XLN-Audio RC-20 Retro Color Review (2023)
XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color is a VST audio effect designed for adding analog warmth to digital tracks. It can be used for multiple purposes, but it’s particularly helpful for emulating vinyl and tape sounds and providing some old-school character to digital instruments.
Vintage equipment can be expensive and impractical in the digital-audio age. However, there are some downsides to making music exclusively inside a DAW. While it’s arguable whether analog sounds better than digital or not, one thing’s for sure: a bit of noise, tape distortion, and unpredictability can turn any boring digital instrument into a more lively, interesting sound.
The growing popularity of Lo-fi music—such as the relaxing Lo-fi hip-hop beats you can find all over YouTube—inspired software developers to come up with VSTs that attempt to emulate the character of old-school recording equipment. Digital sounds can be annoyingly flat and almost too perfect to keep the listener interested. RC-20 Retro Color is one of the most comprehensive plugins out there for recreating the subtleties and imperfections of analog music.
XLN-Audio RC-20 Retro Color
- Great sound quality
- A nice range of processing options
- Very good presets
- Great interface
- Great for all level of music makers (i.e. from switching between presets to manually tweaking lots of options and automating)
- Not much!
But is it up to the test? And how does it stand in comparison to its main competitors?
What to expect from RC-20 Retro Color
RC-20 Retro Color is an outstanding plugin that has a lot of features that allow producers to process sounds with a great level of detail and depth. However, it also sits right with beginners who don’t want to spend a lot of time tweaking knobs. RC-20 comes with many high-quality presets that are ideal for musicians looking for an immediate solution to spice up their productions.
The available presets are the perfect starting point for new RC-20 users, who can count on the plugin’s impressive versatility to modulate all sorts of instruments. You can use RC-20 to make a guitar track sound like it was recorded in the ’40s, but you can also use it to add distortion to a bass patch and make it cut through the mix. In other words, RC-20 is not just your typical tape and vinyl emulator: it’s a complete audio-effect workstation.
RC-20 Retro Color Features
With an intuitive graphical user interface, RC-20 Retro Color is very easy to use. At the top of the plugin, you can see the Presets section and a Magnitude fader, which works like a Dry/Wet knob. On the bottom, there are two gain knobs, a powerful Filter section, and a Width knob that can be used to decrease or increase stereo width.
RC-20’s main focus of attention, however, should be the six modules at the center of the plugin, which offer an impressively varied array of options. Let’s take a closer look at each one of them:
The Noise module functions as a noise generator, and it’s meant to be used for recreating vinyl sounds. It includes many types of noise and is perfect for adding grit to an overly-clean digital sound. However, it’s more than just a typical volume-up, volume-down noise generator, as it can also be used to shape the character of the sound it is processing. To make the most of it, try to turn the Tone all the way up for a beautiful high-end saturation.
Analog sound is all about imperfection, and that’s what Wobbler is meant for. This module’s designed to add inconsistencies to the pitch of a sound, just like vintage record players used to. When used sparingly, it can be very useful, especially for long textures and pad patches.
A versatile saturation/distortion module that comes with many types of distortion. You can go from zero to hero with this one: mild, subtle saturation sits well with full mixes, whereas a more violent distortion can make a boring bass patch cut through the mix.
While Digital is not the sort of module you’d expect to find in a retro VST effect, it can be very handy when used with caution. Digital allows you to play with a sound’s bit rate. It’s a bit crusher, pretty much like Xfer Records’ Delta Modulator or Ableton Live’s stock Redux effect.
It’s a beautiful-sounding reverb module with a metallic feel to it, in the line of a high-quality plate reverb.
The Magnetic module recreates the drops in volume associated with worn-out vintage tape recorders. Again, it’s a module that should be used sparingly. For a more dramatic volume-drop effect, make sure the Rate knob is adjusted to your song’s tempo.
In all six modules of RC-20 Retro Color’s, you can also find a very interesting Flux fader. Flux is used to add randomness to the parameters of each module, which is a great way of simulating the unpredictability of vintage analog equipment.
Is RC-20 the best analog-coloring VST out there?
While some musicians may prefer the simplistic approach of iZotope Vinyl or the subtle tape crunchiness of Waves Kramer Master Tape, there’s no doubt that RC-20 Retro Color is one of the best analog-coloring audio effects out there.
Even if you’re not a fan of the way it sounds (which is always subjective), you have to be impressed by the wide range of effects it can produce. To put it simply, RC-20 is at the very least the most complete VST of its kind.
It offers versatility, sound quality, a beautiful GUI, and a refreshing approach to vinyl/tape emulation—all for a fair cost. I was particularly impressed by the available presets, by how well it fits with bass and other low-end instruments, and by how naturally good its width and space effects sound. I found the ‘Lush & Crush Guitar 2’ preset particularly striking, as it can make any guitar recording sound instantly like something Sting would come up with at his studio.
How to make the most of RC-20 Retro Color
If you’re into Lo-fi hip-hop beats, don’t be afraid to take RC-20’s modules and presets to the limit. The same applies to other lo-fi electronic music genres, such as outsider house and vaporware (the Wobble module sits deliciously well with slowed-down sounds).
If lo-fi is not your thing, you should still give RC-20 a chance. In my opinion, this VST is most powerful when used sparingly to add some crunchiness, analog warmth, and imperfection to a digital mix. Like most effects, it can be easily overused. But if you trust your ears and treat it like a subtle analog-coloring effect, there’s a good chance you’ll be adding RC-20 to all of your songs.
Are there any alternatives to RC-20 Retro Color?
RC-20 is a one-of-a-kind VST, but it’s not the only high-quality effect designed for adding analog warmth and character to a digital track. Here are five alternatives you should consider if you find RC-20 to be too much:
Designed by the guys at iZotope and given away for free, iZotope Vinyl offers in simplicity what it lacks in complexity. It’s hardly as versatile as most analog-inspired effects out there, but its vinyl emulation does sound pretty decent.
U-He is known for developing some of the best-sounding analog-inspired soft synths in the world, but they also have a very nice tape-recording console emulator in Satin. If you’re a fan of the way VST instruments such as Diva and Bazille sound, you should give Satin a try.
Waves Reel ADT
This audio effect is not for everyone, but it’s probably the best tool out there for carefully shaping analog-inspired stereo effects. If you’re looking for a sweet, old-school, tape flanger, Waves Reel ADT is just what you need.
Waves Kramer Master Tape
If you’re looking for fidelity and accuracy, you should give Waves Kramer Master Tape a try. Out of all the effects I have mentioned, it is by far the most subtle. But when you apply it to the entire mix, it can have a powerful effect, especially in shaping the low-end and smoothening the very-high frequencies that can sometimes clutter a mix. From a mastering engineer’s standpoint, it’s probably the go-to analog effect.
Wavesfactory Cassette can sound a bit harsh sometimes, but it does offer a no-nonsense approach to tape sounds that’s perfectly tailored for Lo-fi hip-hop producers looking for quick results.
RC-20 Retro Color is one of the most popular VST effects among all sorts of producers, and there’s a reason for it: it’s the most comprehensive effect of its type. In addition to offering a wide array of solutions and creative possibilities, it’s also designed to sit well with beginners who are looking for plugins with high-quality presets that come ready to load.
As a final verdict, I find RC-20 to be an extremely useful tool you should add to your VST folder.