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, 10 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.
The Top 10 Best Saturation Plugins Are:
- FabFilter Saturn 2
- Softube Harmonics | Saturation Knob | Tape
- Klanghelm SDRR
- Waves J37 Tape
- D16 Group Redoptor 2
- Soundtoys Radiator
- Soundtoys Decapitator
- 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 10 to be different from mine, but I hope 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?
To learn why they made this list, let's discuss each of the top 10 best saturation plugins in greater detail.
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FabFilter Saturn 2
The FabFilter Saturn 2 is a multiband saturation plugin with 28 different distortion styles.
The FabFilter Saturn 2 is also featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Distortion 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 multiband 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.
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.
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. I've cheated a bit in an attempt to pack as much value as possible into this top 11 (you can think of it as a “top 13” if you'd like).
The Softube Harmonics is a saturation plugin with 5 component-modelled distortion sounds.
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 parameters (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.
I have a video dedicated to parallel saturation if you're interested:
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 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.
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 is a tape saturation emulation plugin with 3 different tape machine types.
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 dial in the Amount knob or, alternatively, choose from 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, and crosstalk amount, as well as a mastering grade high shelf filter, stability control, wet/dry mix knob and more.
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.
The Klanghelm SDRR is a superb saturation plugin with 4 distinct modes.
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 mode has its own unique crosstalk behaviour and reacts dynamically to the input signal to impart its distinct flavour of saturation.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Klanghelm SDRR user manual.
Waves J37 Tape
The Waves J37 Tape 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 is also featured in My New Microphone's Top 10 Best Tape Delay Emulation Plugins For Your DAW.
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 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 a sync control to improve upon an already stunning design further.
For more information on system requirements and authorization instructions, check out the Waves J37 Tape user manual.
D16 Group Redoptor 2
The D16 Group Redoptor 2 is an excellent plugin designed to emulate the organic sound of vintage tube saturation.
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, set the high and low cutoff points before or after the signal is processed and engage the 4-band parametric equalizer for advanced tone shaping.
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 is a straightforward saturation plugin modelled after the classic Altec 1567A tube mixer from the 1960s.
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.
The Soundtoys Decapitator is a popular saturation plugin with 5 different analog saturation models.
The Soundtoys Decapitator is also featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Distortion Plugins For Your DAW.
As 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
These analog saturation styles have been programmed with a natural-sounding changing response indicative of real analog hardware.
The Punish button can be engaged to push any of the styles beyond typical saturation, which kicks in an extra chunk of gain to produce extreme saturation.
Shape the contour of the saturation 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.
Sonnox Oxford Inflator
The Sonnox Oxford Inflator 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.
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 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.
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 is a mid-side multiband saturation plugin offering everything from subtle mix glue to insane crunch.
Brainworx's bx_saturator V2 multiband 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.
Former Top Saturation Plugin Picks
Here are plugins that used to be on this list and the reasons they are no longer. Currently, there is only one plugin on this list.
iZotope Trash 2 (Discontinued)
The iZotope Trash 2 (discontinued) was a highly functional multiband distortion/saturation plugin with a whopping 60 different distortion algorithms. It was featured in this article from 2021 (original year of publication) to 2022.
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
- Expansion Libraries: Over 100 additional Trash 2 patches
Choosing the best audio plugins for your DAW can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Audio Plugins Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next audio plugin purchases.
Other Top Audio Plugin Articles
Here are additional My New Microphone articles regarding the best audio plugins by type:
• Top 11 Best Distortion Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Digital Equalizer/EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Digital Parametric EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Dynamic EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 8 Best Graphic EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Linear Phase EQ Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Parametric EQ Emulation Plugins For DAWs
• Top 8 Best Passive EQ Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Digital Compressor Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best FET Compressor Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Optical Compressor Emulation Plugins
• Top 10 Best Multiband Compressor Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Variable-Mu Compressor Emulation Plugins
• Top 11 Best VCA Compressor Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Limiter Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Channel Strip Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Chorus Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 9 Best Flanger Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 9 Best Phaser Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Tremolo Modulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Analog Delay Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Digital Delay Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 10 Best Tape Delay Emulation Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 12 Best Reverb Plugins (Spring, Plate, Algorithmic, Convolution)
• Top 9 Best Stereo Imaging Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 11 Best Guitar Amp Simulator Plugins For Your DAW
• Top 7 Best Noise Reduction Plugins For Your DAW