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Best saturation plugins: Give your tracks some grit

There are few types of plugins that can take a track to the next level like saturation. It’s a versatile effect that is one of the best ways to spice up a digital recording. It sounds like a recording cliché to say that it can give a production that little something that’s missing. But it’s true. Even if there is no standout contender for the best saturation plugin.

It sounds great on any track type, and even sounds good if you stack one plugin with another. Saturation plugins come in a lot of variations, from a simple two controls all the way up to models that can do things that were once just a dream.

We chose five of our favorites.

Best saturation plugin for versatility: FabFilter Saturn 2

fabfilter saturn 2
Best saturation plugin for versatility
FabFilter Saturn 2
A great saturator with plenty of distortion styles, multi-band EQ, and an easy to navigate GUI.
Pros
New and improved features over the previous version
28 distortion styles
Multi-band EQ
Intuitive GUI
Cons
Might not be aggressive enough for some

FabFilter makes some of the cleanest plugins available. Saturn 2 is their updated version of the great sounding first iteration. And there are a lot of key features they’ve updated.

There are now 28 distortion styles. Everything from clean and subtle to totally in-your-face. Up to six bands of multi-band EQ let you get your frequencies right without having to use an additional EQ instance. Crossover slopes can be adjusted in 6, 12, 24, and 48 dB increments. That’s just the beginning. Some are improved over the first version and some are brand new.

FabFilter is famous for their easy to use and highly visual GUIs in their plugins. And they’re only getting better with time. No matter how you want to use it, or how much saturation/distortion you need – it’s in here. There’s even a 30-day trial available if you want to try before you buy.

Best saturation plugin for aggressive sounds: Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe 5

soundtoys devil-loc deluxe 5
Best saturation plugin for aggressive sounds
Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe 5
Looking for aggressive saturation? This is it. The control set is simple and can be dialed in quickly.
Pros
Great for heavy, aggressive sounds
Switchable release times
Tone control
Cons
Might be too aggressive for some

Based on the Shure Level-Loc brick wall limiter from the 1960s, Devil-Loc has been a favorite of producers and engineers in all genres since it was released. The original is still great, but the improved Deluxe version adds some key features for more control over the sound.

Crush and Crunch controls are still here. But now there’s a Darkness control that acts as a tone knob. Switchable slow and fast release times are new, and a Mix control lets you blend wet/dry balance as you need. Parallel saturation is a popular mixing technique. Now you don’t have to setup a buss to make that happen.

It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s powerful and aggressive. But it get sounds that a lot of other saturation plugins can’t. And at just over $100, what do you have to lose?

Best saturation plugin for tape saturation: Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines

slate digital virtual tape machines
Best saturation plugin for tape saturation
Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines
The magic of analog harmonics and distortion is well-documented. VTM is great for livening up digital tracks.
Pros
Adds authentic analog tape sound to your tracks
Authentic controls like a real tape machine
Can be used on single tracks or busses
Cons
Requires a subscription
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Slate Digital’s plugins were pretty revolutionary when they came out. So it makes sense they caught on quickly. A few years ago people were looking to add the pleasing harmonic distortion of recording to analog tape to their digital recordings. And VTM was born.

The GUI looks like an authentic tape machine and is easy to dial in. Controls are simple. You set the input and output gain first. There are three bias types – normal, high, and low. You can choose between running it at 15ips or 30ips. This is the speed at which the tapes rotates. The real magic is the Machine Type switch, which lets you choose between 2” 16 track or ½” 2 track. No matter if you want to use it on a single channel, group bus, or the stereo master it just makes it sound better.

A settings menu lets you go even deeper with wow & flutter, level calibration, bass alignment to name a few. It’s not difficult to get it to sound good in a few minutes. Your tracks will thank you for it.

Best free saturation plugin: Klanghelm IVGI

klanghelm ivgi
Best free saturation plugin
Klanghelm IVGI
One of the best free saturation plugins offers easy controls and metering. It reacts dynamically to the signal instead of just sitting on top of it.
Pros
Dynamic saturation
Modeled from the response of real analog gear
Cons
None. Try it!
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Who doesn’t like trying out free plugins? There are some great freeware saturation plugins, but this versatile option sits a little bit above them in sonics. That’s why it’s included in this list of otherwise paid saturation plugins.

With just a few controls, it’s not a daunting interface. The coolest element is that it reacts dynamically to the signal. This gives increased fidelity and more of a feeling of old school hardware. It’s got controllable crosstalk modeled from analog desks. This makes it more a living, breathing effect than a set-it-and-forget-it. You can control how symmetrical the mix is and what frequency range it’s response is focused on.

Some freeware is only available for Windows in VST format. IVGI also comes in AU and AAX so it doesn’t matter what kind of rig you’re running.

Best saturation plugin with the most options: iZotope Trash 2

izotope trash 2
Best saturation plugin with the most options
iZotope Trash 2
An impressively fleshed out plugin with 60 saturation styles, multiple types of filtering, and amp and cabinet modeling.
Pros
60 saturation algorithms
Multiple types of filtering
Amp and cabinet modeling
Cons
Learning is a little steep
GUI takes some getting used to

A lot of people know iZotope for their phenomenal mastering suite. They did a great job designing Trash 2, even though it’s a lesser-known saturation plugin. Which is a shame considering the amount of options it offers.

When dialing in distortion you can select from 60 algorithms, so whatever you need it’s here. After that comes a 4-band EQ and multiple types of additional filtering. It even has amp and cabinet modeling.

The GUI is a little daunting, but with a little practice you should have the navigation down. It might fly a little under the radar, but if you try it out you’ll see why that’s a shame.

FAQ

What are saturation plugins?

Essentially, they add harmonics to your signal. Some can also go into full-on distortion. A lot of them are designed to replicate what recording to an analog mixing desk or tape machine adds to the signal.

What is the best free saturation plugin?

There are so many great free plugins these days. We chose the Klanghelm IVGI. They also have another piece of freeware that’s great. But it really depends on what you need out of a saturation plugin. Luckily, you have no shortage of options.

Why use saturation plugins?

There are a lot of reasons to use saturation plugins. The reason a lot of people use them is because they can give an analog flavor to “cold” digital recordings. There are a lot of saturation plugins that distinctly model the sonic signatures of tape machines.

But they are capable of so much more. Adding dirt to a guitar track, spicing up a vocal, or adding grind to a bass track.



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