In this blog post I’m showing you a bunch of saturation plugins that I absolutely love. I will also talk about the different ways I use saturation and how each of the plugins ties into that. I’ve also created short videos of each plugin and embedded them into this post. This way you can see and hear it all in action.
How I Use Saturation
Saturation is an essential mixing tool for me. I own a lot of different saturation plugins and I draw for them to accomplish many different things.
I’m quite particular about the plugins I use. A plugin needs to sound great. Great sounding saturation is not an easy thing to accomplish in the digital domain. There are a lot plugins out there that just don’t cut it for me sound wise, no matter how cool their concept and features may be. The plugins featured in this blog post all sound great, but they’re not the be-all and end-all. You should know there’s a lot of cool stuff out there I simply haven’t tried yet!
Every plugin sounds different and is designed to accomplish different things. Here are a few common tasks I may use saturation for:
- Adding punch or character on drums
- Adding excitement or subtle harmonics
- Enhancing a particular frequency area in a vocal
- Enhancing the stereo image
- Boosting/rounding out transients
- Creating nasty basslines
- Going creative with saturation as a sound design tool
- Giving a similar sound signature to different sounding sources
- Using saturation across several tracks or buses to emulate an analogue console or a tape machine sound
Saturation has many different effects on the audio. Besides adding different types of colour and harmonics you are also always changing the frequency balance and affecting the dynamics. It’s important to spend time with your tools to learn how each of them interact with the sound in different situations. This is especially true with plugins that feature complex modelling, like many of the plugins featured in this post.
Before We Begin
I have embedded short videos inside this post for each of the featured plugins. You’ll also find the videos on my YouTube channel. These videos are there to give you an idea of how the plugins sound and how I might use them. Please keep in mind though that the audio quality does get degraded in YouTube. I recommend you to test demo versions yourself before passing any judgements.
Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel to keep up with the updates!
Finally, I want you to be aware of the fact that I am lucky enough to get free plugins sometimes. Some of the plugins listed here I was given for free, and most of them I have bought. I do my best to stay objective with my thoughts. I never give a recommendation simply because the product was given to me for free. It gets the same real world treatment in any case. If the plugin holds up to my standards and preferences, then I’m happy to recommend it. If it doesn’t, I don’t feel obliged at all to write about it (unless it’s to compare to other plugins or give criticism). In this post you will also find some links to Plugin Boutique. If you decide to buy any plugins through these links, the price is the same but some of the money comes directly back to me to support the work I do for this website. Please don’t feel like I’m pushing you to buy anything. Always make the most out of what you have already. But if you really need a plugin, then grabbing it through these links is a great way to support my quest of sharing what I’ve learned, and I do very much appreciate it.
So let’s get to it! Here’s what I’m using for saturation and distortion at the moment, in alphabetical order.
Blue Cat’s Destructor
Video: Distorting a drum loop with the Blue Cat’s Destructor
The Blue Cat’s Destructor is a brand new addition to my toolbox. I tried the demo for an hour and bought it right away.
The big thing for me with this plugin is that it can be set to behave dynamically. That means the plugin actually reacts to what is happening in the audio. Instead of applying a static saturation “stamp”, the amount of saturation applied can be set to increase or decrease depending on the dynamics of the incoming signal. An external side chain can also be used to dynamically control the saturation.
The dynamic behaviour gives you a much more lively result that sounds more like saturation sounds in the analog domain.
When first looking at the plugin and browsing the presets, it’s easy to get an impression that this plugin is designed for guitarists. That is a big part of the plugin for sure, but it can definitely do a lot more.
As soon as I started diving in by exploring the different distortion and character models and tweaking the parameters of the dynamic algorithm, it became very evident that Destructor would become one of my new go-to plugins.
My tip for anyone using this for electronic music is to first try it on some drums. Start with flat preamp- and post-filters, turn up the dynamics knob, and then explore the “Dynamics” category inside the Destructor models. You’ll quickly start to discover the potential of the plugin that way. When you have found the right model and drive settings, fine-tune by adjusting the pre- and post amps/EQs, and then dive deeper in all of the parameters.
When you start to find the combinations that work for you, save them as presets!
Link: Blue Cat’s Destructor
iZotope Trash 2
Video: Deriving effects from a drum loop with iZotope Trash 2
iZotope Trash 2 is a great sounding and very versatile plugin. It’s great for completely trashing things up as the name implies, but can also be used in many other ways. I often use it for sound design as it can yield some very cool and unexpected results. I also sometimes use it in very subtle ways to enhance things.
Trash 2 comes with tons of different distortion models and also has filter, compression, convolution and delay sections as well.
It does multiband distortion and compression too and has some pretty interesting modulation capabilities.
This plugin is a tweaker’s paradise, which can be both a good and a bad thing. You can do some very complex things with Trash 2.
It is great for off-the-wall effects as you can see from the video above.
With it’s feature set Trash 2 can be compared to FabFilter Saturn, especially when it comes to multiband saturation. I do own Saturn too and in my opinion, while I definitely like the interface on Saturn, Trash 2 simply sounds richer, better and is also more versatile.
Link: iZotope Trash 2
Metric Halo Character
Video: Fixing overcompressed drums and adding analog flavour with MH Character
MH Character is a very simple plugin to use, which I really love. And it sounds very very good. Did I say it sounds good? It does.
The plugin comes with with a lot of different character models. I find myself to be working with the “FET”, “Boutique Tube” and “American Solid State” models most often.
It’s really interesting to observe and test the behaviour of the different models in this plugin. As an example, the “Valve” model rounds out transients where as “Boutique Tube” and “American Solid State” models do the exact opposite. Those two models are great for boosting attack on drums.
In fact in many cases I end up preferring this plugin over a transient shaper for giving drums some punch! Sometimes the transient boost can get a bit too much, in which case I follow the MH Character by a limiter or a clipper.
Even though Character is very simple on the surface, there is a lot to explore with the different models. It’s obvious tons of skill and attention to detail has been involved with designing this plugin. There are good explanations of the different character models in the manual too, which helps figuring things out.
Link: MH Character
Softube Saturation Knob
Video: Distorting drums with Softube Saturation Knob
This is plugin is free and if you don’t have it already you should go grab it immediately!
I like it for adding some oomph to things. I think it sounds especially cool when used on drum & bass breaks in “keep high” mode which aims to retain the high frequencies. This mode gives you a very particular style of distortion and compression that takes me right back to mid-to-early 2000’s Renegade Hardware type of sound.
The plugin can also be used in very slight touches, adding just a hint of flavour – perhaps across several tracks or even the entire mix.
Link: Softube Saturation Knob
Video: Enhancing drums with Soundtoys FilterFreak
Yes, Soundtoys FilterFreak is a filter plugin but I actually use this one more for saturation. It sounds great when you start driving the input and output sections (they both can be driven to overdrive). I most often draw for FilterFreak when I want to give things more “analog vibe” in a very subtle way. But it also sounds very good when pushed harder.
This plugin is an instrumental part of the sound on the Burning Shadows LP I released together with Loxy on Exit Records back in 2012. FilterFreak was used allover that album. I still remember the day we went to master the LP with Beau Thomas (now with Ten Eight Seven Mastering). Beau told me he thought the album sounded analog to him, which was a huge compliment as it was actually done completely in the box. I credit that to FilterFreak.
FilterFreak has eight different models that all behave very differently when pushed. The one I’ve used the most in the past is the “dirt” model. They added a new one called “op-amp” in a recent update. I find myself using that one quite a lot at the moment. The other models are absolutely worth exploring too. Some even do some super hefty compression.
But Ilpo, what about SoundToys’ dedicated distortion plugin, the Decapitator??
I actually prefer how FilterFreak sounds over Decapitator. This becomes especially apparent when working with transient material, like drums. For me Decapitator starts to break up the entire sound too soon where as FilterFreak keeps it tighter while giving some lovely artefacts. Decapitator works well with less transient material like guitars, but I prefer FilterFreak for what I do most of the time.
Link: Soundtoys FilterFreak
The Drop by Cytomic & Ableton Live Filters
Video: Distorting 808 drums with Ableton’s Auto Filter
In version 9.5 of Live, Ableton Introduced four new analog modelled filters: MS2, OSR, SMP and PRD. These filters are actually pulled from a plugin called The Drop by Cytomic. They are fantastic sounding filters and saturate beautifully when pushed.
I never liked how Live’s native saturation devices sounded before, so it’s great to finally have some great sounding distortion going on as part of the package.
The filters are available in the following Live devices:
- Auto Filter
The original plugin by Cytomic has many more filter types and much more functionality. I only have the demo of it but I’m seriously tempted to shell out the cash, especially since I am primarily working in Studio One now.
So definitely check out The Drop too – especially if you’re not an Ableton Live user (and even if you are, because as I said it does offer a lot more).
Link: The Drop by Cytomic
Link: Ableton Live
Video: Experimenting with tape effects in u-he Satin
u-he Satin is a fantastic tape emulation plugin. It goes into so much detail that in fact it feels more like a simulation. It comes with a very good set of presets though which helps a lot to get started with. There’s so many different tones you can get out of this plugin when you start playing around with all the different options.
Satin does beautiful delays and flange effects too – I find myself using those more and more. It also has fantastic grouping interface. This allows you to load plugin instances on several tracks, group them (up to 8 groups available) and then control each group from within a single plugin instance. Super handy and allows you to very easily turn your DAW into a virtual tape machine.
The user interface is very well designed – Satin is simply a joy to use.
I quite often use it on the mix bus or the drum bus to just add subtle character and glue. When done right it just makes things sound better and tighter in a way that is a bit difficult to explain but easy to hear.
I do also own the Waves Kramer and J-37 tape plugins, which are both good too. But 90% of the time I go for the Satin these days and that is what I would recommend because it’s simply so much more versatile.
Link: u-he satin
Video: Adding excitement and dimension with Vertigo VSM-3
One fantastic piece of work right here! The VSM-3 plugin is the software version of the super expensive Vertigo Sound VSM-2 hardware unit.
This is a plugin I normally tend to use for very subtle applications, although it also has the potential to do some real hardcore stuff.
VSM-3 has two distortion sections – 2nd and 3rd harmonic – and the interface gives you a great deal of control over what frequency areas (and where in the stereo image) the saturation is being applied to and to what degree.
And it just sounds soooo good! The sound has analog written all over it.
In other features I absolutely love how you can solo just the saturation so that you can hear exactly what you are adding.
The VMS-3 works great in a mastering situation as well. The great level of fine control, the different monitoring options, the ability to distort different frequency areas and the M/S functionality are all great to have in a mastering situation.
The interface can be confusing initially, but that is simply because the controls are quite unique to this unit. I don’t think there is nothing else quite like it out there. Once you get the grips of what everything does, the plug-in is in fact nice and quick to use.
At this point in time I would not want to be working without this plugin, that’s how good I think it is.
Link: Vertigo VSM-3
To finish things up I wanted to warn you of overdoing saturation. Saturation can be immensely useful and rewarding as a mixing tool. But when used too much, in the wrong place or in the wrong way, it can definitely ruin your entire mix.
Less is more. Proper monitoring and acoustics are also essential to evaluate the different fine nuances of each plugin (good headphones are a great tool for this too). If you’re not sure of what you’re doing then it’s best not to do it at all!
I’ve shown you my current favourite saturation plugins, but there are of course many more to explore. What plugins you are liking and using at the moment? Drop a comment down below as I would love to hear!