Audio saturation is a soft-clipping compression effect that generates harmonics. The essence of what makes analog gear sound pleasant and attractive is saturation. Great-sounding mixes have long relied on the use of tape, tubes, transistors, and circuitry to drive sounds.
The effect dates back to the days when audio recordings were processed using various pieces of technology. Mix engineers discovered they could create saturation and “soft-clipping” effects by overloading magnetic tape machines, tube amps, and transistor-based preamps. This approach gave recordings desirable properties that boosted mix sound. Harmonic generation is a technique used by artists and engineers to add presence, character, warmth, edge, cohesiveness, and more to digital audio. Saturation can range from mild to excessive, and it’s an important aspect of great mixes.
Saturation is the secret weapon for giving immaculate digital recordings some roughness. Saturation is one of the most enjoyable effects out there, whether you just want to add a little body and richness to an instrument or make it unrecognizable with searing distortion. These are some of the best saturation plugins we’ve grown to know and appreciate, though this is by no means an exhaustive list.
FabFilter Saturn 2
Saturn 2 is a multi-band saturation plugin with a superb interface and workflow that allows you to make broad strokes or go very exact and clinical with equal ease when applying warmth and distortion types to the portions and frequencies of your sound quality that need it while ignoring the rest. The Saturn 2 offers a remarkable 28 different distortion genres, all inspired by the retro sound of tubes, tape, transformers, and guitar amps. Each of the up to six bands can have its own distortion/saturation style, with distinct controls for feedback, dynamics, drive, tone, and modulation.
The broad modulation section will give your song more life and depth. Warmth and definition can be accomplished by using slight modulation of crossover frequencies, dynamics, band levels, or tone controls. You have virtually endless modulation possibilities with all the XLFOs, EGs, XY controllers/sliders, envelope followers, and MIDI sources you’ll ever need. It’s as simple as dragging and dropping to create new modulation connections. Saturn 2 also visualizes all modulation in real time, so you can see precisely what’s going on.
Saturn 2 can produce effects ranging from warm and subtle analogue saturation to full-on crunchy bit-crushed digital distortion, and because it’s so flexible, it’s a potential one-stop shop for saturation for many users – the modulation, panning, and even compression options are excellent (as always with FabFilter), and the clickable spectrum analyser field at the back is where you can visually set up the crossover points for your different frequency bands, that can’t be done with other saturation plugin
You have a lot of options for how and to what degree you process your sounds between that function and the simple mix knob. Saturn 2 brought a pleasant change to the UI, including enhanced modulation visualisation, new subtle saturation and linear phase mastering processing, and a variety of new distortion patterns in the processing Style menu and saturation algorithms.
FabFilter Saturn 2 includes a variety of high-quality distortion models that are inspired by the classic sound of tubes, vintage tape module, transformers, and guitar amplifiers. You also get five unique FX distortion techniques to mutilate your sounds in strange and surprising ways. Saturn 2 will give your music a distinct flavor because to its multiband design and per-band feedback, dynamics, drive, tone, and modulation choices. This is the Best Saturation Plugin in 2023.
Incorporate the organic sound of analog gear into your tracks. Decapitator features five analog saturation types that lend character to every sound you feed it. A tone control for sculpting the saturated sound, a mix control for parallel processing, and a Punish button to drive your saturation levels even further are all included in this beast. Decapitator’s design is likewise inspired by analog gear’s feel and feeling for music production. When it reacts to an incoming signal like genuine hardware, you can hear small changes with saturation effects. Decapitator delivers every time, from subtle to extreme. Excellent sound, user-friendly UI, and straightforward controls like a saturation knob. It’s simple to build up multiple settings and compare them with the “compare” knob, much like with other Soundtoys plugins.
Aside from that, Decapitator includes a rather cool “Style” selection. Choosing one of the five lettered buttons activates a particular saturation algorithm based on one of five iconic pieces of gear. The letters stand for Ampex analog tape machine emulation, EMI channel, Neve channel, and the Thermionic Culture Vulture valve enhancer’s Triode and Pentode settings. You get exactly the proper number of options between the Style selection and the straightforward Mix, drive knob, and EQ/Tone knob settings to easily discover the vibe you’re looking without getting bogged down.
Decapitator’s name suggests it wants to tear your head off with distortion the entire time — and it can, thanks to the Punish button! — but it’s not the case. However, if you’re looking for something a little more subtle, it’s also fantastic at just sitting quietly and bringing that warm analogue flavor to any part or track.
If you buy Decapitator as part of the Soundtoys 5 Bundle (which I highly suggest and was featured in our Best Bundles roundup), you’ll also get other plugins like Devil-Loc Deluxe (excellent on drums!) and the tube amp-modeling Radiator, which can produce a variety of different saturation colors. With its myriad of coloration kinds for quick and dirty processing and sound design, even the delay Echoboy, with the delay amount dialed back to zero, may form a very effective saturator. This is the Best Saturation VST in 2023.
Have you ever tried to add attitude to a track by using distortion, only to end up with a washed-out, lifeless sound instead? Harmonics is the answer, with its never-before-heard approach to dynamics in distortion.
Harmonics from Softube is a clever saturation plugin that use revolutionary’ Dynamic Transient Control’ technology to track incoming signal dynamics and respond to them according to DTC settings (when engaged). Harmonics also has low and high-pass filters (pre and post-distortion), a wet/dry knob for parallel mix control, and THD (total harmonic drive) metering, allowing users to determine the ideal amount of saturation or distortion for each track in which the plugin is used.
Guitars, vocals, drums, bass, and even synths can benefit from a little more grunt, but distortion can wreak havoc on dynamics and cause more problems than it helps. If you use too little, your sound will not cut through and fill the area. If you use too much, you’ll lose the light and shadow, as well as the attack and decay. Transients blur into tails, and clarity and detail are lost.
But you get a lot more with Harmonics than simply five great-sounding analog distortion models. You’ll also get a ground-breaking new technique to manipulating dynamics while distorting the sound. The plug-in listens to and analyzes the input signal, preserving and enhancing dynamics and detail even when substantial distortion is applied. When you add in Harmonics’ five completely different-sounding component-modeled distortion techniques, high and low cut filters, a mix knob, and more, you’ve got yourself a pretty potent secret weapon.
iZotope Trash 2
iZotope Trash 2 is possibly the most innovative distortion/saturation plugin ever made. It can be used in a variety of situations and spans from minor to tremendous distortion, with almost every sonic possibilities in between. Over 60 distinct distortion algorithms are included in the plugin’s 4-band dual-stage distortion signal pipeline (in addition to the user-definable graphic waveshaper option). Trash 2 offers quick sonic alteration thanks to powerful filtering and dynamic effects. This iZotope plugin has over 20 filter types, as well as diverse oscillators on each band, in addition to the 60+ distortion algorithms. This is a distortion/saturation plugin that works quite well.
Along with the distortion algorithm components, Trash 2 has a variety of switchable filters, multi-band dynamics, waveshapers, LFOs, envelopes, and even delay. It’s basically a clone of a very cool and odd channel strip plugin!
But it’s the degree of control you have over the processing that makes it ideal for saturation jobs. You can rapidly come across a wide selection of characters by simply dragging around in the Trash module’s waveshaper window. When you combine this with the algorithm menu and the ability to separately handle any of four user-defined frequency bands, you’ve got everything you need to add warmth and punch to any sound design or mixing scenario.
D16 Group Redopter 2
With its Redoptor 2 plugin, D16 Group perfectly emulates the character of a tube amplifier being pushed to breakup. Like a real tube amp, the Redoptor 2 responds seamlessly to the dynamics of the source material, adding both odd and even harmonics to the signal in an acoustically attractive manner. Louder signals are more aggressively saturated with harmonics, and as they decline, they gradually return to their clean form. The Redopter 2’s natural tube-style saturation produces excellent dynamic distortion.
The D16 Group Redoptor 2 includes various powerful and interactive parameters in addition to finely recreated vacuum tube circuits. To add slight amplification of even harmonics and moderate transient reshaping, adjust the tube bias parameter. Set the frequency range of the preamp, as well as the high and low cutoff points before or after signal processing, and use the 4-band parametric equalizer for advanced tone sculpting.
Redopter uses hot-rodded vintage vacuum tube guitar amplifiers to give your sounds that particular creamy, growly tube saturation, which is unlike some of the tape saturation plugins we’ve seen thus far. The knobby 4-band parametric EQ, together with the Pre Filter and Preamp sections, give you a deceptively large level of control over the overall tone and the frequency points at which the saturation begins to break up the sound when driven harder.
And this is all done without the use of any showy animated visual displays! That’s not to say the interface isn’t impressive; in fact, the skeuomorphic buttons and brushed metal faceplate, reminiscent of a analog hardware unit, are ideal for diving in and changing parameters while keeping your focus on the music. Especially for electronic/techno artists and anyone who works with a lot of synth sounds, this is a must-have.