16 Of The Best Saturation Plugins In The World


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Yesterday I covered why you might want to use saturation plugins to add life, character and warmth to your mixes (see that post here).

So you know you want to play with saturation, but don’t know where to start? Or you want to take your analogue experiments up a notch while still keeping everything In The Box?

In either case, and whether your budget is $0.00 or $200, there’s something for everyone here. Take a look at this selection of the best saturation plugins around:

FabFilter Saturn

1. FabFilter Saturn

Saturn is a distortion and saturation plugin (with multiband capabilities if required) that can produce effects ranging from warm and subtle analogue saturation to full-on crunchy bit-crushed digital distortion. Really, this plugin is a potential one-stop shop for saturation as it’s so flexible – the modulation, panning and even compression options are excellent (as always), and the clickable spectrum analyzer field at the back is where you can visually set up the crossover points for your different frequency bands, that can then all be treated independently. Between this feature and the simple mix knob, you have so many options for how, and to what degree, you process your sounds.
Available for: Mac all formats; Windows VST, VST3 and RTAS. BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.

SoundToys Decapitator

2. Soundtoys Decapitator

Excellent sound, great interface and simple controls. As with other Soundtoys plugins, its easy to set up several settings and demo them against each other with the “compare” knob. But beyond this, Decapitator also has a really cool “Style” feature: select one of the five lettered buttons (standing for the classic gear they model: Ampex analog tape machine, EMI channel, Neve channel, and the Triode and Pentode settings on the Thermionic Culture Vulture valve enhancer) and you have just enough options to quickly find the vibe you’re after. By the way, from the name you might suspect Decapitator to want to tear your head off with distortion the whole time: but fear not, it’s amazingly good at just sitting quietly too and adding that warm analogue vibe to any part or track.

Available for: Mac and Windows all formats; Pro Tools TDM. BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.

PSP Vintage Warmer 2

3. PSP Vintage Warmer2

I’ve already talked about how the Vintage Warmer is a true modern classic, in my list of The Best 10 Compressors. With its large drive knob it’s simple to set up and just adds real sonic character to parts. When you buy VintageWarmer2, you actually get 3 versions: MicroWarmer, a single-band, streamlined version; for using on individual parts; Vintage Warmer (LE), based on the CPU-friendly original; and VintageWarmer2, which uses double sampling for extra analogue fatness.

BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.

Also see: PSP MixPack2, which includes PSP MixSaturator2.

Variety Of Sound FerricTDS

4. Variety Of Sound FerricTDS

Possibly the best free saturation plugin – most of the other contenders being other Variety Of Sound plugins! Very CPU-light too. DOWNLOAD NOW via PluginBoutique.

Also see: Variety Of Sound’s other free and colour-enhancing plugins, Density MkIIITesslaSE/PROBoot EQ MKII.

D16 Redoptor

5. D16 Group Redopter

The D16 team have been getting a lot of grassroots praise from EDM producers for their range of awesome effects plugins, not to mention probably the best 808 and 909 classic drum machine emulations yet created. Redopter is a Vintage Tube Distortion unit, and just brilliant. Also check out Decimort 2 (Bit Crusher) and Devastator 2 (Multiband Distortion).

Available for Mac and PC in all formats. BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.

Izotope Alloy

6. Izotope Alloy

For those familiar with Izotopes Ozone finalizer/mastering plugin or their Trash distortion plugin, Alloy might be a good tool to try out, as the Exciter module is basically a multiband saturator.

Available for Mac in AU/VST/RTAS formats; PC in VST/DX/RTAS. BUY NOW via PluginBoutique.

redline tube preamp

7. 112dB Redline Preamp

They put it best themselves: “Redline Preamp livens up any “too clean” signal with a customizable combination of even and odd harmonics, saturation, and soft clipping.” Creating even or odd harmonics can give you tape or tube saturation effects respectively, so this plugin has the sound and power of what could have been quite a complex unit – but in a cool, fast and highly user-friendly interface. Did I mention the sound of this plugin!? It’s up there with the very best.

Available for Mac and PC. More info here.


8. Sknote Roundtone

A favourite with many, Roundtone is a tape emulator with a highly-regarded sound. Bonus points for actually having a virtual tape machine interface as well… :)

Available for Mac and PC. More info here.

ToneBoosters Ferox

9. ToneBoosters Ferox

Another very affordable saturation plugin (or “tape recording simulator”), that many pros swear by. Definitely worth checking out.

Available for Mac and PC. More info here.

URS Saturation

10. URS Saturation

I love this one for it’s clear interface coupled with the huge flexibility and quality of its preset-style sounds. You can quickly dial up anything from a selection of tube mic preamps to analog tape, with inspiringly specific names for the algorithms: for example, you can choose between 15ips and 30ips tape speeds.  Check out the other algorithms at the link below.

Available: Mac VST/AU/RTAS, PC: VST/RTAS. More info here.

Massey TapeHead

11. Massey TapeHead Saturator

Another straightforward plugin with a wicked sound – one of the best, in fact. Unlimited demo version, but with the upgrade to the full version you get additional features.

Available for Mac and PC all formats, and Pro Tools TDM. More info here.

Crane Song Phoenix II

12. Crane Song Phoenix II

An upgrade from the original Phoenix, this is perhaps “the real tape ops tape emulation plugin”. It has five basic “flavours” with evocative names, ranging from subtle saturation (Luminescent, Iridescent) to gradually more intense (Radiant, Dark Essence and Luster).

Available for: Pro Tools only I’m afraid. More info here.


13. Acustica Nebula3

Nebula3 is actually a multi-effect plugin that uses its own N.A.T. sampler software to emulate literally hundreds of vintage hardware units and their warm analogue characteristics. It comes with 400 presets, including a crazy 60 pre-amps, 40 equalizers, 15 compressors, 20 tapes, 30 filters, 100 reverbs and 90 time variant effects (chorus, flangers, phasers etc). If you can’t find a saturation setting you like amongst this lot, well, there’s probably no hope for you. Of course all this would be meaningless if the emulations were rubbish: fortunately, Nubela3 delivers with some pretty convincing sound processing. Comes as Free, regular and Pro versions.

Available for Windows/PC only. More info here.

Wave Arts Tube Saturator

14. Wave Arts Tube Saturator

Touted as “the world’s most accurate real time tube amp plugin”, I respect the fact that Waves Arts haven’t gone for a stripped down, simplified algorithm to save CPU processing power – no, they actually make a point of the fact that the “circuit simulation technology” is extremely processor-intensive, and of course a fast computer is recommended. What all this processing is being dedicated to is in recreating a real tube preamp, and this does it as well as anything out there. Circuit modelling is probably the future of plugin emulations, so with Tube Saturator you can hear where we’re going quality-wise over the next few years.

Available for Mac and Windows. More info here.

SPL Twin Tube Processor

15. SPL TwinTube Processor

Modelled on their own hardware modules, TwinTube provides two big dials: one for adding tube saturation (warmer, louder), the other for specifically adding harmonic content like an exciter/enhancer (presence, clarity, sparkle). Awesome sound and again the interface makes it a breeze to dial up your preferred settings: typical German efficiency… :)

Available for Mac and PC all formats, plus TDM. More info here.


16. McDSP AC101

Part of the McDSP Analog Channel, which is quite old now, but is still a staple in a lot of pro studios. There’s a good explanation on another McDSP page of why and how these plugins might benefit your sound, which also applies to many of the plugins featured in this list.

Available for Mac only, in Native version (RTAS/AU) and HD version (includes TDM). More info here.

Conclusion: Fully Saturated

So there you have it, an (almost) definitive list of plugins that can help you achieve a better, warmer, more expansive Pro Sound.

I recommend trying them all, but eventually wittling it down to a smaller selection of your favourite ones for specific tasks. Remember, Less Is More – you don’t want plugin overwhelm getting in the way of actually making music.

I really hope this article is useful for you – it took me a long, long time to research and put it all together, so please leave a comment if you’ve got this far!

Also, you can find more suggestions on great-sounding, analogue-warm plugins in this post:

50 Of The Best Compressor Plugins In The World >>

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  1. Jordan Mitchell on

    I love the Sound Toys Decapitator. Super versatile–I use it on pianos or strings to bring out the mid-range, or pushed hardcore on a synth bass, fattening up kicks and snares, or just a touch mixed in on the vocals for a bit of extra thickness. I use the SPL and Vintage Warmer frequently, as well. I also love the Waves Krammer Master Tape, but you didn’t include it on this list.

    I’ve never heard the D16 Redopter but am going to check it out now. Thanks!

  2. groupenterprise on

    I like two of the plugins, fabfilter & the vintage warmer. Out of the two which would recommendfor warming up track.

  3. Thanks for a great article. I am looking to get one of these. Could you tell me how Steve Slate virtual tape machine compare to these please?
    All the best

    • Hi Tim, yeah I think the Virtual Tape Machine came out around the same time or just after I published this article – it would definitely make it onto the list :) Hope that answers it!

  4. Hey! Nice article, thx!
    Just wanted to recommend iZotope Trash 2.
    Right up there besides Saturn, in my book anyway;)


    • Thanks for mentioning Trash Alex and john, yes it’s certainly a worthwhile addition to the list. When I get around to updating (pretty soon), it’ll be there :) Cheers!

  5. Thank you very much for this and the preceding piece, describing the concept of saturation, and then this rundown of plugins. I can imagine how much work it was to put together! Much, much appreciated.

  6. I have the wave arts and Alloy2 and their great. The Plug and mix analoger is a unsung hero. It sounds exactly like the waves tape plugin without waves trippy tape delay sounds. When you want just nice tube or tape saturation the Analoger sounds great. Radiator i tried recently and if it didn’t take up so much cpu i would go with it. I’m going to have agree with most here and say Saturn is the best. Most wide use functionality and best sound quality with only 1% cpu usage on a dual core mac.Sure beats Wave arts 49% cpu.

  7. thanks for doing this….will check some of these out!…i’ve already tried the redline and soundtoys as demos….. was very impressed by the redline preamp…. that is really cool….. personally wasn’t so impressed by the decapitator …can definitely get some cool sounds out of it but i have a thermionic culture vulture…..and lets just say i won’t be selling it in exchange for the plug-in…….

  8. Ohk ..this is just too awesome. The site, ur effort, plugs..preciate100. But now, which amongst them is free & most efficient @least cn get the job done. Tryna see if we underestimate most of these free plugs….. Thanks.

  9. Nice to give your opinion on the plugs but you should have also list the price of the plug next to it’s name.
    That would have given a more realistic comparison as it would have shown cost vs performance as well.

    Some would have found it very helpful or interesting to know that your number one choice cost less than half the price of your number twelve choice.

  10. This is the first time I have found your site, but based entirely on this page alone I intend to have a long look around as this has captured my attention.

    Although I have the fabfilter saturn plug (and wouldn’t part with it) I would also like to give mention to a very old plug I still get a great deal of usage out of. That is Melohman from Ohmicide

  11. wavearts seems the best tube saturation emulator “most accurate” eats 25% of my cpu at 96Khz…in your review missed Voxengo plugins…mellowmuse software, izotope ozone, aipl, etc… anyway…. the wavearts sounds very similar to a real 12ax7 tube saturator, at low levels, under <50%, but over its very different, for distorting/saturating analog kicks its useless, sounds like a fart compared to a real tube. mullard 12ax7 sounds big, round& fat, for heavy saturation, none is close to a real tube, but you must have a good DA, loudspeakers, room acoustics,& ear to hear the difference, in big club soundsystems the difference its like night & day, also plugins have a weird oscillation in the highs real tubes dont,.with some synth patches emulation sound like an mp3 at 128kbps in the highs, i think most plugins are overpriced. maybe using 2 plugins in serial could have more decent saturation, but using 2 real 12ax7 tubes in serial its better.

  12. #1. club sound systems using analog amplication, not class-d amps.
    #2. a very nice plugin comes free with protools 9hd, dont know if also comes in non hd, its the AIR Harmonics Distortion, Air plugins are amazing, but distortion plugin also has the same oscillation in the highs like wavearts., much better than the tube plugin that comes with cubase/nuendo.
    #3. dont like the sonnox inflator, havent tested ssl saturator, urs saturator… but i doubt they could be better.

  13. Tape plugins are another story, and give a very different effect, i have Yamaha Vintage Open Deck because it emulates an Ampex ATR100, i like the sound of that machine, there are others Digidesign Reel Tape, Avid Heat, UAD, but most emulate Studer, and i dont like Studer Tape machine sound, and yes, yamaha vintage open deck has 4 studer emulations, and 2 tapes formulas with 2 speeds, 30 & 15 ips, some times i wish it also had 7.5 & 3.75ips, just for fun.
    cakewalk fx2 tape machine emulation tis also nice..

  14. Holy Shit . . . No mention of U-He Satin – probably one of the best Tape sat plugs around and nothing about KUSH Audio Pusher which a tape Sat flavour type plugin which is outstanding? Huh?

    • Check the release dates of both Satin and KUSH Audio Pusher and the date of publication on the article. Also consider that it would be very difficult and time-consuming to test every single plugin on the market.

  15. Another of my favourites would be the Isotope Trash plugin. I know it’s distortion rather than saturation but it’s a blurry line separating the two eh. Trash can be used lightly to add very subtle levels of saturation that sounds pretty amazing. I like add some light blues distortion/saturation to my drum buss. :)

  16. Awesome! bt i agree to it that wen it kams to saturation, less is more, n more is dangerous.. use any of these PLUGINGS sparingly!!

  17. I tried many saturators but the best for my needs is undoubtedly the Fabfilter Saturn the thing that makes it special and unique is the possibility to intervene with multiband to saturate only the frequencies necessary to flesh out the sound or give different saturations to same sound depending on the frequency band selected. This really is a great plugin.

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