What is audio saturation, and what are the best saturation plugins? This Icon Picks roundup features 20 saturation effects that will harmonically enhance your music.
What is Saturation in Music?
Audio saturation is an effect that generates harmonics and applies soft-clipping compression. Saturation is also the essence of what makes analog hardware sound musical and pleasing. Driving sounds through tape, tubes, transistors, and circuits have long been an essential ingredient in great-sounding mixes.
The effect originates from the analog days when audio recordings ran through various pieces of hardware. Mix engineers discovered they could overload magnetic tape machines, tube amps, and transistor-based preamps to create saturation and “soft-clipping” effects. This technique gave recordings sought-after qualities that improved the sound of mixes.
Artists and engineers use harmonic generation to add presence, character, warmth, edge, cohesion, and more to digital audio. From subtle to extreme, saturation is an integral part of amazing mixes.
The Different Types of Audio Saturation
While studios still have analog equipment, the music industry has mostly shifted to the digital realm. Plugin emulations provide the same great sound as their hardware counterparts without the maintenance hassle and high price tag.
Here are the three main types of saturation plugins that emulate the imperfections of analog hardware.
- Tape Saturation: Tape saturation plugins emulate the sound of audio recorded through analog tape machines.
- Tube Saturation: Tube saturation plugins emulate the sound of audio driven through tube amps.
- Transistor Saturation: Transistor saturation plugins emulate the sound of audio driven through transistor‑based circuits.
If your music sounds thin, weak, and digital-sounding, apply saturation to make it sound full, fat, and present. Analog emulation is one of the best ways to bring your digital audio alive!
20 Best saturation Plugins
Here are the 20 best saturation plugins for music production, mixing, and mastering. Any of them will make a great addition to your music toolbox.
1. Soundtoys | Decapitator
Infuse your tracks with the natural vibe of analog gear. Decapitator has five analog saturation models that add character to every sound you run through it. This beast also includes a tone control for shaping the saturated sound, a mix control for parallel processing, and a Punish button to push your saturation levels harder.
Decapitator’s design also captures the feel and vibe of analog gear. You can hear subtle changes when it reacts to an incoming signal like real hardware. From subtle to the extreme, Decapitator delivers every time!
- Get authentic, dynamic analog saturation with five detailed models of studio hardware
- Drive the gain harder and push your tracks over the top with the Punish button
- Shape the contour of the saturation with the analog-modeled tone control
- Create parallel effects with the Mix control
2. FabFilter | Saturn 2
Saturn 2 introduces additional features, new distortion styles, a redesigned interface with modulation visualization, and more. This versatile tool excels at adding warmth and definition to anything you run through it.
Saturn brings a range of high-quality distortion models inspired by the vintage sound of tubes, tape, and guitar amps. You also get five creative FX distortion styles to mangle your sounds in weird and unexpected ways.
Moreover, Saturn features a multiband design with a set of tone and dynamics controls. Unlike other saturation plugins, Saturn also offers an extensive modulation section. Plus, it has a modern display for visualizing modulation in real-time.
Saturn is an excellent option if you want to bring a unique flavor to your music!
- 28 distortion styles ranging from subtle tube saturation to heavy guitar amps and bit crushing
- Multiband processing (up to 6 bands), with optional linear phase processing
- Per-band drive, mix, feedback, dynamics, tone, and level controls
- Easy drag-and-drop modulation options with a 50-slot modulation matrix
- Live modulation visualization for targets and sources
3. iZotope | Trash 2
Trash 2 combines multiband processing, dual-stage distortion, and advanced post-filtering to transform sounds. It’s one of the most versatile saturation plugins on the market!
This industry favorite does it all! Trash 2 offers 60+ distortion algorithms, six multi-effect modules, a multiband waveshaper, 100+ presets, and more. It’s a one-stop-shop for all your sound mangling needs!
- Choose from over 60 distortion algorithms or design your own using the graphic waveshaper
- Shape your sounds with six multi-effect modules: Dual-Distortion, Filter, Convolve, Dynamics, Delay, and Output Limiter
- Choose from over 100 impulse responses with the Convolve module
- Explore new sonic dimensions with the Delay and Dynamics modules
- Add movement using two Filters, each with 20+ evocative filter types to shape your tone
- Saturate and distort up to four frequency bands
- Realistic speaker simulation with amp, device, cabinet, effect, and speaker modeling
4. Sonnox | Oxford Inflator
The Oxford Inflator is a longtime secret weapon for audio professionals. Its unique sound increases the loudness of the original signal without affecting the sound quality or dynamic range. It’s an awesome effects plugin!
The Inflator adds power, warmth, presence, and “sonic glue” to your mix. This gem even adds loudness to heavily squashed or compressed material. It can also add musicality and dynamic range to clipped signals.
- Get louder mixes without the issues associated with compressors
- Add apparent dynamic range to clipped signals
- Simple user interface for intuitive control
- Flexible Direct and Band-split modes
- A longtime secret weapon of audio professionals
5. UAD | Studer A800
Over 30 years, artists and engineers revel in the warm analog sound, solid low-end, and presence of the iconic Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder. This sought-after tape saturation plugin adds warmth, presence, cohesion, and the low-end punch only genuine tape can provide.
UAD’s tape machine emulation faithfully models the entire circuit path of the original A800 from Ocean Way Studios. It’s the most accurate emulation of multitrack analog tape recording available.
- Provides the warm, natural sound, and punchy low-end response of 2″ analog tape
- Models the complete A800 electronic signal paths, including Input, Sync, and Repro paths
- Features the four most popular tape formulas and calibration levels
- Delivers tape saturation and overdrive via easy-to-use Input and Output controls
- Provides dead-on magnetic tape sound without the hassles of calibration, maintenance, tape degradation, etc.
6. Black Box Analog Design | HG-2
The HG-2 adds saturation, harmonics, natural compression, loudness, and punch to your mix. It has become a mix-buss favorite for many engineers worldwide.
HG-2 emulates the renowned Black Box Analog Design HG-2 tube processor unit. It features the same input and output transformers, plus the four serial vacuum-tube stages. It also adds a set of controls to drive and color a range of varied harmonics. This means you can create the perfect blend of tube saturation for the best-sounding mixes.
- Faithful analog emulation of the high-end Black Box Analog Design HG-2 tube processor
- Modeled transformers and separate gain controls for virtual 6U8A pentode and triode tubes
- The parallel saturation circuit selects one of two modeled 12AX7 tubes
- Saturation Frequency selector adds generated harmonics to either the low or high frequencies, or across the entire frequency spectrum
- Calibration menu to give high frequencies Dark, Normal, or Bright coloration
- Variable Air control adds sparkle and sweetness above 10 kHz
7. D16 Group | Redoptor 2
Redoptor is a modeled vintage tube distortion unit. This tube amp plugin captures the sensitivity, warmth, quirks, and character of tube saturation generated from analog circuits.
The subtle compression combined with even and odd harmonics produced by analog tube circuitry makes sounds powerful, punchy, and alive. Redoptor packs several features to mimic these complex analog circuit components while also sporting modern features.
- Accurately emulates the sonic signature of a classic hot-rodded tube guitar amp
- 4-Band parametric equalizer provides precise control over your overdriven tones
- A preamp with a built-in compressor lets you shape the dynamics before it hits the distortion stage
- High and low cutoff filters have optional insert points to shape the sound before or after the processed signal
- A master output limiter to tame your distorted sounds
8. SPL | Vitalizer MK2-T
Add clarity and life to your mixes with this renowned tube-based effect plugin. Modeled after its hardware counterpart, Vitalizer MK2-T shapes sounds musically and effectively.
Vitalizer MK2-T works great at enhancing loudness, widening the signal, and adding harmonic richness. Moreover, this sonic shaping classic makes low frequencies sound more powerful and defined, mids more focused, and highs vivid.
- Drive the input level to give your track extra edge
- Emphasis your bass with two colors: Soft to Tight
- Boost perceived loudness with the Compression control
- Filtering controls make sounds more stimulating and natural
- Intensity control mixes the processed effect with the original signal
- Stereo Expander adjusts the intensity of the stereo widening effect
- A/B/C/D Setting buttons store and recall four independent control settings
9. Slate Digital | VTM (Virtual Tape Machines)
Virtual Tape Machines is an excellent tool for injecting the musical analog vibe of tape saturation. Use VTM on your tracks and mixes to make them sound warmer, smoother, punchier, and more analog!
This tape saturation plugin captures the sound and best features from two renowned hardware tape machines. Think of it as a hybrid tape emulator.
- VTM emulates both a 16-track 2-inch tape machine and a 1/2-inch stereo mastering deck
- Choose between the two most popular tape formulations with the Type control
- Speed control emulates the behavior of the most common tape speeds: 15 and 30ips
10. Brainworx | Vertigo VSM-3
The Vertigo VSM-3 emulates the beloved VSM-2 Mix Satellite by Vertigo Sound. This harmonic beast captures the original hardware’s tone and character while also adding innovative new features.
VSM-3 generates every characteristic from subtle saturation to air-ripping distortion. Among its versatile functions is an M/S mode, dry/wet control, and the ability to use Crusher and Blender in parallel or serial.
Try this bad boy on your master track or bus groups to hear its magic!
- Two independent virtual circuits deliver analog-sounding coloration, ranging from subtle saturation to heavy distortion
- Pure 2nd Harmonic FET Crusher for rich saturation or distortion
- Pure 3rd Harmonic Zener Blender for bright, exciter-like saturation or distortion
- Crusher and Blender can operate in parallel or serial
- Stereo and M/S Mode for each circuit
- You can apply saturation and distortion to specific signal frequency ranges
- A Shape control allows for subtle filtering of high-order harmonics
11. Soundtoys | Radiator
Radiator is a dual drive tube processor and EQ based on the Altec 1567A tube mixer from the 1960s. It brings the classic Altec tube sound, capturing the distinctive warmth and punch of the original hardware.
Radiator also features the modeled bass and treble tone controls from the original unit plus a mix control. It even comes with the saturation and harmonic effects of the original hardware’s input and output amplifiers.
Push any sound through this simple device and hear the magic happen. It’s analog sound instantly warms the signal and enhances tones in a subtle musical way. It’s also one of the easiest saturation plugins to operate. Try it on your bass and drums.
- Analog modeled tube mixer with EQ
- User-friendly interface with simple controls for quick results
- Independent input and output amplification stages each add unique character
- Bring the sound of a Motown era classic to your DAW
- Load the transformers with the Mic/Line switch to create different sounds
12. iZotope | Ozone 9 Vintage Tape
Ozone 9’s Vintage Tape module brings the richness and vibe of tape saturation to your digital recordings. Inspired by the Studer A810 tape machine, this full-featured device delivers the frequency coloration, distortion, and phase effects of classic tape.
Vintage Tape also works great for adding dimension, fatness, depth, and punchy low-end response. Introduce its analog tone to individual tracks or full mixes.
- 7.5 IPS saturation mode with an emphasis in the low-mids
- Get the deep, natural sound and punchy low-end response of analog tape
- Inspired by the innovative Studer A810 tape machine, known for excellent frequency response
- Continuous Bias control allows for precise tuning of frequency and distortion response
- Mix in even harmonics for warmer saturation, or leave them out for more accurate tape emulation
13. Klanghelm | SDRR
SDRR will satisfy almost all of your saturation desires. This flexible harmonic enhancer adds warmth, depth, and character to your tracks or full mixes.
SDRR provides a full set of controls to manipulate the character of the saturation in various ways. It also has four modes: TUBE, DIGI, FUZZ, and DESK. Moreover, this versatile plugin can operate as a saturator, compressor, EQ, bit-crusher, or stereo widener.
- TUBE mode provides two tube pre-amplifier models
- DIGI mode adds even and odd harmonics to the mix
- FUZZ mode offers two models of classic germanium fuzz stompboxes
- DESK mode transforms the plugin into a mixing console channel strip
14. u-he | Satin
Satin is another authentic-sounding tape machine emulation. It captures the unique characteristics of several different hardware units. You can even mix-and-match components to build a custom tape saturation plugin.
Satin excels at transient-smoothing and “gluing” multiple tracks. In addition, Satin features extra FX modes such as tape flanging and tape delay to further process the sound. It’s an excellent tool for giving your modern music some vintage vibe!
- Control up to eight instances of Satin at once using the Group panel
- Service panel to control hiss, wow and flutter, bias, head gap, azimuth, saturation, high-frequency range compression, and more
- Stereo delay mode with multiple-mono, cross, or ping-pong routing
- Tape flange mode with classic through-zero flanging
- Adjustable tape speed from 1.87 to 30ips
- Pre-emphasis and soft clipping options
15. Waves | J37 Tape
Add hardware realism to your digital recordings with J37 Tape. It faithfully recreates the sonic signature of the original tape machine in Abbey Road Studios.
This saturation plugin features three modeled oxide tape formulas developed by EMI during the ’60s and ’70s. It also sports essential controls, including Tape Speed, Wow and Flutter, Bias, Noise, and Saturation. Lastly, J37 comes equipped with a Tape Delay unit to complement your warm tones.
- Created in association with Abbey Road Studios
- Includes three exclusive tape models developed by EMI
- Controls for Bias, Wow, Flutter, Tape Speed, and more
- Tape Delay section with three delay types plus Sync, filter controls, and more
16. DSP Fielding | Reviver
Reviver creates harmonic distortion inspired by vintage gear. It does not emulate analog equipment. Instead, it gives you control of overtone generation and amplitude.
Reviver features a simple and intuitive user interface that delivers impressive results. It also provides an anti-alias filter and two coloration styles. It works fantastically at increasing the harmonic content of drums!
- Simple, intuitive user interface for quick results
- Second-order harmonics produce the warm and smooth characteristics of tube amplifiers
- Third-order harmonics deliver the sound of tape and overdriven solid-state amplifiers
- Anti-aliasing removes unpleasant artifacts and frequencies to produce a high-quality sound
- Create different harmonic qualities and stronger saturation with serial mode
17. Slate Digital | VTC (Virtual Tube Collection)
The Virtual Tube Collection is a set of three modeled plugins for Virtual Mix Rack. They recreate the sound of classic vintage tube circuits. Each module can also act as a preamp, a saturator, and even a virtual tube summing console. The three models include:
- London models a vintage tube circuit originating from Europe. The sound is warm and bold in the lows and slightly smooth in the top-end.
- New York models vintage solid-state tube circuits to give it tightness and impact. The sound is aggressive in the mids and tighter in the lows due to its unique dynamic harmonic saturation.
- Hollywood is the most colorful of the three modules. It delivers air, depth, excitement, and big bottom. Use it on boost mode and make your tracks come alive.
You can also use the VTC with the Virtual Microphone System to get rich and vibey tones on your vocal tracks.
- Three classic vintage modeled circuits: London, New York, and Hollywood
- Normal mode re-creates realistic properties of the modeled tube circuits
- Boost mode amplifies the nonlinearities to add more color and vibe
- Preamp mode emulates driving the input of a tube amp while attenuating the output
- Console mode emulates a tube summing circuit with crosstalk and saturation properties
- A highpass filter to clean up low-end rumble when needed
- Mix knob to control the balance between the original signal and the processed signal
18. Brainworx | bx_saturator V2
The bx_saturator is a multiband saturation and Mid/Side processer. Add saturation and distortion exactly where you want it in your mixes and masters.
This saturation plugin increases the perceived volume of mixes without clipping them. It works great at bringing out vocals, acoustic guitars, and percussion without increasing their level or having to EQ.
Also, all four XL frequency bands have dedicated gain, drive, and mix controls. This flexibility allows you to increase a signal’s perceived volume without boosting its actual output level. You get louder, punchier mixes!
- Brainworx’s “True Split” crossover technology ensures the Mid and Side channels are perfectly in phase
- Add unique saturation and distortion to targeted frequency bands
- Increase the perceived volume of mixes without clipping
- Gently soften a mix buss or add distortion on individual tracks
- Add punch and low-end definition with the Mono Maker control
19. Plugin Alliance | Noveltech Character
Add presence, air, and punch to your music with Character. This unique saturation plugin intelligently enhances the tonal spectrum, saturation levels, and dynamics of individual tracks and mixes.
The dynamic process automatically adjusts the parameters rather than frequency regions. This innovative approach delivers impressive results quickly every time. Also, it only has three intuitive knobs to control the process!
- Auto-improvement tool, based on scientific algorithms
- Simple user interface for intuitive control
- Enhance the tone and dynamics of any signal or master with a few tweaks
- Three different modes designed for various instruments and sources
20. URS | Saturation
Inject classic tonal preamp saturation vibe into your tracks. URS Saturation captures the sound of different eras and enhancement styles into your mix. Access six vintage pre-amplifier algorithms, two analog tape saturation algorithms, and two transformer core saturation algorithms.
URS Saturation is also a breeze to use. Choose between ten vintage analog algorithms, push the drive with the input gain, adjust the output gain, and mix the signal if needed.
- Six vintage pre-amplifier algorithms
- Two tape simulation algorithms
- Two transformer core saturation algorithms
- Add different and distinct vintage even and odd ordered harmonics
- Soft clip the original signal before it hits the input stage