Best Saturation Plugins: Tubes, Transistors, Tape & More

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Saturation plugins are an essential tool for any producer no matter which genre they work with.

If you’re just getting started and aren’t exactly sure what saturation is, think of it as distortion’s calmer little brother. Saturation is a subtle effect that produces sounds that seem to come directly from an analog unit. The right plugin should help you create soft, rich sounds that listeners want to hear.

We’ve put together a list of some of the best saturation plugins available today. Let’s have a look.

Top 15 Saturation VST Plugins

  1. Soundtoys Decapitator Analog Saturator
  2. Softube Tape Machine Emulation
  3. FabFilter Saturn Distortion Unit
  4. Softube Harmonics
  5. iZotope Ozone 9
  6. Audified U78 Saturator
  7. Soundtoys Radiator
  8. Eventide Saturate
  9. iZotope Trash2
  10. PSP Audioware PSP MixPack2
  11. D16 Group Redoptor 2
  12. McDSP Analog Channel Native
  13. Sonnox Inflator – HD/HDX
  14. Variety of Sound FerricTDS [FREEBIE]
  15. Softube Saturation Knob [FREEBIE]

1. Soundtoys Decapitator Analog Saturator

Soundtoys Decapitator Analog Saturator VST

The Decapitator is an incredible plugin that works well with a wide range of sounds, including vocals, bass, and drums. It’s super easy to use, and you won’t have to waste any time in dialing in the perfect sound. It’s very easy to quickly transform warm sounds so that they have a gritty and raw tone. Make your way through the five analog saturation models and play with the drive to discover the sound that’s right for your project.

One unique feature on this plugin is the “Punish” button, which pushes your input gain to the limit in order to develop insane distortion. This is an exciting option for when you want to add fuzz to guitars or bass or get some subtle parallel distortion with the help of the mix knob. The tone knob, high cut, and low cut will give you additional control over the distortion effects.

The Decapitator is a fairly simple distortion plugin, but it also offers plenty of versatility and functionality. If analog grit is what you’re after, this plugin can more than handle the job.

Pros

  • Compatible with just about any instrument
  • User-friendly
  • Ideal for heavy distortion

Cons

  • Pro engineers might want more tone shaping controls

2. Softube Tape Machine Emulation

Softube Tape Machine Emulation Saturation Plugin

The Softube Tape Machine Emulation gives you the ability to pick between three distinct tape machine options. This alone makes it more versatile than most tape machine emulations out there. Another thing that sets it apart is the relatively low amount of CPU it takes up, which is just one less thing to worry about.

The three tape machines you can choose from are a British vintage tape machine, a Swiss reel-to-reel machine, and a transformer-based machine. You’ll have to experiment with each to figure out which one you prefer. Then you just use the amount knob to dial in the perfect level of saturation for your mix.  Additional controls allow you to make adjustments to speed stability, cross talk, tape speed, and other factors.

We recommend you use Tape Machine Emulation when you want to add just a little bit of analog-style saturation to any track. This plugin can help elevate your mix if you have transients that you want to make softer or if your entire mix needs to be more cohesive.

Pros

  • Authentically replicates a tape machine
  • Three unique tape machine options to pick from

Cons

  • Main GUI doesn’t come with remote control

3. FabFilter Saturn Distortion Unit

FabFilter Saturn Distortion Unit

The FabFilter Saturn gives you options for days with a total of 16 saturation and distortion models. The user can choose between a number of custom sounds presented by FabFilter, including tape sounds, tube sounds, and amp sounds. The GUI and screen controls are well-organized and easy to use. You’ll find several parameters to work with like the modulation control, which gives you the crazy ability to work with 50 separate bands at the same time.

The plugin goes beyond saturation and reaches into the realms of compression, modulation, and panning. Just click on the spectrum analyzer to gain access to these functions. You’ll have the ability to create crossover points for your saturation on different frequency bans. This will make it possible to focus in on the section in the frequency spectrum where you want to emphasize the saturation most.

When you shift gears to work on modulation, you can take advantage of the LFO, envelope generator, MIDI source modulator, envelope follower, and XY controller. The FabFilter Saturn goes further than most saturator plugins in the market to give you the ability to inject life into a particular sound or section that needs some attention.

Pros   

  • Insanely versatile
  • Multiband design enables more detailed processing
  • Impressive modulation system

Cons

  • Takes longer to figure out than many other similar plugins

4. Softube Harmonics

Softube Harmonics

Unfortunately it’s easy to go overboard with a saturation plugin. This might leave you with a flat sound that’s had all the life sucked out of it. Softube Harmonics can help you avoid this situation, instead ensuring that you get dynamic, warm, and harmonious sounds. You can use this plugin with basically any instrument—drums, guitar, synths, vocals, bass, and others. You can choose from among the five available analog distortion models.

One of the most exciting functions of this plugin has to do with distortion. It will analyze any incoming signal so that it can maintain the dynamics and tone as you add the perfect amount of distortion. On the interface you’ll find a character knob to help you find the right saturation color. There’s also an amount knob so that you can find the perfect level of saturation. The high and low cut filter enables you to shape your tone quickly and easily. If you’d rather blend the saturation in parallel, you can take advantage of the wet/dry knob. Analog lovers are drawn to this plugin with its incredible flexibility and authentic emulation of analog tones.

Pros

  • Superb analog reproduction
  • Protects dynamics with a unique algorithm
  • Awesome for subtle saturation

Cons

  • Seasoned engineers may not like the lack of tone shaping controls

5. iZotope Ozone 9

iZotope Ozone 9

iZotope has one of the best reputations of all the VST plugin companies out there, primarily based on their professional mastering suites. In the Ozone 9 bundle you’ll get the popular Vintage Tape plugin. This gives you the tools you need to bring the warm tone of tape saturation to digital sounds that may be lacking. You get all the features you would hope to have from a tape machine like coloration, phase effects, frequency distortion, and more.

The digital interface is incredibly user-friendly and super attractive. It makes use of a newly released 7.5 IPS setting that helps to bring out some thickness in the low-mids. It gets its tone from the Studer A810 tape machine, which is known for being able to handle frequencies that are ultra-high and ultra-low.

The user also has the option to add warmth to the saturation by bringing in even harmonics. You might want to skip this step though if you want a more authentic tape emulation.

Pros

  • Accurate tape representation
  • User-friendly interface

Cons

  • Have to buy the entire Ozone 9 bundle

6. Audified U78 Saturator

Audified U78 Saturator Plugin

The U73b compressor was among the most popular compressors years ago, so it’s clear why Audified chose to replicate it in their U78 saturator plugin. It’s quite different from the U73b because all of the compressor elements were replaced with other features like tone control, strong gain control, and filters. However, the beautiful tube sound that made the original hardware so popular has been authentically recreated by Audified.

You can fully control the gain settings, which get richer the higher you get. The tone filter gives you further control over the higher and lower ranges. Finally, the mix control enables you to adjust the saturation in parallel so that it doesn’t stand out too much.

Audified recommends that this plugin be used with vocals, drums, or bass, but don’t let this limit your creativity. You can also develop some interesting sounds with other instruments.

Pros

  • Super versatile saturator VST
  • User-friendly interface
  • Zero-latency processing

Cons

  • The range of filters is somewhat disappointing
  • Oversampling can be difficult with older computers

7. Soundtoys Radiator

Soundtoys Radiator

The Soundtoys Radiator attempts to emulate the Altex 1567A tube mixer, which was one of the most popular mixing tools in the early 1960s. If you’re not familiar with the Altex 1567A, just think about the distinctive sound of old Motown records. This plugin is essentially a dual drive input channel that comes with an EQ and a crazy 96dB of gain to help you shape the perfect tones for your mix. If you want to develop tones that are the best combination of grit and color, the Radiator has your back.

The bass and treble are controlled by two basic knobs on the interface. You will also find a good number of circuits to assist you in developing a wide variety of tones. The controls are simple but effective. The input and output controls are separate from each other, and both are adjustable. Even though some might think the Radiator is too simplistic, it’s a fantastic tube-style plugin that works with all types of instruments.

Pros

  • User-friendly
  • Works nicely for both subtle and extreme effects

Cons

  • Takes up a little too much CPU

8. Eventide Saturate

Eventide Saturate

If you’re familiar with the Elevate Mastering Limiter, it’s likely you’ve heard of the Eventide Saturate. The Saturate has a basic-looking signal processor with two controls. Its algorithm has been designed to enable you to push a signal to the max without affecting the balance of the tone. This makes it possible to add as much as 24dB of overdrive to your signal without it becoming lifeless.

The Saturate also has shape control that lets you switch between hard clipping and smooth curve clipping. This gives you the ability to control your loudness to get more precision in the gain staging process. The Eventide Saturate VST plugin works wonderfully with individual tracks as well as busses because it is so easy to use. It’s a saturation plugin that would be a great addition to any collection.

Pros

  •  An awesome collection of built-in sounds
  • Manual output gain for both subtle and extreme use

Cons

  • Unavoidable latency, which makes it extremely difficult to track with

9. iZotope Trash2

iZotope Trash2

The iZotope Trash2 combines the functionality of several different types of plugins in one package. It offers capabilities related to advanced post filtering, dual-stage distortion, and multiband processing. It’s a one stop shop for when you want to quickly transform your sound. Trash2 can help you bring out your high end more, add some crunch to the midrange, or boost your low end.

This plugin includes 60 distortion algorithms and a total of 100 impulse responses. The Trash2 features a great selection of filter modules, a custom multiband waveshaper, and many additional features. You also have the opportunity to create your own distortion waveforms, which gives you the chance to apply unique saturation and distortion effects to your mix.

Trash2 also offers authentic speaker and space simulations. Create the ideal space for your sound through the use of various speaker models, effects, cabinets, and amps. If you don’t know exactly which plugin to dive into first, we recommend this one as it has basically everything you could possibly need in a saturation plugin and more.

Pros

  • Varied selection of distortion sounds
  • Exciting modulation and space features
  • Impressive waveshaping design

Cons

  • Doesn’t offer panned split routing
  • Limited filter-modulated presets

10. PSP Audioware PSP MixPack2

PSP Audioware PSP MixPack2

If you’re familiar with PSP Audioware, it’s probably due to their popular VintageWarmer plugin that’s recommended by many of the best engineers in the industry. Well, now PSP has outdone themselves with the MixPack2. It includes six professional audio processors that can be used across every type of musical genre.

Most other emulations try to digitally replicate one particular piece of hardware. The MixPack2 goes a different direction by putting together various circuits to assemble a range of coloration processors. The processors that you’ll find in the MixPack2 are MixGate2, MixTreble2, MixBass2, MixSynch2, and MixSaturator2. Every one of these is capable of producing excellent sounds.

For now, let’s take a look at the MixSaturator2. From this processor you can expect a saturation similar to that found on tape recorders and valve circuits. You can use this to inject color and warmth into sterile-sounding tracks.

Pros

  • Impressive selection of versatile tools to use
  • Amazing sound quality
  • Great value for what it comes with

Cons

  • Might take a while to figure everything out

11. D16 Group Redoptor 2

D16 Group Redoptor 2

On the more affordable end of saturation plugins you’ll find the Redopter 2. This is a great option if you want to capture the distinctive tube amplification sound without having to break the bank. The sound of a tube being driven into a breakup is unlike any other. That’s why this type of sound is in such high demand, especially for driving and distorting signals. It offers a beautiful blend of even and odd harmonics along with some slight compression to take your signals to another level.

The sound of the Redopter 2 was modeled after hot vacuum tubes. You’ll also find a number of features that reproduce the feel of analog circuits. The tube bias parameter gives you subtle amplification through even harmonics. You’ll also have the use of a four-band parametric EQ, which is quite unusual for this type of plugin.

You can locate sounds very quickly because they are conveniently organized by tags. The GUI is also adjustable with three different sizes, so you don’t have to worry about eye strain.

Pros

  • Very authentic tube simulation
  • Amazing library of presets
  • Valve behavior controls

Cons

  • Might have trouble filtering the incoming signals
  • Oversampling can be taxing for older computers

12. McDSP Analog Channel Native

McDSP Analog Channel Native

The McDSP Analog Channel Native has a misleading name. With this product, McDSP gives us both the AC101 and the AC202—two plugins with different functions. The AC101 is modeled after an analog channel amplifier circuit, while the AC202 copies an analog tape machine.

Looking at the AC101 first, it is designed to be utilized as a digital preamp. With this plugin you can dial in some gain while avoiding unwanted distortion. You can also even out your release and attack times with the help of the drive control and the saturation and compression functions.

Turning now to the AC202, with this plugin you will find all the features you might expect from a tape machine. These include playback speed, equalization, and bias. McDSP goes a bit further in giving you additional features you might not expect like an independent head bump and low frequency roll off. Also included are several head types, tape saturation recovery times, and tape formulations.

This plugin can be used with almost any instrument or vocal sound because of the diverse features it offers and its accommodating design.

Pros

  • Authentically replicates old tape machines
  • Option for either sliders or knobs on the interface
  • User-friendly

Cons

  • Confusing name

13. Sonnox Inflator – HD/HDX

Sonnox Inflator - HD_HDX

The Sonnox Inflator stands apart from the other saturation plugins we’ve already mentioned. It targets the loudness and dynamic range of your sound instead of focusing on the coloration. You can use it to boost the apparent loudness of almost any signal while preserving the sound dynamics. In this way you can achieve an incredible warmth, presence, and power with results that outmatch those of many digital loudness plugins.

The headroom overload margin clears some space beyond the digital maximum to deliver a subtle overdrive that emulates old tube systems. The Inflator can assist you in adding warmth and color to cleaner mixes in the jazz or folk categories, for example. It can also be used by pop, EDM, or other genre producers to create louder mixes.

Pros

  • Offers unusual saturation sounds
  • Provides punch and loudness without ruining dynamics

Cons

  • Not a great value

14. Variety of Sound FerricTDS [FREEBIE]

Variety of Sound FerricTDS [FREEBIE]

If a plugin’s offered for free, you might as well add it to your collection, right? But the FerricTDS won’t just be taking up space. On this plugin you’ll find the same type of dynamic shaping capabilities as a top-end reel-to-reel tape machine. The sounds it produces are surprisingly high quality, not just for a free plugin but for any saturation plugin in general. Variety of Sound included three distinct sonic characteristics on this plugin: Limiting, Compression, and Saturation.

Play around with the Dynamics section to subtly shape the dynamic response of the signal. Turn to the Saturation section when you want to increase the harmonic content of the signal. Then the Limiting section will allow you to control the overall peak performance. Pick up this plugin to see everything it has to offer for your sound.

Pros

  • Sounds similar to reel-to-reel tape recorders
  • Good interface for those just starting out
  • Free!

Cons

  • Lacks versatility

15. Softube Saturation Knob [FREEBIE]

Softube Saturation Knob [FREEBIE]

There has been an influx of one-knob plugins lately with more people seeking out simplicity as they work to perfect their signals. With the turn of a knob, you can add some warmth or color to your mix while the plugin does all of the work behind the scenes to produce quality tones that don’t involve a lot of effort.

It doesn’t get much simpler than the Softube Saturation Knob. It’s basically a modeled output distortion that can be utilized to make any type of signal more gritty. You can use it to fatten up your drums, or you might want to quickly add some shimmer to your top-end vocals. This can be achieved with ease.

If you want to put in a bit more effort, you can explore the three distinct modes that the plugin offers: Keep Low, Neutral, and Keep High. You’ll recognize that these are basically three distortion types. For example, Keep Low will saturate the high-end without touching the low-end. This kind of functionality is great if your goal is to enhance the character of a bass guitar or drum loop without affecting the integrity of the low-end.

Pros

  • Simple one-knob saturation
  • Free!

Cons

  • Requires an iLock to operate

Welcome Analog to the Digital World

We can all be grateful that technology has allowed us to capture the distinctive warm saturation characteristics of analog hardware in the digital world. Saturation plugins give us the ability to distort to our heart’s content or add warmth and character to enhance our tracks. Pick up a few of the plugins we’ve mentioned to take your mixes into an entirely new realm.

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