going on. I’ve always been somehow fascinated with old c-cassette tapes (I’m a product of the 80’s) and I got myself an old tape deck for experimantation purposes. Here is the catch, I realized that by using one of those 3mm jack CD-to-tape adapters that are used in tape car stereo’s for plugging external players, you can route digital (or any) audio through the tape deck to color the audio in various different ways!

More on his blog:
Studio Experiment #1: Tape Saturation for Cheapskates [Recue]

Well worth checking out his music, too, whilst you’re there.

Variations on this trick? (I’m working on some hacks with a speed-variable portable tape player.) Other ideas? Make anything interesting this way? Let us know in comments.

Photos courtesy Recue.

  • I really seems to work! Obviously, there's no tape involved, but still, the magnetic heads are probably the parts that make the saturation. Nice idea!!!

  • Martin

    hm, nice but i don´t get it. 
    almost every tapedeck has a record function and audio i/o. why not put in a real tape, hit record and feed the audio through?
    please enlighten me 🙂

  • This way, you'll never run out of tape. Also, and probably more importantly, it's a real-time effect. Otherwise, you'd have to make your recording first, then record it onto the tape, then play it back.

  • shim

    yes, i wonder what is really happening here?

    i have been dropping beats and all to cassette for awhile and LOVE the result. and you can push it pretty hard. wanna try this version to see if the distorto has any unique qualities.

    great post!

  • me

    dont understand this…

    groovebox out -> tapedeck in -> adapter -> record -> amp -> speakers?

  • Probably this way you're getting more high frequencies, cassettes tend to cut hi's. And, obviously, its real time.

  • me

    something is wrong in his setup

    the cassette adapter usually brings an external signal (cd, mp3-player) into the car radio – not out of it!!!

  • Peter Kirn

    @Jeremy: not necessarily. Some tape decks allow you to monitor the signal being recorded, which of course is also the easiest way to get a tape delay… because the play head will be in a different location than the record head.

    All of this reminds me I have to test the old tape decks lurking around here and elsewhere.

    But yes, his adapter is a nice convenience and makes this feasible on some decks on which it would be otherwise impossible.

    And all of this, while potentially obvious, makes a nice reminder. Sometimes real-for-real is easier than digital simulation.

  • Derek D

    I need to dig out my adapter when I'm at my parents house this weekend. That reminds me that I need to get a tape cleaner for my old rack mount deck. Anyone have any recommendations on a cleaner?

  • I have a small collection of Cassette decks I use as coloring devices. My favorite is a 3 head Hitachi. It has Dolby B&C and lots of other settings for different cassettes types… all of which are great for creating different tones. Being a 3 head machine means I can get the tape sound from the repro head while it is recording. Drums are definitely great using this kind saturation! Check out the Casstte808: http://createdigitalmusic.com/2008/02/free-tape-r

  • Spot on Jeremy! This way you can have it as a real time effect and don't need to bounce to a tape and back.

    @me – Nothing wrong with the setup. You can use the adapter both ways: Feed the tape decks' inputs and "record" the audio out from the adapted, or feed the input to the adapter and pick it up from the tape decks outs.

  • What a genius article, I spent the eighties permanently glued to a cassette player, with the Dolby button switched off (the distortion was just beautiful) Fucked up my hearing lol, but hey-ho, it was fun lol 🙂

  • me


    no the adapter works only one-way (eg. mp3-player -> adaptor -> tapedeck).

    the signal flow is not carefully explained and really irritating.

    the only way it could work is:

    groovebox out -> adaptor in -> tapedeck in -> (tapedeck plays) -> tapedeck out -> amp -> speakers

  • kconnor9000

    Headline says 'tape saturation effect' — this isn't tape saturation. This is running audio through a recording head. Goes through two stage of transduction into a magnetic field, but you're never saturating oxide particles on a tape. If is sounds good to you, more power!

  • Love it! I never thought to use a car adapter. I did a somewhat similar trick a few years back when I recorded the guitars on bt's cover of 'The Ghost In You' from his last album.

    I recorded the acoustic guitars in my apartment on a dual cassette deck. I dubbed the tape back and forth to get generation loss. Each iteration I recorded back into Logic. After a few dubs back and forth there was all kinds of great noise and hiss… I love cassettes!

  • kconnor9000

    Related fun thing: radio shack "Recorder Telephone Pickup", Item 4400533, $7.99. Astoundingly flexible thing. Apart from recording nicely distorted magnetic fields like the above trick does, I'm using it to extract a gate pulse from a Critter and Guitari pocket piano, by listening to the LED output! Turned on to this by Nicolas Collins book "Handmade Electronic Music". Highly recommended.

  • dumafuji

    i always thought what was good about tape was, well, actually putting stuff onto the iron oxide coated on plastic, moving electrons around, that sort of thing. so, no? it's really about the machine and not the tape?

    i've been running my laptop into cassette tape for parallel distortion for a while now. i love it, sounds great, but kinda fiddly as an extra step in the recording process. so i love this idea, just not sure what is happening.

    it'd be fun to hear groovebox only vs groovebox + tape deck comparison. thanks for posting. big up for the creativity and sharing, recue. like the tracks.

  • Well this is a tough call. I'm certain the biggest share of what you hear is determined by the coloration of cassette adapter thing you use with a lesser contribution by the tape machine. Well it's not too off-base to call it a poor man's Portico 5042.

    The issue with really recording to tape, as many here know is you can't record and play back the same spot of tape at the same time. So as sort of mentioned you can either send audio through the recorder where you'll hear a little coloring from the preamp inside.

    You could get this thing that sends something external into the playback head that's a non-tape based process.

    Or you could play back the tape with a slight delay. There is software and even automated systems out there, especially for Pro-Tools will conforms (re-syncs) a second track to a reference, so the real deal is definitely do-able even by eyeball but the catch is it's not a realtime process.

  • @me – It does work both ways, trust me. The first video is done by feeding the line ins (as explained), and the second is by feeding the tape adapter (as you got it). Just go buy one and test it. Costs next to nothing.

    Really liking Peter's idea of the tape delay (that includes an actual tape – yes, I'm fully aware that the adaptor does not)

  • sooooooo

    so what overdrives; the deck's preamps or the cassette's signal?

    i wonder how this will sound with a guitar? 

  • @dumafuji – my thoughts exactly as I was trying this. I didn't expect much as it didn't involve any tape, but the result was surprisingly positive. So this just had to be shared!

    Most likely the sound is the sum of the components in the tape deck, the adapter, and also the tape heads. There is a noticeable difference in the sound when using the playback head an the recording head (probably depending on their condition).

  • I am gonna have to try this with a old Teac portastudio I have kicking around in the basement. It has a sagging belt so can't really play tapes but this is worth a try. Since the PS has separate EQ etc for each channel I should be able to get two different sounds off the adaptor (in more ways than just stereo). Too bad there are no 4-channel cassette adators out there.

  • Tape is my crutch!  I can't even make clean beats anymore.  

  • Yes! I’ve been doing this for a few years… ever since driving around in the car with my portable cd player going too-hot into the cassette adapter. Squishy.

    Any “3 Head” tape deck will allow you to monitor the tape as it’s being recorded (with slight delay, as has been mentioned). You can make up for the latency in your DAW and have instant tape compression/distortion or, with some feedback and a delay on the send, tape echo. Your AD/DA converters will put their stamp on every echo, but who cares.

    I bought a pair of Marantz portable cassette decks just yesterday for this very purpose… will post a video with the results.

  • kid versus chemical

    This is 1 trick i can honestly say I had already tried on my own.  I should have posted it somewhere, I could have got on cdm!  

    In addition to studio use, I also used to use those with my gameboys running nanoloop so I could jam out at my security job in the patrol car without having to wear headphones or bringing an amp.   

    Another cool way to mess up audio in a similar way is to use fm transmitters on cheap radio's etc.

  • Johnny Horizon

    I assume it goes like this:

    groovebox out -> adapter -> tape heads -> tape deck out -> amp -> speakers

    But I didn’t actually read it or watch the video.

  • Jonah

    This might sound good, but it's just using the pre-amps in the tape deck for the distortion/compression. Not a bad trick, but not tape saturation.

  • FieryLungs

    For those that understand what's going on, inside a tape playback head is a teeeeeeeeny horse shoe magnet with two wires coming from it and a wee little needle (I might be wrong on some of the finer points here). As we drag a piece of tape that's been recorded onto across this head the needle will wiggle to reflect the sound/signal on that tape. The needle's wiggling is what comes off the two wires (and eventually, the speakers.) To record, the process is done in reverse (Mic->Magnet->Needle->Tape). What the cassette adapter does is skip the middleman of the tape's "rust" and uses the little needle in the cassette adapter to wiggle the needle in the cassette deck head. We're still getting all the analog smearing of the repro electronics and whatever magic might occur by physically causing the needle to wiggle (probably HF attenuation as a result of the mechanical limits of the needles motion).

    Doing this on three head deck (with a tape) would impart a tiny delay as the tape with the signal makes its way from the rec head to the playback head.

    ***Full Disclosure; I barely understand the whole process so I might have missed something. I wish the community to correct me if I'm wrong 🙂 ***

  • i miss my Electribe Er1 sniff, this is almost as awsome as the octatrack sniff

  • Craig Sheppard

    As others have said – it's not actually "tape" saturation, but it's definitely a fun effect.  I've used it quite often…

    I have that exact Hitachi tapedeck too!  Man, they knew how to make things nice in the '70s!

  • Peter Kirn

    Yeah, which means it is time to rig up a tape saturation setup, with actual tape…

  • I just thought of this today and decided to google it… Imagine the surprise of seeing a blog entry here about it from yesterday!

    I did something quite similar by removing the read head from a walkman and soldering an input jack to it, which is a pretty standard distortion hack, I think.

  • I like the experimentation to find new uses for equipment on hand, but as it's been said, this is not about 'tape' but is more like overloading a transformer input preamp / eq.
    IMO what's most interesting about tape is not the saturation or using it for overt distortion, but the subtle transformations you get in tone color, time and pitch modulation when you are not overloading the input. Flutter creates side bands. Transduction to a magnetic medium introduces nonlinearities. Different kinds of cassette and different tape decks all have their own sonic signature.
    For subjective ear candy's sake, tape is better as the final medium for playback rather than just as some intermediary effect before rerecording it into a daw.

  • This is, in essence a poorly coupled transformer.  Transformers have long been used for sound coloration, but usually of a more subtle nature.  A big part of the price of some boutique microphone preamps goes into expensive transformers used in the signal path.

    The overdrive part of the signal chain is just the cheap preamp circuit in the tape deck itself.

  • A favorite distortion device as a teen was one of those $40 Radio Shack "reverb" units (which were really more like lo-fi analog delays).  I plugged a line-level signal into the microphone input, and voilà, distortion!

  • Peter Kirn

    @Keith: Yup – even been slavishly modeled, too. 😉 

    I should have called this an overdrive hack, not a tape saturation hack. It's in the same sense that RatShac— erm, Radio Shack box was a "reverb." I should have worked for Tandy Corp, huh? 😉

  • Heh, have done this a few times with real cassettes and it's great fun. Hell, even just abusing incorrect Dolby settings and input levels on tape decks within feedback loops can be an interesting avenue to explore.

    I do think it's a shame that DAT and CD-ROMs and now 92kHz 24 bit .wavs constrain such exploration without jumping through hurdles or shallowly applying plug-in emulations.

    A loosely similar perversion that I experimented with briefly in the late 90s was to stream realtime audio online with (ulp) RealAudio whilst simultaneously capturing the downstream playback. It resulted in not only the obvious low-quality digital encoding artefacts, but also an unpredictable latency and – considering how persnickety my modem was – unpredictable glitches, stutters and pops.

  • chris

    @Anthony Bowyer-LoweI,,,me too. I had a computer monitor sitting on top of a modded tapedeck for a while, used it as a send effect. I pulled the cover off of the front of the thing so I could manually slow down or speed up the tape by jamming a screwdriver in it. Also, fast forward and rewinding yeild some of the coolest sounding glitches. Eventually ran out of space on my desk and had to dump it.

    Screwdriver+thriftstore hifi tape deck+some cassettes=best 20$ effect ever. I fully intended to attempt circuit bending the varispeed, never happened though.

  • In 1908..sorry, 1968.. K Richard of the Rollin' Stones recorded the beautiful intro ACOUSTIC guitar of the song "Street Fighting Man" through a (then) new fangled device called a cassette recorder, one made by Phillips.
    They did it that way because keef liked the sound he got by overloading the mic on the deck when he was writing/demoing the tune. One of the drum parts was played on a suitcase. Don't know if that was fed through the same deck though.

  • Wheeler

    Can't believe I didn't realise this before, Iv'e been hounding my tutors at uni to sort out their 4 track tape machine, so I can experiment with tape saturation and/or distortion. (Still want to record to it when they fix it tho! :).

    Now I have an original distortion/saturation for £16 (Tape deck & Tape adaptor), beats UAD or Slate on value for money any day!

  • @chris Nice one.

    VHS recorders can also be used for audio recording onto tape (visuals optional). They have better quality playback than consumer cassette machines but can still be driven nicely into warm, non-linear distortion and give wonderful wow & flutter if maltreated a little.

    Plus, sticking in a 3 hour video tape and putting the device into long play mode for 6 hours recording time used to be perfect for capturing long DJ sets at parties.

    Oh, analogue. *sigh*

  • Neat little trick right there

  • I was pretty surprised to see this hack posted up, seeing as I just did the exact same thing with an old walkman a couple of months ago!

    Just posted some photo's up on my blog for anyone that's interested:&nbsp ;http://megatroid.createdigitalmusic.com/2011/03/my-first-sony-saturater/

    Very tasty crunchy goodness.

  • Great… Made me smile.

  • Martin

    i have ins and outs in the tape recorder, even Mic Ins… it's the same as using the adapter or you're losing something?

  • ze2be

    Anthony Bowyer-LoweI wrote "VHS recorders can also be used for audio recording onto tape (visuals optional). They have better quality playback than consumer cassette machines but can still be driven nicely into warm, non-linear distortion and give wonderful wow & flutter if maltreated a little." Thats very cool, but can you do it with some kind of VHS cassette adapter, or do you have to record to tape, and then record that back to digital? The cool thing about this tape cassette trick, is that it is real time. So, it can be used as a real time effect in the studio, or even with a live performance.

  • jojo

    i really enjoyed your video demonstrations..that manly pinky grip got me man..i cant stop laughing..=)..
    ..imma try get my self some tape deck too and experiment some of my sounds..thanks for taking the time putting up this video

  • This sounds pretty neat.  I might give it a try.

  • This sounds pretty neat.  I might give it a try.

  • Nevar

    Sick. I’m going to try this with an old tape deck I have. 

  • Nevar

    Sick. I’m going to try this with an old tape deck I have.