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14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

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Saturation is one of the most versatile (and fun) tools that we as engineers have to add character and color to tracks. To “saturate” analog equipment means to feed more signal into them than they were designed to handle. While this sounds somewhat reckless or even dangerous, interesting sonic things can happen by pushing tape, tubes, transistors and circuits to (and past) their limits.

Digital audio is unquestionably brilliant. It grants us nearly limitless tracks, extreme portability, practically noiseless recording, lightning-fast recall and so many other benefits that the analog realm can’t offer. For all that is wonderful about working with modern digital audio, it sounds kind of…boring. It’s certainly not bad, it’s just a bit sterile. It’s clear, colorless and honest-sounding. Let me clarify: if you use a high-quality microphone to record a compelling performance played on a well-built instrument in a beautiful-sounding space, then digital audio is fantastic. Digital audio is an accurate capture method; you get what you put into it.

It is my theory, however, that because every single popular music release was created using a strictly analog production process up until 1979’s Bop Till You Drop by Ry Cooder (which was recorded on a 32-track digital machine by 3M) humanity became accustomed to the sound of that strictly analog process. The frequency response, the noise and, yes, the sound of saturation became something that we found familiar, even comforting. From an engineering perspective, while it’s undeniably nice to not be bound by the cost, size and slower workflow of analog tape, there is something that I find somewhat flat and uninspiring about making music strictly inside the box.

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Down in Hollywood
Saturation is one of the most versatile (and fun) tools that we as engineers have to add character and color to tracks. To "saturate" analog equipment means to feed more signal into them than they were designed to handle. While this sounds somewhat reckless or even dangerous, interesting sonic thing

The fact that we can combine the analog and digital worlds is something worth celebrating. The precision and flexibility of digital audio combined with the sonic character and tactile qualities of analog equipment is why I have moved to a hybrid setup. Saturation comes in many, many varieties — it can be subtle or extreme, it can be silky or massive, it can be brash or muffled. Before we dive into a roundup of my favorite saturation plugins, let’s take a look at how saturation adds harmonics to material. Part of the intrigue of saturation is that it can add overtones to a signal, making a sound more complex and rich. Overtones are frequencies above the fundamental frequency of a sound. Harmonics are overtones that are multiples of the fundamental frequency. As I said, saturation adds overtones to sounds, and some saturators allow you to specify which harmonic order is added. Even harmonics would be even numbered multiples of the fundamental frequency. So if the fundamental occurs at 100, the harmonics would take place at 200, 400, 600, and so on. Odd harmonics would be the fundamental multiplied by odd numbers. So, again, if we use a fundamental of 100, the odd harmonics will occur at 300, 500, 700, etc.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

A 100 Hz sine tone with no harmonics added via saturation.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

A 100 Hz sine tone with second order harmonics added via The Decapitator on “Style A.” Note the harmonics added at 200 Hz.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

A 100 Hz sine tone with second and third order harmonics added via The Decapitator on ‘Style E’. Note the harmonics added at 200 and 300 Hz.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

A 100 Hz sine tone with even more harmonics added via The Decapitator on ‘Style P’. Note the harmonics added at 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, and 800 Hz.

So as you can see, one of the things we can accomplish with saturation is making sounds more harmonically dense and complex, and different saturators add harmonics differently. There are too many high-quality saturators on the market to cover in a single roundup, but here are 13 of my favorite saturation plugins and how I use them.

1. Brainworx Black Box Analog Design HG-2

Known for their warmth and fullness, tubes (referred to as “valves” by those across the pond) offer a type of saturation that has been revered by engineers for decades. This plugin, which is based on a high-end piece of tube hardware, delivers tube saturation in both pentode and triode varieties. I find myself liking each of these for their own unique characteristics, and they can be supremely effective when combined. The Black Box HG-2 is great for adding fidelity and size to subgroups and the master buss.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

2. XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color

Perhaps the most versatile plugin included in this roundup, RC-20 provides a wide variety of sonic possibilities in the form of six separate modules – Noise, Wobble, Distortion, Digital, Space, and Magnetic. If you want to give your sterile recordings the characteristics of analog tape, tubes, vinyl and even an old VHS cassette, Retro Color delivers an impressive collection of saturation options in a nice-looking, fun and easy-to-use package.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

3. FabFilter Saturn 2

I’ve been using Saturn 2 on individual tracks and subgroups since it was released, and I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of its capabilities. It includes 9 separate saturation styles including more traditional offerings such as tube, tape, amplifier and transformer, as well as more esoteric styles including smudge, breakdown, foldback, rectify and destroy. One of my favorite things about saturation is its unpredictability. Sometimes saturation brings out unexpected qualities from signals — nuances you didn’t know were present become abundantly apparent with the addition of harmonics. Because you can get so extreme with Saturn 2, it delivers in ways you might not expect. Bonus points if you realized that “Saturn” shares the same first five letters as the word “saturate.” I’ve been using this (and the original Saturn) for years, and literally just made the connection.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

4. Soundtoys Decapitator

This is the first saturation plugin that truly impressed me and actually made me feel as if I was using a piece of boutique hardware, chunky knobs and all. The Decapitator, which I am assuming was named for its ability to “chop the heads” (peaks) off of transients, is one of those plugins that makes me feel like I’m cheating as an engineer. A simple twist of the drive knob up to a value as low as 3 provides increased low frequency response and presence.

Mix tip: The 5 style buttons close to the bottom of the plugin represent different saturation algorithms, each of which emulate actual analog equipment. A is an Ampex 350 Tape Drive Preamp, E is a Chandler/EMI TG Channel, N is a Neve 1057 input channel, T is a Thermionic Culture Vulture on the triode setting, P is a Thermionic Culture Vulture on the pentode setting. Each of these bring a unique sonic flavor to the table, so experiment with them when “Decapitating.”

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

5. UAD Studer A800 and Ampex ATR 102 Tape Machines

Simply put, I’ve yet to find a plugin that sounds and feels as close to actual analog tape saturation as these two very distinct offerings from Universal Audio. Based on the very tape machine used to capture artists including Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, Jeff Buckley and more, the Studer A800 is more effective when used on individual tracks and subgroups. While it can add some wonderful high end using the 30 inches per second (IPS) tape speed and high frequency controls, it tends to have a slightly warmer, more lo-fi feel than its counterpart. The ATR-102, which has been a mainstay in mastering studios all over the world, finds its way onto my master buss more often than not and adds a unique three-dimensional polish to most everything you run through it.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

6. Soundtoys Radiator

Based on the classic  Altec 1567A tube mixer from the 1960s that helped shape the sound of Motown, the Radiator provides a type of saturation that is different from the Decapitator. It’s more subtle and controllable, and I enjoy using it on individual tracks and subgroups alike. I like using it to add character to vocals and for giving electric guitars more bite and presence. It also features two separate controls for bass and treble that allow you to boost or attenuate in a broad-stroke manner. The Radiator, named for its ability to add warmth to signals, is a vibe-machine and comes complete with the circuit noise that was found in the original Altec unit. If you’d prefer, this feature can be switched off.

Mix tip: release the Krakel! Upon significantly boosting a signal using the treble control and pushing the input, you may notice that Radiator creates a bit of a ‘crackly’ saturation effect. While you may not want this effect to be entirely audible, it can help an individual element cut through the mix, so use the mix knob to scale it back to your liking.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

7. Brainworx Vertigo VSM-3

Perhaps the most feature-laden plugin included in this roundup also presents the steepest learning curve, but don’t let this intimidate you. The VSM-3, which emulates a revered hardware unit, is a mastering quality saturator. It features two distinct saturation sections — the 2nd harmonic FET crusher for subtle valve-style saturation and the 3rd harmonic Zener Blender for brighter, more aggressive duties. The brilliance of this unit and plugin is that you’re able to create a blend of the two using the THD (total harmonic distortion) knob. Adding more flexibility for mastering purposes, each of the sections can be used in stereo or mid-side mode.

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Mix tip: while this unit (and plugin) are more suited towards mix buss and mastering duties, don’t hesitate to use it on individual elements. I enjoy using it on DI bass to either saturate gently using the 2nd harmonic FET crusher, or to create an aggressive, grinding distortion using the 3rd harmonic Zener Blender. Additionally, I’ll send a lead vocal track to a parallel auxiliary track, insert the VSM-3 on this track, and dial in a bright, cutting saturation effect. Once I have achieved the tone I want, I’ll set the level of the auxiliary track appropriately, using the saturation to get the vocal to cut through the mix. Sometimes I’ll automate this track to come up in choruses, creating additional energy and excitement in the vocals.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

8. Slate Virtual Analog Bundle

Last year, I worked with a client who swore by the Slate everything bundle, which is referred to as the “All Access Pass.” In an effort to make working from their very own sessions more streamlined, they offered to include a year of the subscription as part of the payment for mixing an album. Slate does a great job of emulating classic analog hardware and presenting it in a compact and easy-to-use package. In part because this particular band already uses these plugins extensively on their mixes, I found myself getting very comfortable with the Slate Virtual Tape Machines, Virtual Console Collection, and Virtual Mix Rack plugins. While these plugins might not offer you the deep level of control that some others included in this roundup do, they still sound authentic and are great for quickly adding different types of saturation to individual channels, subgroups and the master buss.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

9. Waves Abbey Road Vinyl

This has become my favorite plugin from Waves, and I have a blast using it on individual tracks like guitars, kick and snare, along with subgroups and even the master buss. Depending on how it’s used, the saturation created by the Abbey Road Vinyl plugin seems to make bass sound richer, upper midrange sound more forgiving and less harsh, and it does some interesting things to the sense of space established in the mix. It’s worth noting that it creates crosstalk between channels which obviously alters the stereo field. Be sure to consider this when applying it to stereo tracks, especially subgroups and the master buss.

Abbey Road Vinyl

10. UAD Neve 1073 and 1084 Preamp & EQ

Firstly, rest in peace to Rupert Neve, designer of some of the most beautiful and widely used audio recording technology ever, who passed away not too long ago. Out of all the UAD plugins that unleash their innovative Unison Technology (which emulate the mic impedance, gain stage sweet spots, and circuit behaviors of actual hardware), I reach for one of these two Neve EQ & preamp combos the most often. The saturation that these hardware units (and corresponding plugins) create can go from subtly warm and clear to absolutely filthy. Not to mention, the 1073 and 1084 are some of the most musical-sounding equalizers ever created. Utilize these two recording studio staples when recording or mixing individual drums such as kick and snare, vocals, DI guitar or bass.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

11. Overstayer M-A-S

Alright, I admit, this is not a plugin…it’s a piece of hardware. Regardless, if you’re looking to switch to a digital/analog hybrid setup as I did a few years ago, I can’t strongly enough recommend this and the other pieces from this analog hardware builder located in Los Angeles, California. The M-A-S offers a lot of control over how you can shape the harmonics of the signal and bends transient peaks without the time-based artifacts of compressors. Simply put, this is a fantastic vibe machine and I find myself using it on anything that is lacking in character or grit.

14 Favorite Saturation Plugins (+ Mix Tips)

12. Plugin Alliance/Elysia Phil’s Cascade

Most saturator plugins fall into one of two categories: either they emulate widely-used, tried-and-true hardware units, or they are more “digitally” influenced and packed with modern features. The esoteric Phil’s Cascade doesn’t really fall into either category. It’s actually a plugin that is based on a one-off hardware unit, designed to add rich, vibrant analog color to whatever runs through it. Packed with NOS (new old stock) tubes and transformers, Phil’s Cascade can saturate, distort, obliterate and even filter, so if you find your tracks sounding lifeless and lacking, I can’t strongly enough recommend checking it out.

 Mix Tip

Take the time to learn the many different controls, and how the different parameters affect your program material. Phil’s Cascade sounds different than many other saturation plugins and operates uniquely, too. I’ll admit, it took me some time to get used to how the boost, bias, grid, peak and resonance controls all interact. Part of the fun though is that this plugin is a bit unpredictable, but when it works, it works. I now use Phil’s Cascade on many different sound sources including bass, vocals, drums, subgroups and even the stereo buss. It can add girth, grit, bite and more, so it’s worth putting in the time to get to know it.

Phil's Cascade

13. Plugin Alliance/Neold Big AL

If you’re looking for a thick, tubey, vintage sound coupled with modern features and flexibility, check out the Neold’s Big Al from Plugin Alliance. This plugin is modelled after a one-off hardware unit that was built around vintage components from the 1930s. It’s effective for adding harmonic content to your program material. I enjoy using Big Al subtly, but also abusing it when the right opportunity comes along to obtain an aggressive, gritty saturation. The character of this plugin is very musical and pleasant, even when driven hard, and I’ve found it great for giving “up-frontness” to any track that needs to cut through the mix a bit better.

Mix Tip

Get to know the low and high controls. In addition to serving as a top-notch saturator, Big Al features these frequency-based controls that can help shape the timbre of your tracks. The low control allows you to boost or cut around 100 Hz, and works fantastically on beefing up kick drums, toms, bass and other tracks that need thickening. The high control operates at around 10 kHz and can also boost or cut. I’ve found it to work really well on acoustic guitars, drum overheads, vocals and even the stereo buss.

NEOLD BIG AL

14. BABY Audio Super VHS

Firstly, kudos to Baby Audio for making what are perhaps the most visually pleasing plugins that I have ever used. The user interfaces on each and every one of their offerings are absolutely stunning, and they make me want to play with the plugins for extended periods of time. Gorgeous GUIs aside, they all sound fantastic, too. Super VHS is a plugin dedicated to the sounds of the 1980s, and while I am including it here in my top saturation plugins, it is so much more than just a saturator. It comes loaded with six one-knob controls inspired by the VHS era that allow you to add the wonderful sonic characteristics of the ill-fated (but still beloved) video recording and playback medium. The controls include a static noise generator, analog tape saturation, a sample rate reducer, a widening effect inspired by the Juno chorus, pitch fluctuation and a “bad hall” reverb inspired by 1980’s rack units. I’ve worked on a lot of 1980s inspired music over the past few years, including my own passion project SIGNALS, and it’s nice to have a tool like Super VHS that allows me to quickly achieve hyper-nostalgic sounds when the project calls for it.

BABY Audio Super VHS

Mix Tip

Super VHS shines on anything that needs some lo-fi character, and I’ve found it to sound fitting on synthesizers and guitars especially. I wouldn’t be afraid to use it on subgroups, in particular the drum buss. I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but I could absolutely see myself using it on the stereo buss as sort of a temporary special effect.

Conclusion

If you find yourself listening back to your mixes and feeling as if they are bit lifeless and uninspired, saturation is one of the processes you can use to add energy to your individual tracks, subgroups, and mix buss. Used subtly or expressively, it’s one of my favorite tools to deliver thick, powerful and interesting-sounding mixes.

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 Mastering in the Box and Mixing Pop.