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6 Favorite Saturation Plugins + Mix Tips

I love Saturation. Saturation is distortion’s little cousin and it’s a lot of fun. We sculpt harmonics into a sound and bring it to life.

In the analog world, we get to take saturation for granted, but in the digital world we have to use saturation plugins. So here are six plugins I use all the time to impart a little capsaicin to a record.

1. Decapitator on Drums

I use Decapitator all the time. But if I had to pick my number one application it would have to be drums. Seldom does a rock song pass my desk without Decapitator decapitating some drum buss. I want my drum buss to feel like the drummer is wailing so rockingly that the circuitry can barely hold it’s sh@* together.

I’m usually hitting the drive around the twelve o’clock position, sometimes blending the wet/dry to keep the sound a bit more open, and selecting my distortion signature based on the sound of the capture. Brighter drums will get either A, T, or P. Darker drums usually get the E or N treatment.

2. Fabfilter Saturn on 808s and Deep Bass

Clean 808s and darker bass tones sometimes need something that can get aggressive in a controlled way. I’ve said many times that I think 808s are boring on their own. What makes them interesting is the way we mess them up.

I like Saturn because we can carefully control the way our harmonics are being generated. With built-in crossovers, EQs, dynamic shaping, and a bunch of algorithms that range from subtle to definitely-not-subtle, we can really customize any 808 or low bass to fit the exact needs of the song.

3. Slate VCC on the Mix Buss and Groups

I’ve gone back and forth on the VCC a number of times. It’s a much subtler form of saturation than the aforementioned plugins. Sometimes it doesn’t do it for me and sometimes it’s just drops of happy sauce. I find that for records where there isn’t a lot of tone baked into the sound it’s very useful for homogenizing everything and kicking a little life into it.

4. Slate Preamp Modules on Everything (Except Busses)

I’ve been really digging the Slate VMR preamp modules lately. I overlooked them for a long time, but I realized once I got to know their individual sounds they are SUPER useful for fattening up sounds and just making everything feel like a living, breathing recording.

I used London right before writing this article on a rap vocal that needed more girth in the low-mids. I use Hollywood all the time on guitars and bass because it pushes the sound forward in such a nice way. I guess I haven’t gotten into the preamps for drums so much yet but I reckon it could sound really cool.

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5. Black Box HG-2 on Vocals, Low-End Groups and the Mix Buss

The HG-2 is one of the more versatile of the bunch and it certainly takes a moment to get used to. All of the controls influence each other just like how actual gain staging in an analog system works. Once I got the swing of it I found it to be fairly intuitive.

My favorite place to use the HG-2 is on a low-end subgroup. All my bass, kicks, 808s, whatever else may be lurking down there gets summed through one group and processed. Leaning on the Pentode for gain, flipping the little tilt knob over to “low”, and messing with the saturation and density controls creates this spongey low-end that reminds me of 90s Hip Hop. It’s a sound that I grew up with so I like to build it into my mixes as a little signature/homage.

I enjoy it on mix buss quite a bit. I can get that textural quality that reminds me of 2000s Red Hot Chili Peppers with a little tweaking of the Triode setting and density. I also use it to bring vocals back from the dead. Thin or dull vocals benefit from a subtle amount of saturation and some of the “air” effect.

6. iZotope Ozone Exciter on Parallel Vocals & Synths

This one is very specific and technically an exciter and not saturation,  but I like it so I wanted to mention it. One of the techniques I employ on vocals is to create a mult, filter out all the low-end, and distort them just a touch with the Ozone Exciter in broadband mode.

All of the excitement signatures work well — it just depends on what we’re going for. This can add a healthy pop to a vocal and gives it a bit more presence in a unique way.  It’s also a great saturation device for synths that are naturally dark like Junos. Or if you are into Rhodes it can be really useful to employ the crossover and excite the lower end which tends to be pretty dark on it’s own.

Those are my go to saturation plugins. Let me know what you find yourself using frequently in the comments!

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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