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5 Saturation and Exciter Plugins for Mastering

So far in this series, I’ve covered some of my favorite and most used compressor, limiter and equalizer plugins — three types of processing vital to any mastering engineer.

It’s important not to forget about other processors that can add harmonic content to your material. You might hear them referred to as exciters, enhancers, saturators, maximizers etc. — regardless of the name, these plugins can be great for adding tone, vibe, impact, and character to your masters.

1. UAD Ampex ATR-102 and Studer A800

These are emulations of the classic tape machines, and while they are two separate and very different plugins, I find them both to be essential — and wanted to make room for the many other great processors — so they occupy the top spot.

They’re great for both mixing and mastering, and can be used on individual tracks or entire mixes. For a majority of the time we’ve been listening to recorded music, tape has been involved, and these two plugins help achieve that famous sound.

The ATR-102 features 4 different tape types, 4 tape speeds, and dozens of other features that make this an incredibly deep tool for adding color and tone to your material. I find that it helps add a sense of clarity and separation between instruments in a way that no other plugin does. It’s definitely a hi-fi sound, but the brightness can be dialed back by changing the tape speed or using the shelf EQ.

The Studer A800 is a bit more warm and vibrant. I find myself using this one on individual tracks or sub-auxes more than the ATR-102, but when material needs to sound more rolled off, saturated, and vintage, the Studer is unmatched.

Unique features: The sheer depth of these two plugins makes for a virtually endless amount of sonic capabilities. The Studer is simpler, and I find myself tweaking the bias setting to achieve a very open, airy sound. The ATR-102 has really unique tape effects like wow, flutter and crosstalk. While you may understandably hesitate to use these on a master, in the rare case when you absolutely need your material to have a subtly warped, analog feel, look no further.

2. SPL Vitalizer MK2-T

The Vitalizer MK2-T is a tried and true hardware unit that is common in mastering, and the plugin does a similarly great job of adding air and presence to your material. There are also useful compression and drive controls. If your source lacks excitement and definition, the Vitalizer is a quick fix thanks to it’s intuitive interface.

Unique feature: The stereo expander on the Vitalizer is as good as on any plugin I’ve found. If I want to widen the stereo field in mastering, this is the tool I reach for.

3. Sonnox Oxford Inflator

When you need to add impact and modern size to your material, look no further than the Inflator. It adds a tasteful curve, even when it’s pushed pretty hard. Although it can make virtually any source sound and feel more exciting, it really excels with electronic music.

Unique feature: Aside from Input and Output controls, it has “effect” and “curve” faders. That’s it. What I find to be most unique about the Inflator is its ability to enhance program material, even with such limited controls. There are very few plugins that are essentially “sound better” faders/knobs, and this is definitely one of them.

4. iZotope Ozone 7 Exciter and Vintage Tape

The Exciter alone has warm, retro, tape, tube, triode, and dual triode modes. More impressively, it’s a multiband exciter, in case you want to add any of these characteristics to specific frequency ranges. The vintage tape plugin is yet another iZotope plugin with flexible digital-style controls, but a warm analog sound.

Unique feature: Not only does the exciter work in mid-side mode, the exciting can also be added in parallel, per frequency range. The gain match feature on both plugins can help you determine if the changes you’re making are actually enhancing the material, or just increasing volume.

5. PSP Vintage Warmer 2

The Vintage Warmer is also a compressor/limiter in addition to being a great tool for adding tasteful saturation to material.

While there are many controls, everything is laid out in such a way that’s easy to understand. Both the sound and metering are excellent. This one can go from adding tasteful saturation to expressive gnarly tones, which can also make it a valuable mix tool.

Unique feature: Being able to choose the frequency at which you want to add drive (at both high and low frequencies) can really help when only a certain frequency range needs saturation and excitement.

Honorable Mention

Cranesong Phoenix II

Although somewhat limited due to only being compatible with Pro Tools, the original Phoenix and its successor helped engineers add analog tape saturation and vibe to material long before most competitors. Simply put, it’s to this day, a great sounding plugin.

Mastering in the Box Course

If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge and learning effective techniques for getting great sounding masters 100% in the box, check out my debut course: Mastering in the Box

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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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