Yesterday I covered why you might want to use saturation plugins to add life, character and warmth to your mixes (see that post here).
So you know you want to play with saturation, but don’t where to start? Or you want to take your analogue experiments up a notch while still keeping everything In The Box?
In either case, and whether your budget is $0.00 or $200, there’s something for everyone here. Take a look at this selection of the best saturation plugins around:
1. FabFilter Saturn
Saturn is a distortion and saturation plugin (with multiband capabilities if required) that can produce effects ranging from warm and subtle analogue saturation to full-on crunchy bit-crushed digital distortion. Really, this plugin is a potential one-stop shop for saturation as it’s so flexible – the modulation, panning and even compression options are excellent (as always), and the clickable spectrum analyzer field at the back is where you can visually set up the crossover points for your different frequency bands, that can then all be treated independently. Between this feature and the simple mix knob, you have so many options for how, and to what degree, you process your sounds.
Available for: Mac all formats; Windows VST, VST3 and RTAS. Lots more info here.
Excellent sound, great interface and simple controls. As with other Sound Toys plugins, its easy to set up several settings and demo them against each other with the “compare” knob. But beyond this, Decapitator also has a really cool “Style” feature: select one of the five lettered buttons (standing for the classic gear they model: Ampex analog tape machine, EMI channel, Neve channel, and the Triode and Pentode settings on the Thermionic Culture Vulture valve enhancer) and you have just enough options to quickly find the vibe you’re after.
By the way, from the name you might suspect Decapitator to want to tear your head off with distortion the whole time: but fear not, it’s amazingly good at just sitting quietly too and adding that warm analogue vibe to any part or track.
Available for: Mac and Windows all formats; Pro Tools TDM. More info here.
3. PSP Vintage Warmer2
I’ve already talked about how the Vintage Warmer is a true modern classic, in my list of The Best 10 Compressors.
With its large drive knob it’s simple to set up and just adds real sonic character to parts.
When you buy VintageWarmer2, you actually get 3 versions: MicroWarmer, a single-band, streamlined version; for using on individual parts; Vintage Warmer (LE), based on the CPU-friendly original; and VintageWarmer2, which uses double sampling for extra analogue fatness.
4. Variety Of Sound / Bootsy FerricTDS
Possibly the best free saturation plugin – most of the other contenders being other Variety Of Sound plugins! Very CPU-light too.
More info here.
Also see: the new version of Variety Of Sound / Bootsy’s Density MkIII; TesslaSE/PRO; BootEQ MkII, all at the main link above.
5. D16 Group Redopter
The D16 team have been getting a lot of grassroots praise from EDM producers for their range of awesome effects plugins, not to mention probably the best 808 and 909 classic drum machine emulations yet created.
Redopter is a Vintage Tube Distortion unit, and just brilliant. Also check out Decimort (Bit Crusher) and Devastator (Multiband Distortion).
Available for Mac and PC in all formats. Lots more info here.
6. Izotope Alloy
For those familiar with Izotopes Ozone finalizer/mastering plugin, Alloy might be a good tool to try out, as the Exciter module is basically a multiband saturator.
Available for Mac in AU/VST/RTAS formats; PC in VST/DX/RTAS. More info here.
7. 112dB Redline Preamp
They put it best themselves: “Redline Preamp livens up any “too clean” signal with a customizable combination of even and odd harmonics, saturation, and soft clipping.” Creating even or odd harmonics can give you tape or tube saturation effects respectively, so this plugin has the sound and power of what could have been quite a complex unit – but in a cool, fast and highly user-friendly interface. Did I mention the sound of this plugin!? It’s up there with the very best.
Available for Mac and PC. More info here.
8. Sknote Roundtone
A favourite with many, Roundtone is a tape emulator with a highly-regarded sound.
Bonus points for actually having a virtual tape machine interface as well… :)
Available for Mac and PC. More info here.
9. ToneBoosters Ferox
Another very affordable saturation plugin (or “tape recording simulator”), that many pros swear by. Definitely worth checking out.
Available for Mac and PC. More info here.
10. URS Saturation
I love this one for it’s clear interface coupled with the huge flexibility and quality of its preset-style sounds. You can quickly dial up anything from a selection of tube mic preamps to analog tape, with inspiringly specific names for the algorithms: for example, you can choose between 15ips and 30ips tape speeds. Check out the other algorithms at the link below.
Available: Mac VST/AU/RTAS, PC: VST/RTAS. More info here.
11. Massey TapeHead Saturator
Another straightforward plugin with a wicked sound – one of the best, in fact. Unlimited demo version, but with the upgrade to the full version you get additional features. Available for Mac and PC all formats, and Pro Tools TDM. More info here.
12. Crane Song Phoenix II
An upgrade from the original Phoenix, this is perhaps “the real tape ops tape emulation plugin”.
It has five basic “flavours” with evocative names, ranging from subtle saturation (Luminescent, Iridescent) to gradually more intense (Radiant, Dark Essence and Luster).
Pro Tools only I’m afraid. More info here.
13. Acustica Nebula3
Nebula3 is actually a multi-effect plugin that uses its own N.A.T. sampler software to emulate literally hundreds of vintage hardware units and their warm analogue characteristics. It comes with 400 presets, including a crazy 60 pre-amps, 40 equalizers, 15 compressors, 20 tapes, 30 filters, 100 reverbs and 90 time variant effects (chorus, flangers, phasers etc). If you can’t find a saturation setting you like amongst this lot, well, there’s probably no hope for you.
Of course all this would be meaningless if the emulations were rubbish: fortunately, Nubela3 delivers with some pretty convincing sound processing. Comes as Free, regular and Pro versions.
Available for Windows/PC only. More info here.
14. Wave Arts Tube Saturator
Touted as “the world’s most accurate real time tube amp plugin”, I respect the fact that Waves Arts haven’t gone for a stripped down, simplified algorithm to save CPU processing power – no, they actually make a point of the fact that the “circuit simulation technology” is extremely processor-intensive, and of course a fast computer is recommended.
What all this processing is being dedicated to is in recreating a real tube preamp, and this does it as well as anything out there. Circuit modelling is probably the future of plugin emulations, so with Tube Saturator you can hear where we’re going quality-wise over the next few years.
Available for Mac and Windows. More info here.
15. SPL TwinTube Processor
Modelled on their own hardware modules, TwinTube provides two big dials: one for adding tube saturation (warmer, louder), the other for specifically adding harmonic content like an exciter/enhancer (presence, clarity, sparkle).
Awesome sound and again the interface makes it a breeze to dial up your preferred settings: typical German efficiency… :)
Available for Mac and PC all formats, plus TDM. More info here.
16. McDSP AC101
Part of the McDSP Analog Channel, which is quite old now, but is still a staple in a lot of pro studios.
There’s a good explanation on another McDSP page of why and how these plugins might benefit your sound, which also applies to many of the plugins featured in this list.
Available for Mac only, in Native version (RTAS/AU) and HD version (includes TDM). More info here.
Conclusion: Fully Saturated
So there you have it, an (almost) definitive list of plugins that can help you achieve a better, warmer, more expansive Pro Sound.
I recommend trying them all, but eventually wittling it down to a smaller selection of your favourite ones for specific tasks. Remember, Less Is More – you don’t want plugin overwhelm getting in the way of actually making music.
I really hope this article is useful for you – it took me a long, long time to research and put it all together, so please leave a comment if you’ve got this far!
Also, you can find more suggestions on great-sounding, analogue-warm plugins in this post: