The Saturation effect is a fun tool to play with in a mix, especially on drum sounds.
Saturation will make your drums cut through the mix by keeping the volume consistent, adding rich harmonics, and it will bring out the sustain while the peak level remains the same.
So, the drums will feel louder and translate well no matter where the song will get played.
Even when you have thin-sounding drums, saturation plugins can be used to thicken up individual drum sounds or the entire kit.
This is why I decided to share some of the best saturation plugins that can make your drums sound amazing.
Best Saturation Plugins For Drums
What is a Saturation Effect?
Before we get started, let’s quickly answer what the saturation effect is.
The saturation effect originates from back in the days when an audio signal had to travel through various pieces of gear (pre-amp, desk, compressor, EQ, A/D converter, etc.).
The analog signal flow adds character, warmth, and great-sounding harmonics.
This subtle effect creates pleasant and musical distortion.
So, these days we use saturation plugins to emulate that analog gear effect in a mix to help drums sound bigger.
The one thing I love about the Soundtoys decapitator is that it's simple to use and convenient.
You also don’t have to worry about the sound quality, the Decapitator matches the harmonic structure, frequency response, and dynamic response of analog gear.
It has 5 different saturation algorithms that make Decapitator a useful tool for various purposes.
These 5 styles are named A, E, N, T, and P. The algorithms I use the most are “A”, “E” and “T”.
“A” style is modeled after the classic Ampex 350 tape drive preamp. This one is great if you want to brighten anything in the mix.
The tube-driven distortion adds warmth and sounds ultra-smooth.
“E” is an emulation of the Chandler®/EMI® TG® Channel.
This style of saturation sounds amazing on low-end drums such as kick, toms, bottom snare, and other low percussions.
“T” is modeled after the Thermionic Culture® Culture Vulture®, a favorite for most audio engineers.
This is an amazing algorithm for adding warmth and various levels of dirt to drums.
The sound is punchy and very useful to add some attitude to drums or other percussive instruments.
No matter what sound I’m going for in a mix, 99% of the time, one of these 3 algorithms will work.
The Decapitator is a must-have saturation plugin for getting drums and other instruments or vocals to cut through.
Another great plugin from Soundtoys is the Radiator.
In modern recording, the one thing that we strive for is warmth, and the Radiator has it in spades.
This one is modeled after one of the warmest devices we know of; the Altec 1567A Mixer Amplifier.
The Radiator EQ section has bass and treble parameters, however, these are not high-pass or low-pass filters.
These are both shelve filters, but it's not your "standard" shelves. The filters have unique curves.
It’s a wide curve for both frequency cuts and more of a sloping boost.
Here’s the most important thing to understand about the Radiator. Don’t do gain compensation because there are 2 tube stages.
Both the input and output act as a drive knob. The EQ is in between both tube stages.
So, to get the best results, don’t touch the output, only play around with the input and EQ sections.
Instead, use a gain trimming plugin to compensate.
This plugin sounds amazing on the snare and kick drums. Feel free to test it on different drum sounds to add analog tube warmth.
The FabFilter Saturn goes far beyond the typical saturation plugins realm.
It’s a multiband plugin and its modulation features can add some amazing vibe and movement to a static saturation effect.
Most professional engineers go for Saturn over other distortion units because it has linear phase capabilities and oversampling.
These features prevent messing up the character of a sound and aliasing issues.
The one thing I love the most about Saturn is that you can separately adjust the distortion types for different frequency bands.
Although this is a great feature for mastering, it can work wonders on the drum bus or any group of drum sounds.
Fabfilter Saturn has an easy-to-use interface and whooping 28 distortion styles. It’s an audio effect plugin for distortion, saturation, or color enhancement.
From the subtle, clean, warm tube, or tape saturation to the wildest multiband guitar amp effects; FabFilter Saturn delivers warmth, pleasant harmonics, color, and dynamic control.
Definitely a must-have for getting a big drum mix.
The Inflator is the perfect saturation plugin for drums, especially for the kick and snare.
Unfortunately, it’s not one of those popular plugins, but the people who use it know that it sounds amazing.
Most saturation emulators don’t have the punch, pop, and snap like the Oxford Inflator.
It makes drums sound punchy and increase perceived loudness without sacrificing sonic quality or dynamic range.
It adds power and presence, which helps sounds cut through the mix.
When you drive it harder, Inflator gives you tube-like musical warmth and provides the ‘sonic glue’ you need to gel your drums together.
It works great on both individual sounds or the drum bus.
The thing that makes the Inflator awesome for drums is that it allows percussive peaks to pass without signal overload, which gives you more headroom.
It’s a must-have saturation plugin to increase harmonic brightness and clarity on drums without volume or EQ.
UAD Studer A800
The UAD Studer A800 is an amazing tape emulation plugin that offers rich harmonics, compression, and EQ in one plugin.
I use this one for special occasions.
For instance, if the kick drum is sounding thin and high frequency centric. I’ll use the Studer A800 to add a little bit of harmonic overtones and weight to the kick drum.
The same holds true for toms or a snare drum that is really aggressive and sharp.
Before Covid-19, at the studio that I was working on we used to call this one “Pimp My Drums”.
It’s important to mention that the Studer should usually be inserted in the first slot of your effects chain because its tape saturation adds some color to the sound.
The Studer is a great tool to get an analog vibe. It’s designed to be put on every single audio channel in your mix.
It’s an amazing saturation effect for taming down loud peaks without affecting punch, clarity, and presence.
PSP Vintage Warmer
This is one of those plugins that can be used as a compressor, limiter, distortion unit, multiband compressor, and an analog saturation effect.
The Vintage Warmer has been around for ages, it is well known for adding awesome harmonic content and FATness.
Since it “fattens” sounds, it makes it one of the best saturation plugins for drums, and bass as well.
Sounds great on individual drum sounds and not so much on the drum bus because it might cause aliasing issues.
To get the best results from the PSP Vintage Warmer only mix in 50-60% of the saturation effect.
That adds warmth without too much processing, a kind of parallel warmth procession.
This was a secret weapon for a long time but most engineers (including beginners) now use Vintage Warmer.
It combines rich and warm analog processing with a straightforward user interface. It’s a great saturation plugin for drums, especially if the drums are sounding weak.
The Klanghelm SDRR is built around 4 saturation modes which are Tube, Digi, Fuzz, and Desk. Each mode has a different tonal character and different GUI controls.
All four saturation modes feature a distinct sound, giving you several flavors of some of the best saturation effects you’ve heard anywhere.
Throughout my tests, I find myself gravitating towards the 'Desk' mode most of the time. It is modeled after the classic characteristics of analog consoles.
As compared to the other modes, the desk mode adds that saturation, EQ, and compression most Hip-Hop and EDM producers are looking for.
Another most important feature is the “HQ” button. Basically, this is an oversampling feature. A feature that I wish was on every saturation plugin to avoid aliasing.
The saturation, EQ, and compression tools really sound musical.
Being sonically astounding and remarkably affordable, it is almost a crime not to have the SDRR in your plugin collection.
Waves J37 Tape
While most plugins will emulate multiple tape and tape machines. Waves chose to emulate a particular tape machine, the Studer J37.
J37 tape gives a degree of saturation, and when pushed hard, it creates a gratifying compression which is most notably with drums.
Its primary use is adding flavor to your recordings with a taste of tape emulation goodness.
Another great thing is that it is a very diverse plugin and capable of delivering many different flavors of the tape sound.
The 3 various tape models offer different curves. Comes with dedicated controls for Wow, Flutter, Bias, and more to tweak the sound to exactly what you want.
An awesome saturation plugin for controlling loud transients, add warmth, weight, and punch.
Fair warning though, the plugin does have a bit of a learning curve since it’s loaded with a lot of features.
Overall, it does a great job of making whatever you run through it sound slightly FAT and more present.
Sometimes it adds magic in the upper-midrange frequencies in a way that you’ll never hear in other tape plugins.
They say you can’t have a complete list of the best saturation plugins without mentioning at least one that’s free.
The main reason I chose the IVGI over other free options is that it reacts dynamically to the input signal.
This helps you get subtle and soft saturation. Not to say the plugin can’t produce aggressive distortion.
The smooth saturation it offers is great for keeping the timbre and character of a drum sound intact.
So, you get all the warmth, punch, and sonic characteristics of analog gear without messing with the clarity or presence.
It is designed for the master bus, but I find that it sounds amazing on individual drums as compared to using it on a bus channel.
The IVGI also lets you alter the frequency dependency of the saturation with the RESPONSE control.
It has a sensible amount of controls to manipulate the character of the saturation itself. Really great saturation plugin so check it out, I mean, it’s free so you’ve got nothing to lose.
Softube Saturation Knob
The Saturation knob from Softube is one of those old distortion plugins. But just because it’s ancient doesn’t mean that it’s low quality or anything like that.
It’s also a free plugin.
One thing I like about the Saturation Knob is the 3 different modes (keep low, keep high, and neutral).
For instance, the keep low mode allows you to affect the upper frequencies of a sound while leaving the lows intact.
The keep high does the opposite, and neutral saturates the entire frequency response.
So, that gives you more control and flexibility over the saturation effect.
It’s very simple to use since it only has one knob and a switch to change the different types of modes.
Overall, it sounds great, adds some rich harmonic excitement, and color.
That’s my list of the best saturation plugins for drums.
If I need to add saturation on drums, these are the plugins that will first come to mind. Then I’ll choose one depending on what I want to achieve.
The saturation effect is what will help you get a bigger, better, and more energetic drum mix.
It’s important to note that all these saturation plugins have been calibrated by default at 18dBVU, just like almost all analog outboard equipment; as such, it’s important to gain stage into the plugins correctly.
Leave a comment below to let us know which saturation plugin you use the most for drums.
Learn more about "How to use saturation on drums", on my new blog post.