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. Saturation is an essential tool in the audio engineer’s toolbox when dealing with digital audio, which is sterile and clean relative to analog. With so many saturation plugins on the market, 11 stand out as being top performers.
What is saturation? Saturation is an audio effect fusing soft-knee/program-dependent compression with harmonic generation/distortion. It has the effect of producing and enhancing a signal’s harmonic profile in a sonically pleasing way. Saturation is achieved naturally with tubes and tape or digitally with plugins.
In this article, we’ll discuss the top 11 best saturation plugins.
The top 11 best saturation plugins for digital audio workstations are:
- FabFilter Saturn 2
- Softube Harmonics | Saturation Knob | Tape
- Klanghelm SDRR
- Waves J37 Tape
- D16 Group Redoptor 2
- Soundtoys Radiator
- Soundtoys Decapitator
- iZotope Trash 2
- Sonnox Oxford Inflator
- Unique Recording Software URS Saturation
- Brainworx bx_saturator V2
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 saturation plugin options today. The criteria I used to judge these plugins include the following:
- Sonic performance: how does the saturation plugin sound subjectively/objectively?
- Graphic user interface (GUI): how does the saturation plugin look when loaded in the DAW?
- Ease-of-use: how user-friendly is the saturation plugin?
- Functionality: how many different functions does it serve and/or how many parameters are available for the saturation effect?
- Accessibility/compatibility: how easy is it to acquire the saturation plugin, and what are the system requirements?
Let’s discuss each of the top 11 best saturation plugins in greater detail to learn why they made this list.
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.
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/saturation style with independent feedback, dynamics, drive, tone and modulation controls.
The superb saturation/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.
Softube Harmonics | Saturation Knob | Tape
At number 2 on this list, we have a three-for-one. Each of these Softube plugins offers superb saturation in its own right. In an attempt to pack as much value as possible into this top 11, I’ve cheated a bit (you can think of it as a “top 13” if you’d like).
The Softube Harmonics (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a saturation plugin with 5 component-modelled distortion sounds.
The Softube Harmonics is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
Softube’s Harmonics is a smart saturation plugin that uses Revolutionary ‘Dynamic Transient Control’ technology to track incoming signal dynamics and react to the dynamics according to DTC parameter (when engaged).
Additionally, Harmonics offers low and high-pass filters (pre and post-distortion), wet/dry knob for parallel mix control, and THD (total harmonic drive) metering, allowing users to define the perfect amount of saturation or distortion for each and every track in which the plugin is inserted.
To learn more about low and high-pass filters, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Audio EQ: What Is A Low-Pass Filter & How Do LPFs Work?
• Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
The 5 superb component-modelled distortion/saturation types are Solid, Transformer, Master, Tube and Modern. Control each of these excellent flavours of saturation with the Drive and Character knobs.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out Harmonics at Softube.
Softube Saturation Knob
The Softube Saturation Knob (link to check the price at Splice) is a freebie that offers three modelled distortion modes. It works as a standalone plugin and as part of Softube’s Modular virtual Eurorack platform.
The Softube Saturation Knob is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
This free plugin is very straightforward but sounds incredible. Whether it’s as an insert or as part of Modular, the Saturation Knob brings easily-dialled saturation to any digital audio workstation.
The plugin has a single knob and a three-way switch to choose between 3 different kinds of distortion/saturation: Keep High, Neutral and Keep Low. The Keep High mode “keeps” the high-end relatively clean while distorting the low-end, while the Keep Low does the opposite. Neutral mode offers saturation/distortion across the frequency spectrum.
As a quick, easy and free way of adding weight and colour to your tracks, look no further than the Softube Saturation Knob.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out Saturation Knob at Softube.
The Softube Tape (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a tape saturation emulation plugin with 3 different tape machine types.
The Softube Tape is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
This straightforward tape saturation plugin from Softube provides realistic analog sound, adding cohesion and warmth to individual tracks and mixes at large. Its straightforward design has 3 distinct tape machine types (A, B and C). For quick and easy saturation, choose a tape machine and simply dial in the Amount knob or, alternatively, choose for on the superb presets.
- Type A emulates a precise and linear high-end Swiss reel-to-reel machine
- Type B emulated a colourful transformer-based machine
- Type C emulates a vintage-style British tape machine
Additional control is to be had in the back-end, where users can adjust tape speed settings, stability, crosstalk amount, as well as a mastering grade high shelf filter, stability control, wet/dry mix knob and more.
To learn more about shelving filters, check out my article Audio Shelving EQ: What Are Low Shelf & High Shelf Filters?
PreSonus Studio One users are in luck with the Softube Tape since it includes Tape Multitrack, which can be used in the MixFX slot of Presonus Studio One. This means that individual channel crosstalk and single interface control of all tracks are made easy within the DAW.
PreSonus Studio One is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out Tape at Softube.
Softube is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World
• Top 11 Best DAW Control Surface Brands In The World
The Klanghelm SDRR (link to check the price at Klanghelm) is superb saturation plugin with 4 distinct modes.
The Klanghelm SDRR is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU, VST and RTAS formats.
Klanghelm’s comprehensive SDRR saturation plugin offers incredible flexibility to ensure the resulting saturation will work perfectly with any audio source in any mix. This saturation plugin has 4 main modes, each of which can be altered by an impressive set of control parameters. The 4 modes are:
- Tube: consists of two different models of a two-stage tube preamplifier
- Digi: designed to precisely add even and/or odd harmonics to program material
- Fuzz: consists of two different models of classic germanium fuzz stompboxes
- Desk: flexible mixing desk channel strip plugin with just a few controls
Related article: Top 12 Best Fuzz Stompbox Pedals For Guitar & Bass.
Each of the modes has its own unique crosstalk behaviour and reacts dynamically to the input signal to impart its distinct flavour of saturation.
With an impressive collection of parameter controls, the SDRR is an amazing saturation plugin but can also act as a compressor, an EQ, a bit-crusher and a stereo widener.
To learn more about compression and EQ< check out the following My New Microphone articles, respectively:
• The Complete Guide To Audio Compression & Compressors
• The Complete Guide To Audio Equalization & EQ Hardware/Software
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Klanghelm SDRR user manual.
Waves J37 Tape
The Waves J37 Tape (link to check the price at Waves Audio) is a tape saturation plugin modelled after the EMI-modified Studer J37 4-track tape machine from Abbey Road Studio. It has been developed in association with Abbey Road Studio.
The Waves J37 Tape is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
The Waves Abbey Road J37 tape emulation plugin provides stunning analog warmth, delivering a level of hardware realism never before experienced “in the box.” It offers an impressive number of controls including Tape Speed, Bias, Noise, Saturation, Wow and Flutter, Low-pass Filter and High-Pass Filter. This plugin is subtle yet powerful when it comes to adding realistic tape saturation to digital audio.
With 3 exclusive EMI-developed oxide tape formulas being modelled, the J37 brings 3 unique frequency responses and harmonic distortion characteristics with a single plugin. Waves has included a comprehensive tape delay unit with sync control to further improve upon an already stunning design.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Waves J37 Tape user manual.
Waves Audio is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.
D16 Group Redoptor 2
The D16 Group Redoptor 2 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is an excellent plugin designed to emulate the organic sound of vintage tube saturation.
The D16 Group Redoptor 2 is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and VST formats.
D16 Group perfectly emulates the character of a tube amplifier being pushed to break up with its Redoptor 2 plugin.
The Redoptor 2 smoothly responds to the dynamics of the source material, just like a real tube amp, adding both odd and even harmonics to the signal in a sonically pleasing way. Louder signals get saturated more aggressively with plentiful harmonics and gradually return to their clean state as they decay. This natural tube-style saturation emulated by the Redopter 2 provides superb dynamic distortion.
On top of expertly modelled vacuum tube circuits, the D16 Group Redoptor 2 offers several powerful and interactive parameters. Adjust the tube bias parameter to add subtle amplification of even harmonics and gentle transient reshaping. Set the preamp’s frequency range, setting the high and low cutoff points before or after the signal is processed and engage the 4-band parametric equalizer for advanced tone shaping.
To learn more about parametric EQ, check out my article The Complete Guide To Parametric Equalization/EQ.
This stereo plugin offers independent stereo channel processing without cross-bleed. Taming the dynamics is made easy with the inclusion of a pre-gain compressor module and master output limiter.
To learn more about limiters, check out my article What Is The Difference Between Audio Compression & Limiting?
This powerful saturation plugin will get you whatever style of tube saturation you’re after with stunning results, and with two alternative GUI sizes, it looks great while doing so!
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Redoptor 2 user manual.
The Soundtoys Radiator (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a straightforward saturation plugin modelled after the classic Altec 1567A tube mixer from the 1960s.
The Soundtoys Radiator is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX Native, AAX AudioSuite, AU and VST formats.
Soundtoys’ Radiator is a dual drive tube input channel and EQ. The hardware it emulates is a coloured and gritty 1960s rack-mounted five-input tube mixer with a massive 97 dB of gain, removable transformers and a simple 2-knob EQ (with bass and treble control). Indeed, the Altec 1567A was a distinctive part of the Motown sound from that era.
The warmth and punch of the Altec 1567A are made possible in the box with the Soundtoys Radiator. It, too, has input, output, bass and treble controls. It also has a mix knob for parallel processing. The plugin also has a switch to emulate the inherent noise of the original or not, along with an input level switch between mic level and line level.
So although this plugin isn’t explicitly labelled as a saturator, you can be sure that its colourful tube circuit emulation will yield top-level saturation.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Soundtoys Radiator user manual.
Soundtoys is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Audio Plugin (VST/AU/AAX) Brands In The World.
The Soundtoys Decapitator (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a popular saturation plugin with 5 different analog saturation models.
The Soundtoys Decapitator is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX Native, AAX AudioSuite, AU and VST formats.
A second Soundtoys plugin to grace this list, the Decapitator is a relatively straightforward hardware-modelled saturation plugin given its superb versatility. From subtle to extreme, this plugin will get you the saturation your tracks need.
Bringing the best of analog saturation, the Decapitator adds character in 5 distinct styles and allows users to process this character in parallel with the original 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
Each of these analog saturation styles has been programmed with a natural-sounding changing response indicative of real analog hardware. To push any of the styles beyond typical saturation, the Punish button can be engaged, which kicks in an extra chunk of gain to produce extreme saturation.
Shape the contour of the saturation with analog-modeled 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.
- 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.
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.
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/saturation 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.
Sonnox Oxford Inflator
The Sonnox Oxford Inflator (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is a unique plugin for increasing loudness without sacrificing sonic quality or dynamic range. It utilizes gain and tube-like musical saturation to boost the perceived loudness of the source material.
The Sonnox Oxford Inflator is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU, VST and WPAPI formats.
As Sonnox’s best-selling plugin, the Oxford Inflator is a popular and easy-to-use plugin that simply makes audio sound better, increasing perceived loudness and adding life to the tracks it’s inserted on. With a simple layout and easy controls, it’s no wonder it’s such a well-received plugin.
Though it’s not marketed specifically as a saturation plugin, the Inflator does utilize saturation as it works its magic, increasing loudness without sacrificing sonic quality or dynamic range. By utilizing saturation, the Oxford Inflator is able to do its job, satisfying amateurs and professionals alike.
Of course, the plugin can work subtly. However, when driven harder, it delivers tube-like musical saturation and provides the ‘sonic glue’ needed to “glue” mixes together for professional results.
This plugin can even add apparent dynamic range to previously clipped signals and can be run in Flexible Direct and Band-split modes.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Oxford Inflator user manual.
Unique Recording Software URS Saturation
The Unique Recording Software URS Saturation (link to check the price at Sweetwater) is a powerful, user-friendly saturation plugin with several high-quality saturation algorithms, including 6 vintage preamp saturation, 2 tape saturation and 2 transformer core saturation algorithms.
The Unique Recording Software URS Saturation is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and comes in AAX, AU and RTAS formats.
URS Saturation includes 10 vintage analog algorithms, each with its own character, ready to offer the ideal saturation for your project. The character of each algorithm ranges in its effect on even and odd ordered harmonics, overall saturation and soft clipping.
The 6 preamplifier saturation algorithms include:
- Vintage Motorcity: Class A Tube Mic Pre Amplifier
- German: Class A Tube Mic Pre Amplifier
- British: Class A Discrete Pre Amplifier
- Modern: Class A Discrete JFET Pre Amplifier
- 1951: Class A Tube Mic Pre Amplifier
- Tape Deck: Class A Tube Mic Pre Amplifier
The 2 mono tape head algorithms add analog tape saturation. This non-linear saturation produces a smoothing effect on high-frequency transients.
- 15ips Tape
- 30ips Tape
The transformer core saturation algorithms add non-linear transformer core saturation found on vintage consoles, tape machines and outboard gear.
- Transformer American
- Transformer British
Mix and match the algorithms above for a wide range of sonic possibilities in this super-versatile plugin. Use the input level, output level, drive, mix (parallel processing) and other parameters to dial in the exact effect that will most benefit your work!
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the URS Saturation user manual.
Brainworx bx_saturator V2
The Brainworx bx_saturator V2 (link to check the price at Plugin Alliance) is a mid-side multi-band saturation plugin offering everything from subtle mix glue to insane crunch.
The Brainworx bx_saturator V2 is compatible with Mac OS and Windows OS and is available in AAX DSP, AAX Native, AU, AAX AudioSuite, SoundGrid and VST formats. It can also be run on UAD hardware.
Brainworx’ bx_saturator V2 multi-band saturation plugin boasts a wide range of parameters. It processes the signal in mid-side. The plugin’s “True Split” crossover technology ensures that the Mid and Side channels are always perfectly in phase allowing for incredible bass results on stereo tracks, mix buses and master channels alike.
The wide-ranging sonic possibilities of the bx_saturator V2 make it an ideal choice for saturation in practically all scenarios.
The plugin works on four different bands, each with dedicated gain, drive and XL (mix) controls. Increase the perceived volume of each band without boosting its actual output level, delivering louder, punchier mixes without sacrificing dynamics.