In the pristine world of digital audio, musicians, producers, and engineers are always looking for ways to “warm up” recordings. One of the best methods is to add a little saturation to the signal. Whether you want to make a snare drum sound less dry, add a little sparkle to a piano track, give a vocal presence and grit, or make an entire mix sound more energetic, a little saturation can go a long way. You can also go beyond subtlety and add crunch or distortion to a guitar, bass, kick, snare, piano, or any other instrument.
Although the term “saturation” originated with the effect of overloading analog tape, it’s now used to describe a number of different distortion types. One of the most prominent is the harmonic distortion created by running a signal through a hardware device with a vacuum tube in it.
You don’t have to track through an actual tube preamp or amplifier to get saturation, however. There are many plug-ins on the market that do a convincing simulation by modeling tube circuitry. What’s more, you can use them during mixdown, meaning you don’t have to commit to a particular amount of the effect—as you would if tracking through a hardware-based device—thus giving you more sonic flexibility.
In this roundup, I’ll focus on 11 plug-ins that are either designed solely for adding tube-style distortion or have it as a significant part of their saturation offerings. The products are presented in alphabetical order by manufacturer.
112DB REDLINE PREAMP ($129)
If you want to make an instrument or vocal sound like it was recorded through a tube preamp, Redline Preamp is an excellent choice. It excels at adding coloration to digital tracks. In addition to tubes, it can also emulate saturation from analog tape and analog consoles. Its effects are subtler than some of the other plug-ins in this roundup—you probably wouldn’t choose it to create super-saturated tones—but it accomplishes its mission authentically.
The heart of the plug-in is its three Tube bands—Tube Lo, Tube Mid, and Tube Hi—which govern how much of the effect is added in specific, user-adjustable frequency ranges. The Frequency knobs for the Lo and Hi bands set the range in which they operate—below the setting for Lo and above it for Hi. For the Mid band, the Frequency control sets a center frequency, and a Width knob sets the bandwidth.
You also get controls for Drive, which turns up input volume, and Warmth, which lets you choose whether to emphasize odd or even harmonics (the former adds punch and the latter warmth) to the signal. The Clip knob sets the threshold for soft clipping, which adds more crunch as it’s turned lower and more clipping occurs. Controls for Wet/Dry and Makeup Gain are included, and you can choose between stereo and mid-side operation.