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5 Saturation Plugins for Mixing Vocals (+ Mix Tips)

One of the downsides of virtually anyone being able to afford a DAW and recording interface is that the sound quality of such affordable setups is undeniably lacking. Most low-budget digital rigs leave vocals sounding cold, thin and lifeless. To combat this, I find myself using a variety of saturation/distortion plugins when mixing vocals. Here are my favorites:

1. Soundtoys Decapitator

I love the Decapitator on virtually everything, but to me it always shines on warming up digital-sounding vocals. From adding subtle analog smoothness, to giving your vocals blistering bite, there’s very little the Decapitator can’t do.

Mix Tip:

I do find that the Decapitator (and many other saturators) can make esses sound harsh and noisy. Part of my ever-evolving vocal mixing method now involves using clip gain to bring down each and every “s” before I touch the vocals with processing. If this technique still doesn’t work, it’s not uncommon for me to bring all of the esses to their own audio track and process them separately from the rest of the vocals.

2. Avid SansAmp PSA-1

Although the Decapitator does a great job at adding juicy analog goodness to your material, sometimes I need my vocals to sound like they’ve been re-amped, and the Decapitator isn’t quite built for that purpose. When I need that thin, brash, distorted vocal sound, I look no further than the SansAmp, which actually comes loaded as a stock Pro Tools plugin.

Mix Tip:

The SansAmp is a solid “megaphone” substitute. For howling rock vocals meant to sound like they’re being sung through a megaphone into a crowd of mosh-pitters, this is the plugin I reach for, especially if you pair it with a short, slap delay.

3. UAD Studer A800

The Studer was such a game-changer plugin when it come out. It’s still so much deeper, more flexible and more vibey than most saturator plugins that have been released since. In the cold, brittle world of low-budget digital audio, I am very thankful to have tools like this. The A800 has a “multiple-plugins-in-one” vibe happening, and sort of behaves like an equalizer and a compressor when used a certain way. It definitely imparts a pleasing tonal color onto vocals, but also does a great job of taming harsh, out of control passages.

Mix Tip:

As I said, there are so many controls and therefore tonal options on this plugin, it’s hard to pick one technique that stands out more than the others. Sometimes I drive the input super hard for a fat, crunchy distortion. Sometimes I tweak the bias setting to achieve a crackly, special-effect, broken vocal sound. Sometimes I simply turn down the IPS to give my vocals a vintage vibe. The Studer A800 is of the most versatile plugins on the market, regardless of what you’re using it on.

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4. FabFilter Saturn

It took me years of using this incredible FabFilter plugin to realize that it was named Saturn because (Saturation, Saturn…get it?) Anyway, it’s a standout plugin and perhaps the most versatile on this list when it comes to achieving different types of distortion. Tubes, tape, amps … Saturn does them all, and well.

Mix Tip:

Most of the other plugins on this list, even when pushed to their extremes, still leave you with something that is recognizable as the human voice. For when I want to crush and mangle vocals beyond oblivion, Saturn is an expressive and fun sound design tool. This is in part because the modulation section. For when I need to make my vocals sound more “alien”, which is pretty often when producing modern pop music, Saturn is what I reach for.

5. Waves Kramer Master Tape

I love the very-few-frills approach to the Kramer Master Tape from Waves. For adding subtle warmth and analog color to vocals, this plugin is one of the quickest fixes available. The Wow & Flutter control is also a lot of fun when you need to achieve that specific effect.

Mix Tip:

While this is a list of saturators, the delay on the Kramer Master Tape needs to be mentioned. It can do the short slap-back thing really well and is also a lot of fun when you try to push it into howling feedback territory. While I generally use the Kramer Master Tape as a saturator exclusively. There have been times when I’ve used it only for its delay.

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Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in his new Mastering in the Box course.

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