Over the years, I’ve come into the possession of countless plugins. Some have been great investments, while others have made their way to the bottom of my production toolkit, never to be seen again. In particular, I’ve found that saturation plugins can be extremely hit or miss.
There’s no such thing as the “best” saturator, but there are saturators that rise above the rest when challenged with certain tasks. Perhaps you’re looking for a saturator that’s going to thicken up your drums, or maybe you’re looking for a saturator specifically for mastering.
With that in mind, rather than try to create a comprehensive list of all the saturators out there, I’ve broken this list down by application, and picked my top, tried-and-true favorite for each category. Read on below for my top picks, along with the sources I’ve found them to be best suited for.
Best for Vocal Saturation: SDRR by Klanghelm ($27)
Klanhelm’s inexpensive SDRR plugin works phenomenally well on vocals. If you’re looking for some subtle saturation that’s going to add that extra little bit of missing warmth and really sweeten up your vocals, the SDRR is what you’re looking for. A huge step up from most stock saturators, the SDRR has quickly become one of my go-to saturators.
SDRR has 4 distinct modes: “Tube” emulates analog tube saturation; “Digi” emulates modern, digital saturation; “Fuzz” emulates distortion caused by germanium fuzz stomp boxes; and “Desk” Emulates the sound of analog mixing consoles.
Each of these modes react dynamically to the input signal, so you’ll achieve varying results depending on how hard you drive the input gain.
I’ve found that when applying the SDRR to vocals, Desk mode seems to get me the results I want the quickest. This mode allows you to manipulate how the saturator shapes transients, as well as allowing you to apply compression and giving you access to some unique low shelf and high shelf knobs.
As far as value goes, the SDRR is going to give you some of the best bang for your buck out there. You’re basically getting 4 saturators for the price of one. If you want a taste of the SDRR’s sound, you can download the somewhat more limited IVGI saturator from Klanghelm for free. It’s a saturation plugin based off of the DESK mode available in SDRR.
Best for Drum Saturation: Reviver by DSP Fielding ($29)
Reviver is another super-affordable option and is also, hands down, my favorite saturation device for drums. By increasing the third-order harmonics slider, I’m able to get my kick and snare sitting together, sounding thick and fat.
I had used other saturation plugins for my drums, but nothing was quite getting me that “glued” sound that I was looking for. I primarily do engineering work for EDM artists and before Reviver, there was something missing on my drum bus.
In EDM tracks, the kick and snare are often the most prominent elements of the song. If they don’t feel right, it can really throw the listener off.
This saturator is super easy to use. There are 4 sliders: Input, output, second-order harmonics and third-order harmonics. Increasing second-order harmonics will provide you with a warm, full-bodied sound and increasing third-order harmonics will provide you with a punchy, fat sound.
Typically, I’ll put a glue compressor on my drum bus, with a moderate attack (around 30ms) and a long release (with the exact timing depending on the track) to get my drums living in the same space. After this, I hit my drum bus with Reviver, increasing the third-order harmonics, which really brings my drums together.
Best Tape Saturator: J37 by Waves ($69 on sale, $299 reg)
The most subtle saturator on this list is the J37, which is meant to model a high-quality analog tape machine.
The J37 won’t give you that super-distorted sound, but it will add warmth and body to whatever you apply it to. I’ve used the J37 on vocals, leads, basses, drums, busses and even while mastering.
The J37 was created solely to reproduce the sound of authentic analog tape saturation, and let me tell you, it does its job very well.
Outside of its primary function, the J37 has trouble competing with the other plugins on this list. This goes both ways though: I don’t think any of the other plugins on this list even come close to emulating tape saturation in the same way that the J37 does.
If you’re looking for the vintage sound of a tape machine, the J37 is for you. The great thing about this plugin is that you can demo it for free! Waves is good about discounting its plugins once they’ve been out for a while, and this one is currently massively reduced. Try it out for yourself to decide if $69 is worth adding a very effective one-trick pony to your arsenal.
Best for Bass Saturation: Decapitator by Soundtoys ($199)
Decapitator is my go-to saturator when I’m trying to get a bass to sound really dirty and give it some hard, raw flavor.
What I love about this saturator is that it doesn’t take long to find a great sound. By pushing the drive a little bit, and flipping through the analog saturation models, I’m able to quickly and easily get a sound that I like.
Decapitator is well known for it’s “punish” button, which adds extra input gain. Engaging this button will apply extreme distortion and saturation, allowing you to completely mangle the audio you’re working with. Decapitator also includes a tone, low cut, and high cut knob, further increasing its sound shaping options.
If Decapitator wasn’t a beast already, Soundtoys made the outstanding choice to include a mix knob. By manipulating the balance between the dry and wet signal, you’re essentially applying parallel saturation. I think that this feature really broadens the horizon in regards to how you can apply Decapitator to different sounds. I’ve found myself not only using it on basses, but in parallel on dirty synth leads as well.
All of Soundtoys’ plugins are analog modeled and have a truly unique sound. Soundtoys offers free demos of all their plugins, so you can try before you buy. Be careful though, once you hear them, you’re probably going to want all of them. Luckily, you can pick up their entire plugin bundle for $499. Soundtoys also offers an academic discount, so that’s worth taking advantage of it if you’re in school.
Best for Mastering Saturation: Black Box Analog Design HG-2 by Plugin Alliance ($249)
The “Black Box” is an emulation of its hardware namesake, and a god among mortals.
I use this one mainly for group processing and mastering purposes. The Black Box adds richness and punch to your busses, while also allowing you to increase perceived loudness. If I’m looking to squeeze a little bit of extra loudness and presence out of a track, the Black Box is what I reach for.
The signal flow of the Black Box is what provides it with its brilliant color. The dry signal runs through an input transformer, one of two parallel saturation tubes that you can choose from, and then in serial, it runs through a pentode, triode and finally an output transformer. Depending on your settings, you’re able to get really unique and varying sounds from the Black Box.