Sunday, 28 February 2021

The Synthesizerwriter M4L Tape (etc.) Suite - crafted for Christian Henson of Spitfire Audio

Every so often, Christian Henson, on of the two founders of Spitfire Audio, publishes a YouTube video where he talks about guitar pedals. In the past, he has talked about pedals like the Strymon Blue Sky, the Gamechanger Audio Plus pedal, and lots of tape emulation pedals including this recent one inspired by 70s/80s videotape:

A Video Stomp Box...Really?

Christian's most recent video built on all of his back catalogue of using pedals to make music:

Making Cinematic Music with Guitar Pedals

Which got me thinking - why not put together a suite of my Max For Live devices for Ableton Live, specifically targeted at the distortions and modulations that are found in tape machines, digital echoes and other audio storage/processing/playback devices? So not just tape, but ANY analogue or digital processor. And hey, I could dedicate it to Christian Henson!

The Synthesizerwriter M4L Tape (etc.) Suite

The obvious starting point was my Ironic Distortion M4L device, which produces distortions and perturbations like aliasing, intermodulation, and quantisation noise, as well as mains power modulation - that can all be used to degrade audio in a variety of ways that can emulate analogue or digital processors. 

Ironic Distortion - blog post

Ironic Distortion -

There are plenty of Saturation devices in M4L and VST formats, so I leave that to your own preference, but there was one glaring hole in my plan. I was lacking something to do Wow and Flutter, essential for tape emulation, plus I didn't have anything that simulated a broken power supply driving a digital processor... So I created one: called Ferrous Modulation

Ferrous Modulation

If a layout works, then re-use it. This rule works for guitar pedals, so I'm quite happy to re-use the legendarily crazy user interface from the Ironic Distortion M4L plug-in in Ferrous Modulation. So from left to right, you have Wow, Flutter, Mains Modulation, and Input sections. In each section, there is a slider/meter that sets the output level for that section, complete with a huge Mute button. 

So the Wow section has a mute button with 'W' on it, for 'Wow'. Above it is a control strip, with controls for the Frequency of the Wow, how much smoothing is applied to it, a display of the smoother wow waveform, then a stereo skew switch and rotary control, to emulate tape not being guided accurately or pulled inconsistently by the capstan and pinch wheel roller, and then two switches to take us above and beyond normal tape systems: a phase switch that lets you put the wow in phase or out of phase (extreme skewing and tape stretching), and a 'Sideband' switch which lets you choose single or double sideband outputs (tape machines will normally be single). Finally, there's a Gain control which sets the amount of wow that is applied, from subtle to overkill. Underneath the control strip are two real-time displays: the spectrum of the processed audio signal, and the sonogram (where time is horizontal, and frequency ism vertical, and spectral amplitude is colour). 

Next up is the Flutter section, this time with an 'F' on it. I've categorised flutter as being more cyclic than the band-limited noise that I've used for wow - there isn't any really definitive classification that I could find (most modern approaches to measuring wow and flutter treat them as just two different aspects of the same frequency modulation), and so the first rotary control is for the Frequency of the wow waveform, then a Smooth control (which makes no sense for a sine wave, but there you go), then a waveform selector which provides 10 waveforms, plus smoothed variations, followed by a waveform display. Then there is the same Skew, Phase and Sideband controls as before, plus the Gain control. Oh, and of course, the slider/meter sets the amount of processed signal that goes to the output.

The third section is the Mains Modulation section, which mis-labels the slider/meter as 'Level' instead of 'Mains' (which I will fix in the next update), but still has 'M' in the mute button. The Control strip this time has a selector switch for 50 or 60 Hz mains frequency, and the Single/Double Sideband toggle underneath. Then there's a Frequency rotary control, for those people whose mains power is not 50 or 60 Hz, then a 'Drive' control to control how much mains frequency modulation is applied to the audio, and a band-pass filter with a Q control to fine-tune the mains waveform (so you can over-drive it, and then tune high to just get harmonics of the mains). Underneath are the same spectrum and sonogram displays as the other sections.

The final section is the 'Input' section, and this allows you to mix in the original unsullied audio signal - the dry signal. I didn't want to confuse users with a normal wet/dry control because there are three wet signals, so I re-used this unusual scheme from the Ironic Distortion. Above the slider/meter are 15 storage boxes, where you can shift-click save your favourite settings. I like to encourage people to develop their own presets, so I don't provide any at the moment. But I have made one device which has presets: Octave Remapper (blog) Octave Remapper -

Audio Chain

My recommended chain of devices in your track strip in Abelton Live is:

[Ferrous Modulation] -> [Saturator, etc.] -> [Ironic Distortion]

Remember that there are many saturation and distortion devices that can be used to introduce your own preferred amounts of harmonic distortion, compression, saturation, waveshaping, etc. 

Not a Pedal!

The Suite isn't a hardware pedal, and it isn't available via (now there's an idea!), but it is free and it is capable of some horrendously bad 'tape'-influenced sounds, plus lots of other 'processed' sounds, many of which are not from equipment as we know it, and some subtle tones as well. 

I'm sure Christian (and you) will have a great time with it!

Getting Ferrous Modulation

You can get Ferrous Modulation here:

Here are the instructions for what to do with the .amxd file that you download from

(In Live 10, you can also just double-click on the .amxd file, but this puts the device in the same folder as all of the factory devices...)

Oh, yes, and sometimes last-minute fixes do get added, which is why sometimes a blog post is behind the version number of

Modular Equivalents

In terms of basic modular equivalents, then implementing Ferrous Modulation just requires three sections of frequency shifting, with appropriate modulation waveforms: band-pass filtered noise, a VCO or LFO, and an LFO for the mains. 

Overall, I reckon that Ferrous Modulation would require an ME of about 7 minimum. You may be able to find a frequency shifter that has built in modulation sources, in which case it might drop to 3 or 4 ME.


Ironic Distortion - blog post

Ironic Distortion -

Octave Remapper - blog post

Octave Remapper -

Ferrous Modulation -

I would like to thank Christian Henson for his ongoing inspiration, enthusiasm, and for founding Spitfire Audio, who make wonderful samples!


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