The world of music making FX is insane, but saturation in production for us was one of the most important breakthroughs we’ve ever had as musicians. It’s hard to really identify . Heck, some hardware or even in-the-box FX plugins automatically subtle saturation to give it a “feel”, or what some describe as “warmth”, “analog”. That’s because back in the day (and still today of course), things like tape cassettes and other common analog gear had a chain to process the signal, hence adding saturation (some on purpose and some unavoidably on accident). Don’t be afraid to download all of these (we literally did).
What is Saturation in Music Production?
Our production game changed once we learned not only about saturation in music but how to use it effectively. If you’re already aware of beauty this musical effect brings to the table, keep scrolling for some of our favorite free saturation VST FX plugins. Otherwise to debrief, saturation is essentially adding more harmonics into the sound you’re focusing on. Technically, it’s distortion. Think of the word “saturating” being used in other ways in life, let’s say for example “the housing market is becoming saturated with inventory”. This may mean there are “too many”, although in music it’s just, “more”.
But “more” isn’t coming from nowhere. Saturation actually takes from the sound wave’s current frequency pattern and uses that to multiply it’s sine waves. So you’re “beefing” up what you already have, for lack of a better term.
Why is Saturation Useful in Music Making?
If you’re like, you’ve watched countless videos and read many articles on “how to make my mix louder“. We’d write a separate article on that, but at this point the internet is saturated with (see what we did there?) both information and misinformation about “getting a loud mix”. The “loudness war” will be here for a minute, but one of my favorite ways of making something seem “louder” without actually increasing the volume is with saturation. By adding those extra patterns of sound waves, you’re giving it a literally thicker, fuller sound, without actually raising the gain or volume (yes these will increase by somewhat, but not as much as if you literally turned up the fader).
You can always overdo saturation but honestly, I tend to saturate most tracks in one way or another. There’s something that’s just pleasing to the ear when I crush it with saturation (like with drums to get that grit and fat sound), or perhaps parallel mix it tastefully just a bit (such as with vocals).
The Best Free Saturation FX Plugins
We’re big fans of Softube, and this was one of the first plug-ins that showed us what they were capable of bringing to the table. In fact, this was the first saturation plugin we’ve ever used, and at first literally had no idea what we were doing. I think I slapped it on some drums and just cranked the knob and thought “oh cool that sounds a lot better”. Thankfully, that’s literally what this plugin is: one big knob to tweak your saturation. There is a little tweaking you can do with the frequency pass as well, either keep it high, low or neutral. Put it on everything — vocals, drums, guitar and even some bass. Saturation Knob should be a default download for everybody, regardless of the genre of music you create.
Here’s another one of our favorite free saturation plugins by Klanghelm, probably the best company out there in the free plugin realm. This one has quite a few more controls than the previous Saturation Knob, giving us a bit more control in the type as well as strength of saturation we’d like to put on a track or bus. You can fine-tune the frequency range you’re aiming at, increase the power with it’s drive knob, as well as add a little flutter with the X-Talk as well as mess with the symmetry of the signal with the ‘ASYM Mix’ knob. The Klanghelm IVGI is a favorite in the free saturation effects plugin world, and is the little brother to their SDRR.
Wave Arts Tube Saturator Vintage
A little lesser known gem here that gives us saturation in three of the main bands — each having a knob for adjusting the saturation level to taste. There’s also a little drive knob for power and quite a few different presets they’ve included to give us some working room. Tube Saturator Vintage has a flavor of it’s own and is definitely worth the download.
Voxengo Tube Amp
Not as fancy of a GUI but we don’t let looks fool us. The Voxengo Tube Amp has some nice little tweaking features we can use to really dial in the saturating we need. There’s a useful dry/wet knob for parallel processing (we get pretty down on plugins that don’t include one of these), some nice presets, a low-pass filter (-6dB per octave), mid/side processing, up to 8x oversampling, and quite a few more.. This one is modeled after asymmetric tube triodes and has an additional output gain knob for extra loudness if you need.
Caelum Audio Tape Cassette 2
Just reading the word ‘tape’ or ‘cassette’ for us gets us going, but try not to let superlatives steer you in a particular direction just because of the words. Although, since this one is free, it’s more of a “why not?” while still holding true to the name and being worth a download or two. You can tweak the “wow” and “flutter” (great for lo-fi effects and isn’t usually seen in a lot of saturation plugins), add some tape noise, low pass filter, and some oversampling to boot. The Tape Cassette 2 is a nice free saturation plugin to add to your toolbox.
A nice GUI here with the Szechuan Saturator, with some even nicer features for adding that warm saturation harmonic feel to any track in your DAW. Aside from saturation, this one also includes some useful control over modulation and the dynamics of the saturation. It automates alongside the volume of the input signal to give us a more natural and organic feel (is there ever enough dynamics?). That name is cool too for those who get the reference!
Simple and effective, the BPB Saturator has options for both “Tape” or “Tube” saturation, or both. Tweak the separate low and high-pass filters (or perhaps automate them for some sweeps), or change the in/out gain if you please. That’s it. Straight to the point free saturation.
Our last pick as the best free saturation FX plugin, the SGA1566 brings us a multi-band saturator with additional oversampling capabilities as well. Add a little coloring to your track or go crazy and really beef it up with distortion.