Best Saturation Plugins of 2020 – Ultimate Review

Do you remember the sound of the old turntable? How would you describe the sound coming out compared to playing a song from a CD or a computer? Our guess would be you will say “warmer” and that’s exactly why modern producers use saturation plugins.

Our Top Picks for Saturation Plugins

  • 5 analog saturation types
  • Extreme saturation
  • Works on all tracks
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  • Saturation & distortion FX
  • 28 distortion types
  • Split effect into 6 bands
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  • Smooth sound transition
  • Auto output level scaling
  • Great for beginners
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Comparison Chart of the Best Saturation Plugins

IMAGEPRODUCT
  • 5 analog saturation models emulated
  • Extreme saturation available with Punish button
  • Will work on every instrument or vocal
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  • Extremly versatile saturation and distortion VST
  • 28 different distortion styles
  • Split the effect up to 6 independent bands
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  • Affordable saturation VST with 24 dB of overdrive
  • Auto output level scaling
  • Great learning tool for beginners
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  • Emulation of EMI TG12321 used in Abbey Road Studio
  • REDD17 and TG12345 saturation
  • May work as tape saturation and channel strip
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  • Saturation based on Neve 1073 hardware
  • Colorful 3-band EQ with mic preamp and drive module
  • Made by award-winning engineer Andrew Scheps
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What is a Saturation Plugin? 

Saturation is a two-step effect. It’s made from mild compression and additional harmonics by applying distortion at a lower musical level. The original audio signal remains unchanged while it’s given a subtle boost regarding density and warmth. 

It’s a very subjective effect that relies on personal taste a lot, but in general, it creates harmonics that people’s ears hear as pleasant by overloading the specific electric component with the level of the input signal. It can be used in both mixing and mastering stages and it recreates that vintage sound which is nowadays considered to be more natural compared to the one created by a pure digital interface.

Are All Saturation Plugins The Same? 

Saturation Plugins are not made in the same way. First of all, they emulate different types of saturation so they may come as tape, tube, or transformer saturation. Also, some will provide you with the exact copy of old vintage tape saturation hardware, while others will use all the modern technology and give you options that were almost impossible to recreate back in those days. Also, regarding visual appearance, the user interface may resemble the original hardware, while others may be very graphical and help you understand better what’s going on with the parameters you have assigned.

How Do I Choose a Saturation Plugin? 

Saturations can come with many parameters and characters, so here are some questions you should ask yourself first:

Type of Saturation

Do you have any specific vintage hardware you’re looking for? Define your type before your purchase as there is probably an emulation of every significant hardware. In case you don’t have such hardware in mind, a modern and “generic” saturation may work just fine.

Also, not all saturations work well on all instruments. Some excel at vocals, while others work the best if used as a mastering tool or on a drum mix bus.

Define Your Skills

Newbies prefer plain and basic controls that are easy to understand. Others may ask for detailed options that can be utilized only if you know what you’re doing. Luckily, saturation comes in both options, so don’t push yourself as it will be almost counter-productive. 

Also, be aware that a more detailed saturation plugin is, it will hit your wallet more as well.

Music or Sound Design

Some saturations work really well in musical terms while others can be a creative tool that will make some really unique sounds. So, if you’re working on a typical song you may not need that expensive but very creative saturation plugins.

Types of Saturation Plugins

There are three types of saturations out there and every type may work for different purposes, so let’s see what’s so different about them: 

Tape Saturation

This is probably the most famous type of saturation. 

It derives from the time when the music was recorded on the analog tape. Every track had a dedicated track that would be played all together and recorded on one or even more tapes once again. These subtle changes were multiplied and created a unique sonic trademark. Engineers found out along this kind of production that the hotter the input is, the less audible those errors were, and that’s exactly how to tape saturation was invented. 

Tube Saturation

Tube saturation creates strong harmonics closer to the base frequency. Unlike the tape saturation, they create warmth from low-frequency instead of high-frequency. This type of saturation may lead to a very pleasant overdrive if pushed to the limits. It also adds up a subtle form of compression as a side-effect.

Transistor Saturation

This is the most common hardware saturation. This type of saturation is used as a starting point for creating guitar pedals we use today. It occurs when the input signal is so hot that it causes a voltage drop and blocks any additional signal.

Quick Take: 
Top 3 Picks

Review of the Best Saturation Plugins 

You better get yourself warmed up, as we will deliver you with the best saturation plugins on the market:

PROS

  • 5 analog saturation models emulated
  • Will work on every instrument or vocal
  • Delivers original and responsive analog feel
  • Extreme saturation available with Punish button
  • Auto switch controls output gain and Drive staging

CONS

  • Feels slightly expensive
  • We would appreciate parametric EQ

Features and Specifications

This Distortion comes with five analog saturation models emulating the behavior of the classic hardware. You can select those at the very front of the very comprehensive user interface by picking a letter from A, E, N, T, or P. Every letter stands for a model it emulates, so N stands for Neve 1057, for example.

However, the key feature lies within the Punish button. It boosts 20dB of drive and acts differently when applied to different models. Different drive stages also change their behavior so they can create some extreme distortion.

Why it Stands Out to Us

This plugin is perfectly balanced between regular distortion and typical saturation effect. It's an ideal solution for vocal saturation. We also enjoyed how the Auto switch feature worked. It saves a lot of time as it handles volume compensation without your intervention. 

It’s pretty straight-forward designed and we can imagine it will make wonders for any track in the rock music world. For other genres, we can imagine using it regularly on any bass track. You could even use it as a guitar distortion if you want! It remains incredibly musical and analog-like no matter how hard you push it. 

PROS

  • 28 different distortion styles
  • Incredibly versatile saturation and distortion plugin
  • Huge modulation matrix mod with drag and drop feature
  • Modern user interface with beautiful visuals and full-screen mode
  • Split the effect up to 6 independent bands with individual parameters

CONS

  • We would like more options for the dynamics part
  • May be overwhelming and slow down your workflow

Features and Specifications

Saturn 2 provides you with 28 different distortions all the way from the tube saturation up to even bit crushing. It starts as a basic saturation effect, but it can be split into six bands and every band can be treated individually with dedicated knobs for the drive, tone, feedback, dynamics, mix, and level. Some of these features are handled by a single dial, while others can be automated and routed directly into the modulation matrix by plain drag and drop method. All changes can be audited with A/B option.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Saturn 2 is not your typical saturation. It won’t provide you with hardware emulations. But it is considered as one of the most versatile software out there on the market.

You’re going to love the multi-band approach and the full-screen modern visuals with spectrum analyzer displayed in the background that will simply ask you to go into details. 

Also, provided presets are very useful in case you’re not sure where you want to go and the modulation panel gives you almost endless options as it comes with several envelopes, LFOs, and even XY pads. 

Best for the Money:
Eventide Saturate

PROS

  • Auto output level scaling 
  • Great learning tool for beginners
  • Comprehensive Gain Curve display
  • Smooth sound transition throughout all clipping shapes
  • Affordable saturation plugin with up to 24 dB of clean overdrive

CONS

  • Presets are hit and miss
  • Clipper Shape could have several step-based modes

Features and Specifications

Eventide Saturate is a basic saturation plugin with dedicated input and output vertical sliders. Output can be set to an auto mode which will compensate for the level change affected from the Drive slider automatically. Drive adds up to 24 dB of gain to the input and its character is heavily based on the Clipper Shape parameter unless you move it over 12 dB which will provide additional distortion all the time. It alters the gain curve between Soft and Hard mode in a harmonically pleasing way. Both of these sliders are positioned horizontally.

Why it Stands Out to Us

We like the fact that it does what it should without affecting your wallet too much. It may not be the best choice if you’re looking for any particular vintage sound, but it may come really handy if you’re short on a budget. It sounds pleasant and has comprehensive parameters. It may also be the best choice if you have never worked with saturation before as you will get clear visuals of what you’re doing and pretty soon you will find out what settings work the best for your project.

Best Tape Saturation Plugin:
Waves Abbey Road Saturator

PROS

  • 3-band Pre-EQ and Post-EQ
  • May work as tape saturation and channel strip
  • Choice between RED17 and TG12345 mixing consoles
  • Compander with semi-parametric hi-pass and low-pass filters
  • Emulation made upon exact TG12321 unit used in Abbey Road Studio

CONS

  • No attack or release knobs for a compander
  • Hidden headroom adjustment at the bottom screw on the meter

Features and Specifications

This plugin was made in collaboration with Abbey Road engineers and precisely emulates the original TG12321 hardware fed into solid-state and warmer TG12345 or aggressive and edgy REDD17 mixing desk for saturation effect.

Its user interface is organized in a pretty vintage layout. There are dedicated knobs for input, output, and saturation with VU meter that can display both input and output signals. Compander compresses the pre-EQ signal and expands it after applying a low and high-pass filter. Both Pre-EQ and Post-EQ are equipped with low and high shelf and full-parametric on the mid-range.

Why it Stands Out to Us

If you had the chance to work with the analog hardware units, you probably had noticed that even two identical units don’t sound quite the same due to the subtle differences in the components and voltage differences. That’s why the fact that this software was modeled directly from the unit used in the legendary Abbey Roads Studio is not just a vintage hardware emulation, it’s also a very affordable piece of history. If vintage saturation is what you need, this plugin will work every track - at lower settings, it will feed bass guitar and drums while higher values will do wonders for your vocal tracks.

Best Transistor Saturation Plugin:
Waves Scheps 73

PROS

  • Saturation based on Neve 1073 hardware
  • Very useful Link I/O button maintains the output level
  • Apply a different effect to mid and side stereo content
  • Colorful 3-band EQ with mic preamp and drive module
  • Made in collaboration with award-winning mixing engineer Andrew Scheps

CONS

  • We would prefer larger VU meter and smaller knobs
  • Not very convenient bypass button (hint: unclick the EQ, preamp, or drive preamp button!)

Features and Specifications

This unit combines channel strips with an additional drive unit emulated by legendary Neve 1073. EQ is organized in 3-band with Hi-shelf is located at 12kHz, while Low and Mid are semi-parametric and cover the range from 360Hz to 10kHz for Mid band and 35Hz to 220Hz for Low band. Both bands can apply up to 18 dB of gain, while High Gain goes up to 16 dB. The high-pass filter is also set at 18dB/oct and can be set at 50, 80, 160, and 300Hz.

The Drive control enables an additional generator that overrides the gain setting of the preamp knob once it’s turned on.

Why it Stands Out to Us

Andrew Scheps had a chance to work with artists such as Adele, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jay-Z, and Metallica, just to name a few. Having a plugin related to the mixing engineer of such importance truly speaks how much effort he put to capture all characteristics of the Neve 1073.

The preamp module is capable of producing transformer saturation which adds some colorful harmonic distortion that can be driven towards overdrive once you press the drive button. With the Link I/O button you can try out different input values while balancing output volume at the same level.

Best Tube Saturation Plugin:
Antares Warm

PROS

  • Incredibly low CPU intake
  • Basic but quite effective tube preamp
  • Velvet and Crunch tube mode selection
  • Omnitube feature saturates the complete signal
  • Works well on both vocal and instrument tracks

CONS

  • Lack of any deeper editing options
  • Switch between stereo and mid/side input would come as a nice upgrade

Features and Specifications

This unit feeds your audio track through a high-quality analog tube preamplifier with two distinctive tube modes. Velvet models the subtle tube saturation found on classic hardware units, while Crunch​ models overdriven tube amplifiers that produce deeper and warmer distortion.

Warm is also a part of the Antares Avox 4 plugin, so in case you need a vocal processor, you may consider purchasing it as well. It leaves an insignificant footprint on your CPU, so you can use it on every track without noticing.

Why it Stands Out to Us

We like how easy this plugin is to set it up. It’s made of a couple of sliders and buttons and it does what it should. Once applied it drives audio into emulated high-end valve microphone preamps making loud transients distorted in a way that most people find pleasing. We especially liked the Omnitube feature that saturates complete signal instead of transients only. It sounds really true to the original hardware it emulates and while it was meant for vocal tracks, you can use it pretty well on any melodic instrument track as well.

Saturation vs Distortion

If you’re inexperienced music producer you might be confused regarding those two terms, so we’ll help you out to understand better what’s the real difference:

Distortion may happen on purpose or unintentionally. Unintentional distortion occurs in digital format as a very destructive way of creating not so pleasant output signals and it’s referred to as hard clipping. On the other hand, “distortion on purpose” happens when a waveform shape is affected and new harmonic components are added up. 

So, distortion refers to more extreme sonic change, somewhere between overdrive and fuzz. Saturation can be considered as the most subtle way of distorting in an analog way. Unlike the digital realm, the analog sound doesn’t have an end value so the more you crank the saturation the warmer sound gets. This effect is also known as “soft clipping”.

However, saturation is much more than just a distortion. Many vintage saturations affect the sound dynamics so they can also act as a compressor. But the distortion you get from the saturation is much more pleasant that one you would get when you push the compressor to the extreme values.

So to conclude, saturation adds warmth without changing sound character, while distortion comes with a more radical approach.

Pros and Cons of Saturation Plugins 

Here’s a quick check-up regarding applying saturation in general:

Pros

Warmth

If you feel that your track sounds sterile plain and it doesn’t blend with the rest of the song, applying a saturation may do wonders for you, especially on the vocals.

Creative

When a tube amp makes distortion, it doesn’t cut the peak from the signal, it emphasizes those musical harmonics instead. As saturation is actually a subtle distortion, you can get quite smooth and creative results by cranking up the saturation to the max and achieve a full sound that doesn’t require further compression.

Fill up Space

If your song project is set to be minimalistic, saturation may fill the “gap” and glue sounds together so they create much denser mix all together.

Cons

Audio Damage 

If you think about it, saturation is nothing more than distorting the original sound in a controlled manner. While it may sound better when you listen in solo, the specific track may get lost in the final mix because every saturation trades a bit of clarity for a color. Be extra careful if you apply such an effect on any kind of lead track and be prepared to re-balance it.

Conclusion 

While we have all the requirements to record anything completely clean, in a way that many vintage artists could only dream of, we got so used to that old sound that we prefer to listen to the colorized signal instead. This should probably tell you how saturation is important to modern music.

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