Top 20 Saturation & Distortion Plugins for Electronic Music

April 22, 2016
In short, saturation is THE most effective way to add analogue edge and warmth to your music - often meaning the difference between sounding digital, flat, & dead, versus analogue, warm & alive.

In mid 2011, Audien tweeted “Why have I never used distortion?”

This tweet might be more significant than we realize, since his next release was his breakthrough track “Wayfarer” on Anjunabeats.

Most producers, at some point in their production journey, come across the revelation that is saturation and distortion. It’s almost too simple, but these analogue emulators can really be the difference between sounding like you made your music on a laptop, using stock software, versus sounding like you made a track in a multi-million dollar studio.

So with that in mind, here are my favorite 20 saturation and distortion tools, paired with a real-mix-example which demonstrates how I might use the plugin. Enjoy!

Sound Toys Decapitator

1. SOUND TOYS – DECAPITATOR

This is pretty much the BEST saturation plugin in the game. It can produce a huge variety of analogue-style saturation tones, plus, the amazing ‘punish’ button allows you to use the saturation knob at an extra 20 DBs.

Side-note – Hyperbits Masterclass students can receive the academic Sound Toys discount and get 50% off the entire Sound Toys suite. This is pretty much the most incredible plugin deal in the entire industry because you are getting the entire Sound Toys Bundle for roughly the cost of just one Sound Toys plugin.

Real Mix Example:
Next time your vocals are falling flat in your mix, don’t reach for an EQ.

Instead, dial in some subtle drive (maybe 3-4), switch the style to the EMI (E) setting, set the mix between 70-80% and listen to your vocal gain new clarity, edge, and brightness as it starts to cut through the mix.

Fab Filter Saturn

2. FAB FILTER – SATURN

The Saturn has some really powerful presets emulating some crunchy amps and tape saturators. And the fact that it is a multi-band saturator makes it one of the most malleable, tweak-able distortion units out there.

Real Mix Example:

Sometimes, a sub can sound great completely clean. Other times, it needs some extra dirt to sit right in a mix. Slap on the Saturn, select the preset ‘Best Of – Back in the Day’, set the mix somewhere between 20-30%. Tweak the multi-band parameters to taste. Works ninety-percent of the time, every time.

Waves GTR Amp

3. WAVES – GTR AMP AND BASS AMP

For mid-range distorted basses, I’ve yet to find anything better for added color and weight. Absolutely love the bass amps in there.

Real Mix Example:
Next time your mid-range bass needs help create that ‘wall of sound’ in a drop or full section, put the Waves GTR Amp on a send-return bus, select the preset ‘Bass Mo-Town – Below & Above’ and dial in the send to taste. This should really sound full and crunchy.

Ohm Force Ohmicide

4. OHM FORCE – OHMICIDE

Potentially the most powerful distortion on this list, look no further if you are going for a wow factor in terms of sheer color, depth and weight.

Real Mix Example:
If you are looking to make a trance 2.0 bass, something distorted and appropriate for Anjunabeats or Enhanced, apply the Ohmicide and select the Bass #4 preset. Tweak the bands until they match a reference track both in color and energy.

Bonus! Want to see me use thing thing in action? Check out this 47 minute long video about how I use saturation & distortion in electronic music.

Camel Audio Camel Crusher

5. CAMEL AUDIO – CAMEL CRUSHER (FREE)

Camel Audio seems to have fallen off the map, but at one point, this was a free plugin, so if you do some digging you can find it somewhere on the inter-webs. No excuse not to try this one – really strong and dirty sounds.

Real Mix Example:
In your next future-house production, try adding the Camel Crusher to your top hollow-bass layer, set the preset to ‘British Clean’ and turn the master mix-knob down to 30-45%. Assuming sound-choice and other processing is in place, this should be a nice energy layer.

Noveltech Character

6. PLUGIN ALLIANCE – NOVELTECH CHARACTER

So this plugin isn’t JUST a saturator, but man is it beautiful. Apply liberally to anything and everything.

Bonus: try the Noveltech Vocal Enhancer for a slightly brighter more vocal-ready color!

Real Mix Example:
Pick ONE element in your mix that needs some attention. It can be anything – vocals, percussion, a lead synth, even a bus or group – throw on the Noveltech Character and turn up the character knob.

Or, play around with the super powerful presets. Don’t over think this plugin btw – if it sounds great, use it.

D16 Redoptor

7. D16 – REDOPTER

The Redopter is potentially the most underrated plugin on this list. It’s got a very specific fuzziness to it that I absolutely love.

Real Mix Example:
Most of us don’t sing well enough to add our own vocals into a song.

However, if you happen to write a cool ambient melody, try recording your voice 3 times (keep one take in the middle, pan one hard left, pan one hard right), and apply the Redopter on the group with plenty of reverb.

No guarantees, but what you might be left with is a beautiful, almost British and worldly sounding vocal.

Softtube Saturation Knob

8. SOFTTUBE – SATURATION KNOB (FREE)

Another freebie, but this thing is great. The Saturation Knob is an extremely powerful one-knob saturation tool and a great alternative to the Sausage Fattener, the Waves one Knob, or even the Decapitator for those on a budget.

Real Mix Example:
Try this baby on lead sounds – synths, guitars, saxophones, vocals – whatever. Switch the Saturation type to ‘Keep High’ and dial in the saturation knob to 30-40%. Honestly, this plugin sounds way too good to be free.

Dada Life Sausage Fattener

9. DADA LIFE – SAUSAGE FATTENER

The Sausage Fattener is actually part saturator, part compressor, part limiter.

But regardless, stop cranking the fatness knob too far. It can be very useful to thicken up a sound and squash it just right when used it in subtle amounts!

That said, this plugin really is amazing, and super affordable. There are much better, less metallic distortion and fattener plugins out there, but at this price, it can’t be beat.

Real Mix Example:
If you are looking for some extra loudness in your overall mix, slap the sausage on your master, and don’t touch it again.

I know this sounds crazy but…no drive, no color, nothing.

Just insert it on your master channel before the limiter and leave it alone. This breaks a lot of production ‘rules’ but can add some extra edge and loudness to your mix.

Izotope Trash

10. IZOTOPE – TRASH 2

I think the key word here is: versatile.

Housing tons of drive algorithms, pre/post filters, custom wave shaping, and visualization. On top of that, the dry-wet knob gives you ultimate control, no matter how far you push your sounds.

Real Mix Example:
Ever throw some drum fills into your mix and find they just sound dead, dull and boring? Send all of your fills to a bus and apply the Trash 2.

Select ‘Drive – Smooth Overtones’ and turn up the drive knob liberally, up to 50%, and then turn down the mix knob to taste (I usually end up between 5-15%).

Those dull fills should sound pretty awake and alive at this point.

Waves One Knob

11. WAVES – ONE KNOB DRIVER

Despite the single control – yes there is only one knob to turn – this plugin offers some versatile distortions at a fairly reasonable price point.

Real Mix Example:
This thing sounds great on vocals – the next time you want that distorted vocal effect in your track, try the One Knob Driver. Not much to explain here – just turn the knob way up until you reach the desired effect.

Klangheim SDRR

12. KLANGHELM – SDRR

The SDRR is incredibly versatile.

Sure, you can saturate your music to add warmth, depth, and character – but you can even add some movement to your saturation with the ridiculously cool and powerful DRIFT control.

Real Mix Example:
On your drum bus, or main loop – select the ‘DR – Bringing Out The Room’ preset, turn up the Character setting to about 40% (still more warm than sizzle), and turn the Drift knob up to 75-80%. Amazing subtle saturation with added movement, or as Klanghelm calls it – liveliness.

Sound Toys Radiator

13. SOUND TOYS – RADIATOR

The reason this plugin exists – it’s sole purpose on earth – is for you to TURN UP THE HEAT.

I’m not even joking.

Everyone is striving for analogue warmth in their digital productions, and this might be the ultimate ticket. Turn up that input gain and listen as your production comes to life.

Real Mix Example:
With another simplistic interface, don’t over-think this plugin. Try dialing in small amounts of input gain on any of your groups.

For a drum bus, try turning down the treble 1 notch, while dialing the input 2 notches. Turn down the mix if needed – this usually groups my drums very nicely.

UAD Moog

14. UAD – MOOG MULTIMODE FILTER

If you are lucky enough to hear this baby in action, you’ll understand why it’s so special.

It just sounds so damn expensive.

Maybe that’s because it emulates the classic hardware Minimoog almost perfectly.

Real Mix Example:
Liberally open the cutoff slightly over the course of a build or break – I’ve yet to come across a plugin that sounds quite as nice.

UAD Raw

15. UAD – RAW

This monster emulates a 1970’s distortion. Most avid UAD users will likely talk about how great it sounds on guitars, but the warm, crunchy distortions I’ve been achieving in my bass sounds is what makes this thing so special.

Real Mix Example:
Grab a deep-house sounding bass from Reaktor’s Monark. Set a low-pass around 600hz, and then apply the UAD Raw – keep the distortion very low, but turn up the filter and the volume.

What you might be left with is a very Anjunadeep sounding bass.

Fielding DSP Reviver

16. FIELDING DSP – REVIVER

I discovered the Reviver when one of my Masterclass students suggested this as an alternative to the famous Oxford Inflator.

Most of the plugins on this list emulate some sort of analogue gear – the Reviver doesn’t do that, and doesn’t claim to.

The entire point of the Reviver is to retain a very clear, un-smashed signal when pushing, saturating

Real Mix Example:
Turn up band #3, the ultimate ‘3rd Order Harmonics’ – also referred to as added ‘punch’ or ‘detail’ in a mix. Apply on a drum bus for ultimate punchiness.

PSP Vintage Warmer

17. PSP – VINTAGE WARMER 2

If you’re like me – this plugin most likely has fallen into the ‘I own it, I use it, but have no idea what I am doing with it’ category at some point.

While there are some great videos that might help you wrap your head around it here and here. At the end of the day, this plugin is great for subtle drive and weight on a master or group channel.

Real Mix Example:
Don’t even bother with the presets on this one – just add a few DBs of ‘Drive’ to the master or a bus – will give surprising amounts of character and beef to pretty much any layer.

SPL Twin Tube

18. SPL – TWIN TUBE

What makes the Twin-Tube unique is the dual knobs – one for Saturation and one for Harmonic overtones.

Use these two together in small amounts, and you have a very versatile plugin.

Real Mix Example:
Next time your track is suffering from some inherent dullness, try adding some ‘air’ by applying harmonic distortion via the Twin Tube.

Apply to your pad/string group and listen to your production start to sizzle.

URS Saturation

19. URS – SATURATION

If the Sound Toys Decapitator had a younger brother (aside from the Radiator) the URS Saturation tool would take the cake.

With six vintage pre amplifier algorithms, two analog tape saturation algorithms, and two transformer core saturation algorithms – this is one powerful little plugin.

Real Mix Example:
There is something about the smoothness with which the URS Saturation plugin works that directs me towards using this thing on Synths – anything that sounds overly digital.

If you have a lead that sounds generic and very ‘preset’ like – try adding some URS saturation for analogue warmth and tonality that feels and sounds expensive.

Waves Maserati

20. WAVES – MASERATI GTi

Anyone who has ever tried to undertake the creation of huge Audien-like super-saws will know that the Maserati is part of the puzzle. It delivers distortion, color and loudness meant for guitars – but is applicable to so much more.

Real Mix Example:
When building your Audien style super-saw stack, isolate a single note lead playing the main melody. Keep the Maserati on the clean setting, and try generously dialing in the presence – this should add some crisp, guitar-like over-tones to an otherwise digital synth layer.

And there you have it – 20 Saturation Plugins for Electronic Music, and some specific examples as to how to apply them.

Want to learn more about saturation? Want to see me using distortion in my productions? Click here and receive a 47-minute long video detailing how I use saturation and distortion.

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