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Saturation is your secret weapon! The best saturation plugins are an essential tool in your music production arsenal. You can use them for mixing jobs, creative sound design, and adding a touch of vintage warmth to your productions… or you can mangle the hell out of your track with distortion.
Saturation is one of my favorite effects to use when producing and mixing. A good saturation plugin can be super versatile, offering endless sonic styles, from tube saturation to tape saturation to transformer core saturation algorithms. Still, it’s also a phenomenal way to get that “analog” character into your music that would otherwise be impossible without investing in expensive hardware.
In the early days of recording, producers and engineers would push the limits of tape, tubes, and transistors to get saturation, which is one of the reasons so many pre-digital recordings have the characteristic warmth we all know and love.
Unfortunately, we don’t get that same character with digital audio. Digital recording is typically transparent and true-to-source. So you won’t find any added color, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the lack of that desired warm, fuzzy feeling you get when listening to old analog recordings can leave you wanting more.
Luckily, we can choose from a vast array of saturation plugins to give our music the characteristics of analog gear, all while taking advantage of the limitless possibilities of digital audio. Come with me as I explore some of the best saturation plugins on the market today.
Related: Best Free Saturation Plugins
Table of Contents
Soundtoys Decapitator is one of the first saturation plugins I used that made me feel like I was running my tracks through high-end boutique hardware. The interface looks tactile, like it’s pulled from a 70’s wood-grain mixing rack. However it may look, the modern sound punches you with beautifully aggressive saturation.
One of the main benefits of Decapitator is its straightforward use. With a simple turn of the drive knob, you get a more robust low-frequency response and presence boost. There are five style buttons along the bottom of the saturation plugin, each representing unique saturation algorithms that the team from Soundtoys faithfully replicated using analog equipment. One of my favorites is “A” mode, which emulates the Ampex 350 Tape Saturation Preamp, imparting that old-school Motown sound.
For a bit of extra fine-tuning, the plugin also features low-cut, high-cut, and tone control knobs, allowing you to focus more on the mids if you’d like to and brighten or darken your overall sound. My favorite use for this plugin is to stick it on a bass track, drive it hard until I get fuzz-style harmonic distortion, and then pull up the low cut to focus on the mids and highs and adjust the mix knob to taste.
It’s a beautiful way to get your bass guitars to poke through dense mixes. You can also use the automatic output gain compensation to keep the sound from getting out of control.
Decapitator also sounds fantastic on Synths & drums!
It’s one of the best saturation plugins available.
2. XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color
View at: Pluginboutique
View at Splice
With a new trend of lo-fi music, XLN Audio’s RC-20 Retro Color is an excellent tool for any producer who wants to infuse their music with vintage lo-fi charm. It might be the most unique saturation plugin in this compilation, as it offers much more than simple saturation.
The plugin features six distinct modules, including Noise, Wobble, Distortion, Digital, Space, and Magnetic, that you can use to give your audio the lo-fi characteristics reminiscent of tube saturation, analog tape saturation, vinyl, or VHS cassettes.
The Noise module is excellent for adding looped background ambiance, while Wobble provides familiar ‘wow’ and ‘flutter’ effects. The Distortion module offered all the styles of saturation you could want, from tube saturation to tape saturation. The Digital saturation also delivers precise bit depth and sample rate control.
Finally, we have the Space module, which offers an array of spatial effects, and Magnetic, which makes sounds more authentic with random, analog tape-style dropouts. Everything in the plugin is wrapped up in XLN’s user-friendly, aesthetically pleasing interface, making it as exciting to use as it sounds.
I can’t think of a better plugin offering a comprehensive tool suite tailored to the retro, lo-fi sound.
It is one of the best value saturation VST plugins and is especially useful for Lofi producers.
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3. FabFilter – Saturn 2
View at: Pluginboutique
|System Requirements||macOS 10.12 or higher; Windows 11, 10, 8, 7, or Vista|
|Plugin Format||Apple 64-bit only; Windows 32/64-bit – VST2, VST3, AU, AAX Native, AAX AudioSuite|
|BEST DEAL||View at: Pluginboutique|
Easy to use layout
|Cons||Maybe a little complicated for beginners.|
Since the FabFilter Saturn 2 saturation plugin hit the market in 2020, I’ve used it in almost every mix.
With such a deep and complex series of functions, it’s hard to say whether I’ve even scratched the surface of what this saturation plugin is capable of. I could write an entire article on how many things this plugin can do, but I’ll try to keep it short.
What’s important to note is that Saturn 2 features nine distinct saturation styles, including some of your more conventional options, like tape saturation, tube saturation, transformer saturation, and amplification, to the more unconventional styles, including rectify, breakdown, smudge, foldback, and my personal favorite, destroy.
With a multi-band design and avaste modulation section, the fine-tuning possibilities are near-endless. You also get the same high-end, interactive display found on all FabFilter plugins, allowing you to see how each move you make impacts your audio recordings.
The plugin sounds just as good crushing a drum bus in parallel as it gives a bit of bite and modulation movement to an otherwise stagnant digital synth. I would say that it’s one of the best saturation plugins for when you know your track needs a little something, but you’re not quite sure what.
It’s one of the most versatile saturation VST plugins out there. You can also get this plugin as part of one of Fabfilter’s bundles.
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4. Softube Harmonics
|System Requirements:||macOS Big Sur 11, Monterey 12, Ventura 13; Windows 10 (64-bit), Windows 11|
|Plugin Format:||VST, VST3, AAX, AU|
|Best Deal:||View at: Pluginboutique|
|Pros:||Amazing analog sound|
Variety of saturation types
Great transient control
|Cons:||No gain compensation|
Softube’s Harmonics is another comprehensive saturation plugin, though instead of different effects, it provides five distinct distortion modes inspired by some of the industry’s most revered vintage hardware units.
Softube has long had an excellent reputation for developing accurate digital hardware recreations, and Harmonics is no different.
Each of the five distortion modes is named after the styles of saturation that influenced them.
For example, “Solid” offers solid-state saturation reminiscent of the ’70s, while “Tube” sounds much like a boutique tube saturation circuit. “Transformer” gives you that quintessential American console-style saturation with low-end frequency enhancement, while “Master” offers uniquely subtle saturation, perfect for mastering.
Lastly, we have “Modern,” an English-style valve triode-style of saturation, delivering an ultra-assertive tone. Each saturation mode is exceptional sounding, though if I had to pick my favorite thing about the plugin, it’d be the Dynamic Transient Control, which allows you to blend your transients back in with a Mix knob.
I wish they included some automatic output gain compensation, as it can get quite loud as you flip through different presets.
It’s a great free Saturation plugin to add to your music production arsenal.
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Another semi-saturator on our list of the best saturation plugins is Sonnox Oxford Inflator. Technically, the Oxford Inflator isn’t a saturation plugin but a combination limiter/compressor. However, unlike your standard dynamic plugin, it gives the processed signal more perceived loudness without crushing your dynamic range.
It’s one of the best saturation plugins for the mix bus, especially if you want to squeeze all the volume out of your mix without crushing the low end. Suppose you decide to use it as a conventional saturation plugin. In that case, you only have to drive the input signal and engage the soft clipping control for some extra harmonic distortion.
This powerful saturation plugin is best used for parallel processing, as you won’t get heavy-handed distortion like you would with some of the other saturation plugins on this list. With that said, if you’re looking to sit something in the mix better, it’s a killer tool to do so.
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6. iZotope Trash 2
|System Requirements:||macOS Catalina (10.15.7) – macOS Monterey (12.6.1)|
Windows 10 – Windows 11
|Plugin Format:||AU, AAX, VST2, VST3, RTAS|
|Best Deal:||View at: Juno|
|Pros:||Wide range of distortion and saturation sounds|
Ability to apply modulation
Includes powerful waveshaper
|Cons:||More filter-based modulation would be nice.|
iZotope Trash 2 might be one of the potent saturation plugins, as it offers an extensive range of saturation and distortion effects. The plugin features over 60 unique algorithms, from analog tape saturation algorithms, tube style saturation, and transistor saturation to transformer core saturation algorithms.
As a multi-band distortion unit with advanced filtering capabilities, you get more tonal control than you’d expect from other saturation plugins. You can process four bands independently and apply different saturation styles to each.
With a name like Trash 2, you can expect to find some seriously heavy distortion onboard. Its character comes from the dual-stage distortion engine, which allows you to blend two unique saturation styles to the processed signal to create your own saturation effect.
The engine also focuses heavily on amp simulation, making the perfect saturation plugin for guitarists who want access to multiple digital guitar amps.
Overall, iZotope Trash 2 goes beyond your average saturation plugin as one of the most versatile VST plugins for experimental music production. You’ll undoubtedly use its in-depth modulation section and MIDI mapping capabilities.
NOTE: Unfortunately Izoptope trash is no longer sold by Izotope. You can still get it from third party sellers or second hand.
7. Sausage Fattener
View at: Dadalife
|System Requirements:||macOS 10.5 or later; Windows (XP SP2,VISTA, WINDOWS 7, INCLUDING NATIVE 64-BIT VERSION) ON PENTIUM 4 (OR EQUIVALENT) OR HIGHER|
|Plugin Format:||VST, AU|
|Best Deal:||View at: Dadalife|
|Pros:||Great for Sound Design|
Easy to use
Excellent old-school vintage sounds
|Cons:||Maybe too stylized for some.|
Sausage Fattener from Dada Life might be one of the best saturation plugins for those looking for an ultra-simple tool to bring life to their mixes in a pinch. The sound quality is excellent, and the interface is straightforward to use
Though deceivingly simple, it has a lot going on under the hood. You get two knobs to create a wide range of saturation sounds, whether you want to keep things moderate with subtle warmth or let all hell break loose with extreme distortion.
I’ve even used this saturation plugin on my master bus, subtly using it for some extra ‘oomph.’
Over the years, the little Sausage Fattener has become somewhat of an icon in the electronic music production world, used by some of the biggest names in the industry, including Diplo, Laidback Luke, Kaskade, Hardwell, Zedd, and Sebastian Ingrosso, so you know it’s legit.
It’s one of those saturation plugins that’s a bit hard to explain, as it does so many things with so little effort. However, if I had to categorize it, I’d call it a subtle compression-style plugin with a heavy saturation effect and envelope-modulation functionalities.
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If you’re in the market for one of the best saturation plugins but don’t have a budget to pay for any, you’ll love the completely free Softube Saturation Knob. It’s a gateway plugin for many music producers into the broader world of paid saturation plugins.
The design is simple. You have a single knob that adjusts the amount of saturation effect and three switches that change up the style of analog saturation you’re using. Whether dialing in full-force or subtle saturation, it’s great for various instruments, from drums to bass to vocal tracks.
The three-way switch lets you emphasize where to put the saturation, whether in the lows, mids, or highs. For example, you can put it on the drum bus and target the low pieces of your kit, such as the kick and toms, without saturating the cymbals or hats.
Softube Saturation Knob is a simple yet effective saturation plugin for those who want something to throw on their mix and dial in without thinking. The Saturation knob offers great sound quality and is one of the best free saturation plugins available.
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9. Waves – J37 Tape
View at: Thomann
|System Requirements:||macOS Catalina 10.15, Big Sur 11, Monterey 12, Ventura 13, Sonoma 14, Windows 10 64 bit & Windows 11|
|Plugin Format:||VST, AU, AAX|
|Best Deal:||View at: Thomann|
|Pros:||Classic Tape saturation sound|
Easy to use
Also has use as a delay
|Cons:||Maybe too subtle for some.|
The Waves J37 Tape is one of my most regularly used tape saturation plugins from one of the biggest names in the plugin industry — Waves. I love tape saturation because it can be used for incredibly subtle saturation, imparting analog tape saturation’s best and most delicate characteristics.
The plugin emulates the Abbey Road J37 tape machine, offering all the same controls as the original analog gear, including tape speed, noise, bias, saturation, and wow/flutter. The tape saturation plugin also offers three unique tape formulas modeled after EMI developed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Each tape formula offers a unique style of harmonic distortion, and I often find myself flipping through them once the plugin is enabled to see which sounds best for the project I’m working on.
If you’re in the market for a tape saturation plugin and want to impart the character of analog tape machines on your mix, it’s one of the best tape saturation plugins around.
Related: Best Free Saturation Plugins
10. Brainworx – Black Box Analog Design HG-2
View at: Pluginboutique
|System Requirements:||macOS 10.11 – macOS 12 Monterey (Apple Silicon Supported except for AAX); Windows 8 – 11|
|Plugin Format:||AAX DSP, AAX Native, VST2, VST3|
|Best Deal:||View at: Pluginboutique|
|Pros:||Excellent for saturating mix busses|
Triode & Pentode emulations
|Cons:||Some producers may require more control|
The Brainworx Black Box Analog Design HG-2 saturation plugin might be the best saturation plugin for those seeking pure analog saturation for their mixes. Not only will you find several unique analog saturation models in this plugin, but you’ll also find advanced filtering options and mid and side channels, which you can process independently.
As many of the best saturation plugins don’t give you this level of stereo control, this feature makes this powerful saturation plugin stand out. I’ll often use the mid-side processing to make my mix sound broader and more spacious by applying subtle saturation to the sides while maintaining a clean center channel.
Overall, it’s one of my most highly recommended saturation plugins for those who want to model the characteristics of general analog equipment.
Related: 31 Best Free Saturation Plugins
What does a saturation plugin do?
Saturation was first added to audio signals with analog hardware. Sounds would be passed through specific mixing desks or tape machines, which would unintentionally introduce harmonics and soft-knee compression. The sound imparted was desirable, so it got added to mixes and individual tracks to add character. The hardware’s electrical components would be pushed to their limits, resulting in a musical effect known as harmonic distortion.
Like a subtle distortion pedal, saturation adds harmonic overtones that enhance your sounds, giving them more depth and life. Both even and odd harmonics play a role – even harmonics deliver a warm, vintage vibe, while odd harmonics bring aggression, like the raw power of a cranked guitar amp or distortion pedal.
Different hardware types, such as tape machines, tubes, or transistors, provide unique saturation effects. Many saturation plugins aim to emulate specific hardware characteristics. You can find anything from classic tape machine vibes to the inspiration of solid-state or tube preamps in saturation plugins.