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Supercharge Your Synths with XLN’s RC-20 Retro Color


The XLN RC-20 Retro Color analog tape saturation plugin is well known for its handiness on the master bus, but have you tried using it on individual instruments?

Today I’m going to walk you through a short demonstration on how you can use this inexpensive and eclectic plugin to breathe life into dull tracks.

Before We Start, Let’s Hear It In Action!

Here’s a Bass sample with and without RC-20 enabled. The first part is with the plugin bypassed. It will be hard to miss when RC-20 kicks in! Afterwards it’s bypassed again, and then enabled again.

Hear how it suddenly becomes more gritty, full, and colorful? That’s the magic of great analog tape saturation! The real benefit of carefully bringing this bass track to life comes when it’s living with a host of other instruments in a master mix. It’s easy for bass tone to get buried; some colorful presence can go a long way in bringing the underlying cadence of your song to life.

Now let’s dive into the specific steps it takes to add this kind of colorful saturation with RC-20:

Give Your Bass Some Gusto

I like to start by choosing a preset, something that’s close to the desired sound. Don’t worry, this isn’t “cheating”! Even many of the pros use presets to get started on an effect. For this synth bass track, I chose “Too Bright?” within RC-20‘s list of presets.

Well to answer XLN’s question, in this case, yes, “Too Bright?” is just a tad too bright for bass. So here’s where a few alterations come into play. You’ll notice in the bottom of the screenshot below that I’ve turned the high-pass filter down a bit to let a lot more low end come through, and added a mild low-pass filter. I’ve also turned down “Distort” and brought up “Space” to give the signal a little movement and some gritty reverb. Lastly I turned “Tone” down just a touch:

Now, in the end, I might listen to this track within the full mix and think it’s a little too lively, in which case I can adjust the wet/dry mix using the “Magnitude” bar at the top right of the plugin. But for now, I’m loving all of that added punchiness!

Bolster Your Brass Pads

Bass is one thing, but something like a brass pad—which sits relatively close to the font of the mix—needs some careful attention. There’s a fine like to walk between a flat, dull horn section or a tinny row of trumpets piercing your eardrums. When hearing the former, one might be tempted to throw on an EQ plug and start dragging up around 2K-10K. And sure, it might be a decent band-aid. But is it really the best tool for the job?

Take a listen to this brass pad track. My use of XLN RC-20 is a tad more subtle here, but you can really hear the track come to life when I flip off the bypass switch around 6 seconds in and again around 15 seconds:

For this effect, I started with the preset “Pad Magic” and made quite a few small adjustments. I turned “Noise” most of the way off (it’s just a white-noise generator simulating tape hiss), I turned “Wobble” off completely, “Distortion” up to around 25%, “Digital” completely off, and “Space” and “Magnetic” I turned up to 35%. I also turned up “Tone” and “Width” and lowered the overall gain just a touch.

“Space” and “Distort” are the two tools here which really liven up this brass pad the most. I want to bring up the highs with saturation (“Distort”) and then turn around and “muddy” up some of the tinny, unpleasant highs that come with it and spread them out in the mix so they aren’t, for lack of a better wording, stabbing our eardrums.

I even ended up putting a separate reverb plugin directly on this track later in the mix to exacerbate that “spreading it out” effect. If you go that route, just make sure to drag your wet/dry controls mostly to the drier side or you’ll end up drowning it in reverb!

Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment

These are just two examples of the many cases in which colorful saturation can bring a track to life. Some other interesting examples I’ve seen include using RC-20 to create parallel saturation on a doubled vocal or even using it to add grittiness or modulation on a reverb or delay send. As with anything else in audio production, anything is possible. So go on and give it a try!


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