In my previous Pro Audio series article, I shared with you some of my favorite chorus effect plugins.
In this post, I’ll list some popular distortion plugins. As always, I encourage you to explore the stock distortion plugins included with your DAW, because you may find that they achieve the sound you’re looking for (and it won’t cost you a penny more). For example, Avid’s Lo-Fi is included in Pro Tools and you’ve probably heard that on a number of top 40 records, great free plugin.
Here are a few of my preferred distortion plugins.
The Best Distortion Plugins
Soundtoys Decapitator ($199)
Decapitator by Soundtoys is an incredibly versatile distortion plugin, providing five distinct emulations of analog distortion gear. Soundtoys has a reputation for developing exceptional plugins, and Decapitator is a great example of that. They don’t exactly come right out and say it, but the various models of gear include A (Ampex Tape Machine Transformer), E (EMI console preamp), N (Neve console preamp with Germanium transformers), T (Triode valve tube), and P (Penthode valve tube). With plenty of adjustable parameters and a generous number of presets, the Decapitator can be used to apply subtle to extreme amounts of saturation and distortion. The presets come in handy if you’re not sure where to start, with common uses including drum, keys, and vocal tracks. Try it on a snare or lead vocal to add some bite and attitude!
UAD Culture Vulture ($299)
The UAD Culture Vulture is a spot-on emulation of this famous piece of hardware that adds valve produced distortion without the use of any solid-state components. UAD has recreated the three types of distortion offered by The Culture Vulture—T, P1, and P2. T, for Triode mode, is a musical effect ideal for simply warming up a sound. P1 is a Pentode mode and is more aggressive, while P2 is referred to by Thermionic Culture (manufacturer) as the “No Holds Barred” setting. Besides being indistinguishable from the real thing, the UAD Culture Vulture includes presets from some of the world’s top mixers and producers, like Tony Maserati, Eric Thorngren, Rik Simpson, Chris Coady, and more. It’s the most expensive plugin on this list, and being exclusive to the UAD ecosystem, UAD Culture Vulture requires a UAD audio interface or DSP accelerator.
FabFilter Saturn ($154)
Saturn by FabFilter is easily the most flexible distortion and saturation plugin I’ve come across. With its novel user interface and a suite of impressive features, you can dial in unique, sound-bending distortion effects. Saturn offers a whopping sixteen different distortion models based on vintage tubes, tape, and guitar amps. One of my favorite aspects of Saturn is its multiband design. With this feature, you can create complex effects otherwise unattainable by applying different amounts of feedback, dynamics, drive, tone, and modulation to each frequency band you define. There’s even more power under the hood, including optional 8x oversampling for higher audio quality, 150+ presets, and a 50-slot modulation matrix. FabFilter Saturn is the most complete and capable distortion plugin I know of, and it sounds great too!
D16 Redopter 2 ($59)
Redopter 2 continues D16 Group’s tradition of developing great sounding plugins at affordable prices. Unlike the D16 Syntorus from my chorus plugin article, you’ll be glad to know that the Redopter 2 is a universal plugin, with support for any DAW that utilizes AAX (Pro Tools), AU, or VST plugin formats. For $59 you get a plugin that’s filled with vintage tube distortion and some rich features not found in similarly priced plugins. Not only does the Redopter emulate tube distortion and its accompanying analog circuitry, but it also incorporates preliminary filters, a preamp stage with a built-in compressor, an output limiter, and a four-band adjustable EQ. That’s a lot of functionality at a reasonable price.
Waves OneKnob Driver ($49, on sale for $29.99)
Waves OneKnob Driver is a handy little plugin that is about as simple as it gets. Aptly named, there’s literally one knob. Turn it up for full-on, maximum distortion or turn it down for light overdrive. Don’t be fooled by the price or the simplicity—this is one great sounding distortion plugin that works well on guitars, vocals, piano, synths, drums, bass, and more.
Softube Saturation Knob (FREE!)
If you’re not looking to drop serious cash on a plugin from Soundtoys, UAD, or FabFilter, the Softube Saturation Knob might just be the next best thing. It’s completely free, with no strings attached, yet still offers a pedigree of sound that has helped make Sotftube one of the industry leaders in plugin development. It’s similar to the Waves OneKnob in that its operation is quite simple, but it goes one step further. Three modes, which include Keep High, Neutral, and Keep Low, give you additional control over the character and tone of the distortion. Famed mix engineer Michael Brauer has even been quoted as saying “It’s too good to be free!”
If you haven’t used a Softube plugin before, the Saturation Knob is a great introduction to the company and exemplifies the level of polish they bring to their effects plugins.
Distortion Plugin Roundup
Distortion is a great weapon to have in your recording and mixing arsenal. At first, most people associate distortion with guitar, but it can be used on so many other audio sources. Use distortion to give a dull snare some additional snap, add attitude to vocals, or make a piano growl with bite; the possibilities are limitless.
Although it’s difficult to choose a favorite, I suppose my desert island distortion plugin would be the Soundtoys Decapitator. It strikes a good balance of features and ease of use, and it sounds great. The UAD Culture Vulture, while a beautiful plugin, feels more like a nice-to-have than a must-have, especially if you don’t already own UAD hardware.
My runner-up is the D16 Redopter 2. Once again, the D16 Group has managed to provide exceptional value, this time in a tube saturation plugin that offers very useable sounds and adjustable settings at an impressively low price.
If you’re just looking to dip your toe in, the Softube Saturation Knob is arguably one of the best free plugins available in any category, period. Download it and insert it on a snare or vocal track and in seconds you’ll see how it can transform your recordings.
So that’s the distortion plugin roundup. Do you have a favorite that’s not on the list? I’d love to know what works well for you!
In my next Pro Audio series article, we’ll cover my favorite category, compressor plugins. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite emulations of famed hardware compressors including the 1176, LA-2A, and a few more.