We’re currently living in the age of digital audio, and in-the-box mixing within a digital audio workstation is commonplace. Plugins are, therefore, invaluable assets for the modern audio engineer. When used consciously as an effect, distortion is also considered an important tool in the audio engineer’s toolbox. With so many distortion plugins on the market, 11 stand out as being top performers.
What is the audio distortion effect? The “distortion” effect in audio is produced by hard-clipping the input signal through transistor-based or tube-based circuits. Distortion is the most common on electric guitars but also suits many other instruments.
In this article, we’ll discuss the top 11 best distortion plugins.
The top 11 best distortion plugins for digital audio workstations are:
- Soundtoys Decapitator
- Ohm Force Ohmicide
- iZotope Trash 2
- FabFilter Saturn 2
- Dada Life Sausage Fattener
- Waves OneKnob Driver
- Native Instruments Driver
- AudioThing Wave Box
- kiloHearts Faturator
- Kuassa Efektor DS3603
- Universal Audio Distortion Essentials Bundle
- Camel Audio Camel Crusher (Bonus Plugin)
It should go without saying that any “top X” article is subject to bias. I would expect the next person’s top 11 to be different than mine but hope that there would be plenty of overlap.
That being said, I believe these plugins to be the best distortion plugin options today. The criteria I used to judge these plugins include the following:
- Sonic performance: how does the distortion plugin sound subjectively/objectively?
- Graphic user interface (GUI): how does the distortion plugin look when loaded in the DAW?
- Ease-of-use: how user-friendly is the distortion plugin?
- Functionality: how many different functions does it serve and/or how many parameters are available for the distortion effect?
- Accessibility/compatibility: how easy is it to acquire the distortion plugin, and what are the system requirements?
Let’s discuss each of the top 11 best distortion plugins in greater detail to learn why they made this list.
Related article: Top 11 Best Distortion Pedals For Guitar & Bass
The Soundtoys Decapitator (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a popular distortion plugin with 5 different analog distortion models.
The Soundtoys Decapitator is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX Native, AAX AudioSuite, AU and VST formats.
The Soundtoys Decapitator is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Saturation Plugins For Your DAW.
A second Soundtoys plugin to grace this list, the Decapitator is a relatively straightforward hardware-modelled distortion plugin given its superb versatility. From subtle saturation to extreme breakup, this plugin will get you the distortion your tracks need.
Bringing the best analog distortion to the digital realm, the Decapitator adds character in 5 distinct styles and allows users to process distortion in parallel with the original dry signal via the Mix knob. The 5 styles are as follows:
- A: modelled after the Ampex 350 tape drive preamp
- E: modelled after the Chandler/EMI TG Channel
- N: modelled after the Neve 1057 input channel
- T: modelled after Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture triode setting
- P: modelled after Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture pentode setting
These analog distortion styles have been programmed with a natural-sounding changing response indicative of real analog hardware. To push any of the styles beyond typical distortion, the Punish button can be engaged, which kicks in an extra chunk of gain to produce extreme results.
Shape the contour of the distortion with analog-modelled tone control, low cut and high cut filters to really dial in the perfect saturation/distortion for any track in any situation.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Soundtoys Decapitator user manual.
Soundtoys is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.
- Chandler is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Compressor Brands In The World and Top 11 Best Audio Equalizer Brands In The World.
- AMS Neve is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 13 Best Microphone Preamplifier Brands In The World, Top 10 Best Studio Recording/Mixing Console Brands and Top 11 Best Audio Equalizer Brands In The World.
- Thermionic Culture is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Compressor Brands In The World.
Ohm Force Ohmicide
The Ohm Force Ohmicide (link to check the price at Splice) is an awe-inspiring 4-band distortion plugin offering more than 80 professional-level distortion models.
The Ohm Force Ohmicide is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Ohmicide is a popular distortion plugin, and for a good reason. With 4 bands, over 80 distortion models and a wide variety of adjustable parameters, the sky’s the limit in terms of distortion character.
Each independent distortion band has its own noise gate, dynamics, distortion, feedback and mixer and can be set anywhere between classic to extremely harsh tones. Choose an algorithm and dial in the desired effect, or choose from thousands of presets to get you exactly what you need.
In conjunction with Ohm Force’s Melohman technology, the Ohmicide features full MIDI compatibility to command preset changes via a hardware controller, with 7 different modes, with the possibility of customizing the morphing speed, making it equally at home in the studio and on the stage.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Ohm Force FAQ Page.
iZotope Trash 2
The iZotope Trash 2 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a highly functional multiband distortion/saturation plugin with a whopping 60 different distortion algorithms.
The iZotope Trash 2 is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX Native, AAX AudioSuite, AU and VST formats.
The iZotope Trash 2 is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Saturation Plugins For Your DAW.
iZotope’s Trash 2 is arguably the most creative distortion/saturation plugin ever produced. It is versatile enough for any situation and ranges from subtle to extreme distortion with practically every creative sonic possibility in between.
The plugin’s 4-band dual-stage distortion signal path includes over 60 different distortion algorithms (in addition to the user-definable graphic waveshaper option). With advanced filtering and dynamic effects, Trash 2 offers immediate sonic transformation.
Along with the 60+ distortion algorithms, this iZotope plugin also offers over 20 selectable filter types, along with versatile oscillators on each band. This is a super high-functioning distortion plugin.
Other noteworthy features of the iZotope Trash 2 include:
- Realistic speaker and space simulation
- Amp, device, cabinet, effect, and speaker modelling
- 100 impulse responses with the Convolve module
- Delay module
- Dynamics module
- Pre-distortion filter (with 20+ evocative filter types)
- Post-distortion filter (with 20+ evocative filter types)
- 2 LFO-enabled EQ filters
- Output limiter
- Ezpansion Libraries: Over 100 additional Trash 2 patches
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out Trash 2 at iZotope.
iZotope is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.
FabFilter Saturn 2
The FabFilter Saturn 2 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a multiband saturation plugin with 28 different distortion styles.
The FabFilter Saturn 2 is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX Native, AAX AudioSuite, AU and VST formats.
The FabFilter Saturn 2 is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Saturation Plugins For Your DAW.
FabFilter is one of the top boutique plugin manufacturers in the world. Their feature-rich plugins offer amazing sound quality. The Saturn 2 exemplifies the brand’s excellence, delivering everything from subtle warmth to the wildest multi-band guitar amp distortion.
Inspired by the vintage sound of tubes, tape, transformers and guitar amps, the Saturn 2 provides a whopping 28 different distortion styles. Each of up to 6 bands can have its own distortion style with independent feedback, dynamics, drive, tone and modulation controls.
The superb distortion of the FabFilter Saturn 2 can be easily modulated for impressive results. Virtually unlimited modulation possibilities of the crossover frequencies, dynamics, band levels and tone controls are made possible with built-in XLFOs, EGs, XY controllers/sliders, envelope followers and MIDI sources. With drag and drop functionality with a 50-slot modulation matrix, modulation has never been easier!
The plugin also works well on the mastering chain as it’s fully capable of subtle saturation and optional linear phase processing. Add warmth to the master channel without overly affecting important phase relationships and waveform characteristics.
To learn more about linear phase processing, check out my article The Complete Guide To Linear Phase Equalization/EQ.
In typical FabFilter fashion, the Saturn 2 comes with interactive MIDI Learn, undo/redo and A/B switches, Smart Parameter Interpolation, “Help” documentation with interactive hints, sample-accurate automation, double-click text entry of parameter values and more.
Here are a few more noteworthy specifications of the superb FabFilter Saturn 2 plugin:
- Adjustable crossover slope (6, 12, 24 or 48 dB/oct)
- Live modulation visualization for targets and sources
- Optional HQ modes:
- (8x oversampling)
- Superb (32x oversampling)
- Interactive multiband display
- Supports common Pro Tools hardware control surfaces
- Mid/side processing
- Various interface sizes and Full-Screen mode
- GPU-powered graphics acceleration
- Unique per-component presets
- Interactive MIDI Learn
- Carefully designed and curated Factory Presets, plus the support of V1 presets
- Per-band solo and mute options
- Smart Parameter Interpolation
- Extensive help file with interactive help hints
- A/B comparison
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Saturn 2 user manual.
FabFilter is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.
Dada Life Sausage Fattener
The Dada Life Sausage Fattener (link to check the price at Splice), developed by Tailored Noise, is a super-simple yet wildly popular distortion/compression plugin.
The Dada Life Sausage Fattener is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AU and VST formats.
With only 2 knobs, Dada Life’s Sausage Fattener is super easy to use. Insert it on a track (or several) and quickly dial in the Fatness knob for overall compression and Color knob for tone.
From moderate compression to pleasing saturation to dirty distortion, the Sausage Fattener hastily gets you a variety of distortion effects.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Sausage Fattener user manual.
Waves OneKnob Driver
The Waves OneKnob Driver (link to check the price at Sweetwater) is even simpler than the Sausage Fattener with only a single knob, but Waves Audio has created something truly amazing with this easy-to-use distortion plugin.
The Waves OneKnob Driver is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Waves’ OneKnob Driver has been inspired by famed guitar overdrive pedals, especially those that can provide everything from light overdrive to full-on distortion. Of course, the OneKnob Driver isn’t restricted to guitar guitars. It sounds incredible on nearly everything you could think of putting it on.
Related overdrive pedal articles:
• Guitar Pedals: Boost Vs. Overdrive Vs. Distortion Vs. Fuzz
• Top 10 Best Overdrive Pedals For Guitar & Bass
As part of Waves’ OneKnob Series, the Driver (as the name would suggest) is controlled by a single knob. The OneKnob Driver has been designed with the best of Waves award-winning audio processes, coupled with the simplest, most intuitive interfaces ever. Expedient and sonically powerful, the OneKnob Driver is certainly a distortion plugin worth checking out for yourself.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the OneKnob Driver user manual.
Waves Audio is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.
Native Instruments Driver
The Native Instruments Driver (link to check the price at Native Instruments) is a creative distortion plugin with superb modulation capabilities.
The Native Instruments Driver is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats. It can also be used as an effect in Native Instruments’ Maschine or as an individual module in NI’s Reaktor Blocks.
Native Instruments’ Driver offers a variety of amazing textures, from subtle to devastating. It combines distortion with EQ/filtering and audio modulation to add dynamic motion to flat-sounding audio, bringing productions to life one instance at a time.
The smooth filter section offers a wide range of effects, from super-subtle to exceptionally rich, while two modulation sources allow for creative textural shifts. The distortion section is proficient in everything from light saturation to complete sonic destruction. Together, the sections of the NI Driver make up one amazing distortion plugin.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Driver at Native Instruments.
Native Instruments is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 11 Best Virtual/Software Instrument Plugin Brands
• Top 11 Best MIDI Controller Brands In The World
AudioThing Wave Box
The AudioThing Wave Box (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a rather involved dynamic dual waveshaper capable of fantastic symmetrical and asymmetrical distortion.
The AudioThing Wave Box is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Wave Box features 2 separate waveshapers that can be mixed together while being modulated by 2 LFOs and 1 Envelope Follower. Unique waveshaping curves are user-defined by combining and adjusting 12 pre-defined shaping functions (tanh, erf, sinh, sin, linear, abs, invert, floor, round, ceil, gauss 1, gauss 2). From mild tube-flavoured overdrive to extreme digital harshness, the AudioThing Wave Box does it all!
With a built-in pre or post-waveshaping filter section offering low-pass, band-pass, high-pass and notch filters, the Wave Box’s distortion can be further refined. With oversampling up to 16x, the plugin can be set to provide only the “good” distortion.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Wave Box user manual.
The kiloHearts Faturator (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a straightforward distortion plugin with simple controls, making it easy to dial in the perfect amount of distortion on any given source.
The kiloHearts Faturator is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats. It is part of kiloHearts’ Snapin line of plugins, meaning it can be used as a regular plugin or combined with other snapin plugins within a snapin host (such as the Multipass or Snap Heap).
As is the case with all great distortion plugins, the Faturator’s effect ranges from a subtle and warm gritty character to heavy saturation and digital fuzz. However, unlike many distortion effects, this kiloHearts plugin is able to preserve the dynamics of that audio and work its wonders on it regardless of input gain.
Adjust the Drive, Fuzz and Color bars to achieve the most desirable distortion and take advantage of the Mix control for parallel distortion effects.
In addition to the wide variety of distorted tones, the plugin also offers a stereo width control to widen stereo signals.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Faturator user manual.
Kuassa Efektor DS3603
The Kuassa Efektor DS3603 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a versatile distortion plugin with 5 different types of distortion available and easy-to-use yet adaptable parameter control.
The Kuassa Efektor DS3603 is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
The DS3603 provides 5 superb distortion algorithms, ensuring a perfect distortion sound for any situation. User can choose between:
- Lead Distortion: ringing mids for screaming leads
- Heavy Distortion: penetrates from mild to heavy
- Metal Distortion: dark and thick, the solid metal gear
- Classic Distortion: singing leads and rockin’ hard
- Pro Distortion: fat and sharp edge for your tone
Clipping the input signal by increasing the signal to maximum overload allows the Kuassa Efektor DS3603 to achieve its musical distortion while preserving the characteristics of the original sound. Of course, this process can be pushed to the extreme as well, thereby removing any semblance to the original signal.
Choose an algorithm and set the independent Gain, Tone, and Output volume controls to produce the perfect distortion for your track(s). Use A/B comparison and Dry-Wet controls to ensure you’re getting the best sound out of this flexible distortion plugin.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Efektor DS3603 at Kuassa.
Universal Audio Distortion Essentials Bundle
The Universal Audio Distortion Essentials Bundle (link to check the price at Universal Audio) is a three-for-one on this list. It includes 3 different stompbox emulation plugins: The Raw distortion, TS overdrive and Bermuda fuzz/distortion effects.
The plugins included in the Universal Audio Distortion Essentials Bundle, like all UAD plugins, require UAD hardware to function with your DAW. UAD hardware is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS, and the plugins are available in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Each of these classic emulations features Universal Audio’s Unison technology, giving you the individual touch, tone, and feel of these prized stompboxes.
UAD TS Overdrive
The TS Overdrive is an emulation of the famous Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808 overdrive pedal, offering beautiful dynamic, touch-sensitive distortion and throaty midrange.
Versions of the Ibanez Tube Screamer are featured in My New Microphone’s Top 10 Best Overdrive Pedals For Guitar & Bass.
Ibanez, as a company, is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 13 Best Bass Guitar Brands In The World
• Top 13 Best Electric Guitar Brands In The World
UAD Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is an emulation of the famous Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzz pedal, offering powerfully fat sustain, aggressive attack, and an over-the-top sonic personality.
Versions of the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff are featured in My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Fuzz Pedals For Guitar & Bass.
Electro-Harmonix, as a company, is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
UAD Raw Distortion
The Raw Distortion is an emulation of the famous Pro Co Rat distortion pedal, offering superb dynamic and tonal range, smoothness, and heaping amounts of gain.
The Pro Co Rat is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Distortion Pedals For Guitar & Bass.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the UAD Plug-Ins Manual.
Universal Audio is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World
• Top 11 Best Audio Interface Brands In The World
• Top 13 Best Microphone Preamplifier Brands In The World
• Top 11 Best Audio Compressor Brands In The World
Camel Audio Camel Crusher (Bonus Plugin)
Camel Audio’s Camel Crusher, if you can find it, can easily become a go-to distortion plugin for your DAW. It is a simple, yet effective distortion plugin. However, since Camel Audio was acquired by Apple in 2015, the plugin has ceased to exist for official sale or download.
The Camel Audio Alchemy synthesizer has been incorporated in Apple’s Logic Pro DAW. Similarly, certain aspects of the Camel Crusher have been added to Apple’s extensive database of audio programs. However, there is no clean transfer of the plugin into the Logic Pro DAW, per se.
Logic Pro is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.