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Bored of the same old saturation/distortion plugins everyone’s been using for years?
We trial 6 lesser-known saturation/distortion plugins that you may have overlooked.
We include audio samples to help showcase their application.
Saturation/Distortion/Anything-that’ll-increase-harmonic-content plug-ins are fantastic and I use them A LOT when mixing. Most of us use them when we need to dirty something up (and rightly so!) so they are often overlooked as an alternative to EQ, as a surgical tool to give a weak production life and for their natural side-effect of compressing a signal.
At the time of writing this article, in no particular order, my top 6 saturation tools that you may have overlooked are:
Audified STA Preamp 2
Kush Audio OMEGA A
In this article, I will drill down on why each of these plugins shines in their own right, and how I manage to get best use out of them in individual applications.
How will I put these plug-ins through their paces?
I’ll conduct the comparisons on a situation-dependent basis. Basically, where I find myself using them and what for, and you’ll get to hear the differences from before and after.
These situations have mainly been derived from working with musicians, who we should all know are a pain! I suppose this is similar to the whole Brauerize concept where Michael Brauer was asked to squeeze more bass out of a track, without making the bass louder. Makes sense, right?
In all situations, I’ll refrain from using any tonal post-processing so that you can hear the effects as raw as they’d be in a mix situation. The only thing I will do is normalize each signal to a peak of -1dB before reaching any playback platforms normalization process.
1. Audified STA Preamp 2
This thing is great. It looks good and it is easy to navigate. Under the hood are 5 different valve circuit modes and each mode has its own unique place within a mix. These modes are labelled as Presence, Vintage, Brown, White and Lo-Fi. For an in-depth overview of each mode click the link below.
I am a big fan of the Presence mode, particularly when I need something brightening up without using an EQ to target a specific band of frequencies, I just want the whole top end to perceivably lift! How much lift you want is determined by the saturation dial – easy!
This mode specifically targets higher-mid frequencies and leaves everything else alone but overtones and harmonic orders change throughout the entire upper register.
I get that the whole gain-staging within a digital domain is widely debated BUT this plug-in is modeled around 5 real circuits and they will induce some circuit noise.
If you want your signal to enter the plug-in at analogue, signal-to-noise-ratio conformities then there is an input dial that you can freely adjust. Increasing harmonic content within a signal can give you a lift in level, which makes the output dial handy for compensating!
It is a handy and versatile plug-in that is well worth having within your plug-in arsenal. When I first bought it it was entry-priced at less than £2/$2.50USD, an absolute STEAL.
It is now retailing at £36/$44USD which is an average, maybe ever-so-slightly high price. But if you can afford it and you’re in need of a great saturation plug-in I highly recommend the STA 2.
If you find that your instrument tracks, groups or overall mixes are missing ‘weight’ then give this a serious consideration.
It’s an emulation of a complete vintage Pultec unit (MEQ-5 & EQP-1A combined) with additional features. The main additional features are an optional Clipper function on the master output and an analog preamp with input/output controls to drive the signal into the unit more. The original Pultec units didn’t have a Clipper on them but that doesn’t stop this from having it’s place within a mix.
I use this with the clipper both on and off for the same effect. The first time I noticed this ‘weight’ happen was when I was battling a kick drum – it was a great sounding kick but it just needed fattening up without there being an obvious shift in overall tone.
I opened up the Pulsetec as an alternative to the Waves Puigtec as I sometimes use that to boost 30hz post 50hz HPF (6-12dB per octave) which was my original go-to trick for adding perceived weight to a kick.
Without touching the EQ on the Pulsetec I noticed an extension in the low end which was what I wanted. With the clipper function off it’s much more subtle and to drive the subtle side of things more just crank the input to drive the unit harder.
Turn the clipper function on if you need something much more obvious! It’s as simple as that. I’m unsure as to what the order of harmonics are but they definitely sound as though the start at the lower end of the spectrum.
At $129 it’s not cheap and your everyday bedroom producer is not likely to afford it. The quality of the plugin is fantastic though and if you’re in the market for a Pultec style EQ with additional saturation capabilities (and vice versa!) you’re obviously on to a winner. If you can hang on then my advice would be to look at Nomad plugin bundles and/or wait for sales.
Find out more about the Nomad Pulsetec on Thomann.
3. Soundtoys Devil-Loc Deluxe
Sub-titled the ‘’Audio Level Destroyer’’ and for good reason. It does have a little brother simply named the ‘’Devil-Loc’’ with only two effects built in to the unit but the Deluxe version is so much more useful that it’s worth saving the extra pennies for.
It has the capability to completely smash signals apart as well as shape the overall tone. It’s modelled on a 1960’s unit called the Shure Level-Loc M62 model that was used as an audio limiting unit for PA systems but it also had the amazing ability to saturate or completely distort signals.
In my experience, this plugin is either exactly what you need or not at all. There’s never a maybe about it.
One place it definitely excels is shaping artificial room ambiences for those moments where there’s either no room mic’s or you have been given less than ideal room mic’s forcing you to create your own.
The only way I can describe it is that, with the settings dialled in right, it’s like having a Coles 4038 plugin?!
Send your main drum tracks to a buss with an artificial room reverb, one of my favourites is the Slate VerbSuite Classics, drum room 2. Then put the Devil-Loc Deluxe on after the reverb and mix to taste!
If you feel that you need more control of the signal put an EQ on before the reverb and shape the signal that triggers the reverb.
At either £60-110 per version there’s no point in getting them individually… save and get the complete SoundToys collection instead! They do a tasty educational discount.
JST Clip was designed with both mixing & mastering engineers in mind. It mimics the sonic behaviour of peak clipping a signal using tape. This is a process where engineers can drive a signal really hot on to tape, kissing the ceiling to purposefully clip it. The end result is a pleasing array of harmonic overtones. The plugin is very easy to navigate and is very flexible due to having an additional 2x clip function and a mix control.
It does one job and it does it very well. I find it particularly useful when groups need exciting – whether that’s on individual instrument busses (guitars, drums etc), a master buss (where all instrument groups are summed together) or if you feel your reverb send needs to sound a bit ‘richer’.
At just under $50 it’s reasonably priced, much like the Audified STA Preamp 2. It’s a unique plugin and it sounds fantastic, it always makes an audition in my projects. JST are known for having great quality products with amazing customer service so you won’t be disappointed with anything JST branded. Whilst you’re at it check out their multiband transient designer, Transify!
The OMEGA A is said to be like plugging a microphone straight into an API console from 1976. Maybe, I suppose that depends on the exact console and channel strip it’s modelled on but it definitely has the same character as my API 512c preamps that I am very fond of. I know this isn’t strictly a ‘saturation’ plug-in in the typical sense of the word but it does saturate a signal when it’s driven hard enough and it has beautiful break-up character.
For me, an API 512c has a tight midrange, an enhanced upper-frequency range and it also increases the attack of a signal (much like using a transient designer at times).
When I need these characteristics I record with them to get that character before hitting the converter.
If I need this in post, I can either run a signal through a 512c or….. I could just use this plug-in! And I almost exclusively use this plug-in for that job.
For either situation use them on snares, vocals or over-heads… anything that needs to be in your face! For vocals especially, catch the pre-amp just as it breaks up.
At just $29 it’s a no brainer. This thing can dramatically increase your mix game if used properly.
To find out more about the Kush Audio Omega A, head to their website. There’s also a 10-day free trial available.
6. AVID Lo-Fi Review
According to the AVID website – Lo-Fi is a variable amplitude noise generator that adds soft clipping distortion and saturation to your sound. Controls include sample rate/size reduction and anti-aliasing control. It’s a fantastic surgical tool as well as a creative tool with the ability to completely blitz a signal if needs be.
In a rather obscure manner I use this as an alternative to an EQ when preparing a mix. I also use it to help create trigger tracks.
As I’ve previously wrote in a blog before – the Lo-Fi plugin has 2 particularly good features, saturation & distortion. Both have separate controls as they affect the signal in different ways. If you need to tame high-end information and you are struggling to do so when using an EQ, simply turn up the saturation control and you’ll hear the higher frequencies level out with the rest of the signal. I typically do not need to go above 0.2-0.5% when doing this as you’ll start to ‘hear’ the saturation breaking up the signal.
Another behavior to take advantage of is the natural compression effect. Increasing harmonics reduces dynamic range, think about the waveform of a guitar DI vs a dirty guitar amp, this is great for creating trigger tracks.
Accurate trigger tracks are very handy for a number of reasons and it’s generally not a good idea to simply trigger from the original audio file as transients can be mis-detected.
Let’s say we need to create a snare trigger; high pass up to and above 500hz, use a transient designer (100% attack, -100% sustain) and distort the signal to create a flat dynamic.
Commit the signal to this chain and you’ll have a tight blip to manipulate your trigger parameters to. You can also control the trigger velocity/dynamic much easier this way, this is very handy for handling ghost notes!
I know this is for Pro Tools users, but, Pro Tools users may never have thought of doing this before. There may also be a handy alternative that does the same thing for other DAWs!
We’d love to know what your favorite ‘lesser-known’ distortion plugins are! Have we missed an important one that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments below…