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"Analog is better than digital". Many times we've read this comment thrown into the deep end of a random forum. I'm certain you've wondered, just like me, what gives analog sound that distinct appeal. And how can we replicate it in a digital environment? It's all about the charm of circuitry. In the digital realm, saturation plugins work their magic to mimic this captivating process. You might be wondering, what exactly is saturation, and how does it differ from distortion? And why is it such an essential element in the world of analog hardware? Let's explore these questions.

What is Saturation?

Let's break down the concept of saturation. You've likely encountered the term in the realms of mixing and mastering, but what does it actually mean? While we can often recognise the sound of saturation, understanding what it means for a signal to be saturated is a bit less common. Simply put, audio saturation is a form of distortion, rooted in the history of pushing analog gear's physical components to their limits. Think of it as passing signals through tubes, transformers, or tape machines. It turns out this process is quite pleasing to our ears. But why is that? It's because saturation introduces two key elements to the original sound: compression and harmonic enhancement.

What happens when a sound gets saturated?

Remember the ratio of compressors? When the ratio is 1:1, where the output signal equals the input signal, a linear relationship is created. Saturation, initially an electrical phenomenon, happens when you drive the component of a hardware compressor by feeding it more signal than the output can handle, resulting in a non-linear relationship, such as a 2:1 or 4:1 ratio. In essence, saturation is the result of 'overloading' the electrical components within a piece of hardware.

However, besides adding a gentle squeeze to your audio with soft-knee compression, saturation also introduces harmonics - the thing that we call "a warm feeling" when we talk about analog equipment. But isn't all of this just the same as distortion?

Different Compression Ratios

Saturation Vs. Distortion

Yes. Technically speaking, whenever a waveform deviates from its original form, it's considered distorted. Common forms of distortion include clipping, harmonic distortion, saturation, overdrive, fuzz, bit-crushing, downsampling, phase distortion and so on. Depending on the characteristics of certain hardware units or plugins, we can introduce distortion that is either pleasing or less so to our ears.

The more pleasing changes to your signal can include a subtle addition of overtones. These overtones or 'even harmonics' bring body, fullness and warmth to your sound, while odd harmonics give your signal an edgier, more aggressive character. In other words, saturation is essentially a subtle and pleasing form of distortion.

Harmonic Series

Free Saturation Plugins

The world of free saturation plugins is vast and ever-expanding, which can lead to some decision-making dilemmas. But fear not; we've put together a selection of our favourite free plugins that you absolutely have to try before considering high-end software.

The Saturation Knob

Softube Saturation Knob

Although we're not massive fans of one-knob plugins, one cannot deny the success the Saturation Knob has had with its simple design. Created for those craving a fast workflow and top-notch saturation quality, this plugin consists of three saturation algorithms: neutral, low, and high, tailored to your frequency preferences. Then, you can effortlessly adjust the level of saturation using the large knob.

What's impressive about the Saturation Knob, is its efficiency with CPU load, making it your versatile ally across numerous tracks. Whether you aim to add a subtle touch to your mix bus or infuse character into various tracks, the Saturation Knob proves to be a reliable companion for seamless and high-quality saturation.

Voxengo Tube Amp

Voxengo Tube Amp

When we're on the hunt for new, free plugins to elevate our toolkit, Voxengo is a developer we often turn to. Their Tube Amp plugin is nothing short of remarkable, channeling the drive, warmth, and character of a genuine tube amplifier.

Now, we must admit, the interface might not sport the latest fashion, but don't let that fool you. It's the sound that truly shines. The first three knobs at your disposal are drive, bias, and low-pass filter. With these, you can dial in just the right amount of saturation, toggling between two types of tube distortion. As you increase the saturation, your signal evolves into a rich and warm texture. On the last part of the Tube Amp signal chain, there's an output gain knob accompanied by a handy meter, keeping you informed of the amplitude in dB.

If you're in the mood to infuse your mixes with gritty and intricate tube saturation, Voxengo's Tube Amp is a fantastic choice! It's like having a vintage amp at your fingertips.

Ableton's Saturator

Ableton's Stock Saturator

Like many other stock plugins, Ableton's Saturator is a potent yet often overlooked tool. It injects your sounds with the magic of saturation, introducing elements of grit, punch, or warmth. Whether you're aiming for a subtle touch or more noticeable distortion, the Saturator has you covered.

In the heart of the Saturator's interface, you'll find a prominent curve (typically in blue for Ableton 10) within a grid. This curve represents the Saturator's shaping, offering a visual guide to what going on with your audio. The X-axis reflects input, while the Y-axis corresponds to output, illustrating how output values respond to input values. We love to use it on individual channels driving it subtly - make sure to match the output to the input level - to give our bass, drum bus or vocals just a little bit of that 'hot sauce'.

It's time to fire up your DAW play with it yourself to witness how it transforms your sounds. Don't forget to explore the presets; they might just spark a fresh wave of inspiration for your music.


Saturation can be a bit tricky in mixing, but it's undeniably one of the most enjoyable and creative aspects with the power to transform your sound dramatically. Remember, you don't have to break the bank to dive into saturation. Most DAWs offer solid starting options, and there are also excellent free or budget-friendly plugins available. Regardless of your choice of tools, take the time to understand what they're doing and discover your preferences. While mixing has technical aspects, it's your unique taste and judgment that will set you apart from other artists, producers or engineers. Embrace the creative adventure and let your ears guide you!

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