Analog Distortion on a Budget: Cassette Tape Saturation Technique

Dubspot’s Michael Walsh introduces a clever cassette tape saturation technique to add some analog grit and distortion to your mix using a tape deck and cassette adapter.

Tape Saturation

The Way of Analog

You may have noticed the increasing influence of analog sound that is happening in music production and recording. After decades of computer-based music, many producers are looking outside the box to find warmth and grit that a computer just can’t provide. Digital music has a tendency to sound very clinical and even small additions of outside sounds, especially analog sounds, can bring depth and life to your music. Some producers use outboard mixers, preamps, or reel to reel tape to fatten up a mix. The medium of tape, in particular, offers a uniquely warm sound and better dynamic range than most digital formats. However, most of us don’t have a nice reel-to-reel sitting around to fatten up a mix. So as a creative workaround, I want to share a great technique that I recently learned here by our friend Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music and Riku Annala, a producer/musician hailing from Helsinki, Finland.

“At the moment there seems to be a craving for that lo-fi retro sound. Everyone is trying to get rid of the clean digital output of VST’s and digital synths by adding another VST’s to their fx-chains that simulate analog gear.. or by purchasing analog gear that costs an arm and a leg. Here is a trick that costs about 10,- euros and looks way cooler than any VST!” Riku Annala

Cassette Tape Saturation Technique

The tape saturation technique is a great trick because it takes a minimal amount of gear, costs close to nothing, and provides a gritty, compressed effect that can liven up your beats. To create this effect, you’ll need an old cassette deck and a cassette to 1/8 inch adapter (the one that plugs your iPod into your tape deck), and some cables of course.

Setting up this effect is fairly easy. First, run the output of your source sound (drum machine, computer, etc.) to the 1/8 inch end of the cassette adapter (I used 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapter to make this happen) and then put the cassette adapter in the deck. Next, connect the output of the tape deck to your mixer or speakers. Now, press play on both your source and the tape deck, with plenty of volume coming from the source (the key here is to overdrive the signal a bit). Lastly, enjoy your new analog compression/overdrive effect.

Now I must admit, I didn’t think this would work because I thought that the tape medium itself was the source of the sound and compression on tape recordings. But apparently this isn’t the case, the tape head itself will give character to your signal without the use of any tape at all.’s Riku Annala explains this concept further here:

“The results are actually surprisingly nice (depends on what you’re after). Of course, the character of the sound completely depends on the components of the tape deck you use; the condition of the tape heads, connectors, mic pre’s, etc. The sound is far from hi-fi, so if you’re after that, just go purchase a real reel-to-reel unit. In the case of Hitachi D-230 I use, there are a couple of different options for obtaining a different sound. The audio can be just played back through the tape, but it can also be fed through the live-in’s, “recorded” to the tape capturing its output. Both of the methods give actually quite a different sound. With the former method, you can get a moderate crunch with a rather clean sound. With the latter, you get loads of more noise, but also A LOT more distortion and a nice pumping compression when pushed.” – Riku Annala


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