Using the right saturation plugin can make all the difference in how warm, full, and analog-like your track will sound.
But, the tricky part is finding the perfect tool.
Should you opt for a paid or a free version? Does the source material matter? What GUIs straddle the line between ease of use and sonic versatility?
To help you decide, we reviewed the top options on the market and narrowed down the list to the five best saturation plugins. We’ve also compiled some nifty tips for choosing the right one for your needs.
Let’s take a look at the contenders!
BB Tubes isn’t the only saturation plugin we’ve seen from Waves’ Magma Series—there’s also the Lil Tube. However, unlike the simplified Lil Tube, the BB Tubes plugin stands out with two main knobs rather than one “Drive” control.
On BB’s user interface, each knob is aptly named.
You have the “Beauty” knob for smooth, delicate, and mostly even harmonics. This one is perfect for when you want a bit of warmth. Meanwhile, the “Beast” control is the go-to for hard-hitting saturation but can still give you subtle results if you tone the drive down.
Aside from the two BB knobs and the output, there are a couple of nifty controls that give this plugin a competitive edge.
One of those is the low-shelf (350Hz) “Bass Relief,” which protects the low ends from tube saturation. On the other side of the interface, there are two high-shelf EQ (10kHz) “Tone” controls that alter the signal before or after it hits the tube.
Another perk here is that the plugin supports x8 up-sampling with reasonable latency. That said, you won’t get the full range for all platforms. For instance, the BB Tubes (V14) has a fixed x4 up-sampling for SuperRack, eMotion ST Mixer, and eMotion LV1 Mixer.
Solid State Logic (SSL) is a major player in the industry and has been around since 1969. So, it’s not a surprise to see that the company’s Native X-Saturator plugin stands up to the hype.
X-Saturator is a great option for those who want something effective yet fuss-free. In fact, “utilitarian” would be the best way to describe the plugin’s interface and feature range.
You have one small knob that controls 2nd and 3rd harmonic distortion. According to the user manual, if you go all the way clockwise, you’ll push the 3rd harmonics to a 70’s transistor-style grit. Meanwhile, turning the knob to the anti-clockwise limit mimics a 50’s valve-style overdrive.
To control the intensity between mild warmth and heavy distortion, you just have to tweak the “Drive” knob.
As you add effects, the plugin’s meter helps you visualize the dB changes. One neat trick to keep in mind is that pressing the “+6dB” button on the right will give you extra headroom above the saturation point. This way, you won’t have to worry about internal clipping.
Much like BB Tubes, X-Saturator also has A/B controls. Here, however, you can adjust the presets. This means it’s possible to load two settings by heading to the Preset Management Display. Then you can compare how each one sounds with a simple switch.
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The two-time Grammy nominee producer Damien Lewis has endorsed a bunch of FabFilter’s tools, including the Saturn saturation plugin. After reviewing the plugin, we found that it’s all for a good reason.
FabFilter Saturn 2 taps into a wide range of distortion presets, multi-band audio processing, and tons of modulation possibilities. It pairs intuitive UI (a step up from the older version) with in-depth controls.
Using the plugin’s distortion models, you can mimic vintage tubes, tape, guitar amps, or transformers. Of course, the presets cut the hassle out of the mixing process.
Plus, the substantial modulation section helps you visualize the signal flow and comes equipped with powerful XLFOs, XY sliders, and EGs. The cherry on top? Creating new modulation connections is as simple as a drag-and-drop move in a 50-slot matrix.
The main catch is that while FabFilter improved the GUI and tweaked things to make the tool more user-friendly, it still takes a while to get used to. Thankfully, there’s an extensive 47-page user manual that walks you through the tool’s features.
Right off the bat, the first thing you’ll notice in the Decapitator’s GUI is the lineup of style buttons (A, E, N, T, and P) at the bottom. Guaranteed, the selection isn’t as large as the one on Saturn 2, but that’s still where all the action is.
By default, your plugin will be set to “A,” which Soundtoys’ engineers modeled after the Ampex 350 tape drive preamp. Pick this one if you want something super smooth.
Next up is the “E” style, which adds the character of EMI consoles. Meanwhile, the “N” is modeled after Neve, and the “T” is the way to go for overdriven Triode tubes with even distortion.
At the end of the lineup, you have the “P” style, modeled after overdriven Pentode tubes known for their odd harmonic distortion.
Yet another key feature on the interface is the “Punish” button that adds gain to create an over-the-top effect. You also have the “Low Cut” control that removes lower frequencies before they hit the circuit.
Great saturation doesn’t necessarily call for hefty price tags, and KIT is here to prove this with its free Burier plugin.
In case you’re wondering where the name comes from, KIT has weighed in on the matter and clarified that the tool is designed to “bury” a whole lot of ranges, including bass, synths, drums, and vocals.
It’s not hard to master, either. Aside from the main knob, you have four side knobs for L/H filters, wet/dry mix, and output.
Plus, there’s a “Link” switch at the bottom. When it’s on, the tool automatically reduces the output to balance the gain from the increased “Drive.” It’s basically a safety net that keeps you from over-distorting your track, but we’ll cover another side to it in our tips section!
All in all, we’d say that Burier is a handy tool for those projects where you don’t have the luxury of doing endless tweaks.
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Still not sure which way to go? Here are five tips to help you pick the plugin for your needs:
While you can’t go wrong with any of the saturation plugins on this list, you might want to get something tailored to your needs.
For example, we found that the extensive modulation section on the Saturn 2 is great for pros. Meanwhile, the SSL’s X-Saturator (paid) and the Burier by KIT (free) are much easier to master, even if you’re a beginner.
The BB Tubes by Waves? That’s an all-around winner in our books!
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