Saturation, for lack of a better definition is typically very mild distortion, also referred to as “coloration”, “vibe” “flavour” and many other esoteric mysterious terms. When we talk about tape saturation, in reality it is the result of the level being so high that the oxide particles can’t any longer accurately represent the amplitude of the wave being recorded onto it which results in compression and distortion. The fatness, the smoothing the transient, half of what we perceive as “good” about vintage gear is in fact, on paper - undesirable behaviour which our human ears happen to like! The same goes for tubes, which also introduce gentle saturation and harmonics when driven, as does more or less anything in the analog signal path with varying degrees of friendliness. Solid state gear tends to produce more odd ordered harmonics, tubes, even ordered. Guess which your ears like more?
The thing is under normal operating condiitions this stuff is SUBTLE. Digital models don't exhibit this behaviour unless they are designed to do so, and even then it’s not the easiest thing to do. The problem is perception; people’s expectations are very different if they have never used the physical tools in the first place. When it came to desk preamps you were paying your money for excellent and musical amplification of low level signals, not a distortion pedal. Quiet cost good money, and so did headroom, designed specifically to keep you out of distortion, which is why the internet kidz are disappointed when the latest plugin doesn’t distort like crazy when you crank it. I can’t think of sitting at a console and driving the preamps into saturation as a matter of course as usually you’d want to avoid clipping the circuit and most sources in rock & roll were loud to begin with. This only became thing when digital came in and we missed a layer of saturation from tape and maybe more importantly - a different transient response.
Sure, they were used as a creative effect now and then (The Beatles “Revolution” is an ancient example) but saturating everything by default? Nah. Usually it was an accident. Today, that’s a production decision, which is fine, totally valid and today if you *do* want to heavily saturate something, there are probably 100 tools designed to do it rather than abusing your preamp plugin with it’s minimal controls that wasn’t designed to do that it the first place. It may work, sure...but don’t whine about it if it doesn’t what you think in your mind it should.
Here’s the fact: Some analog gear sounds like total crap if you drive it too hard and when used normally is pretty damn subtle! If you want saturation, why not use a tool designed for it?
And so here’s a list of some excellent tools to try, from mild to wild. Happy saturating!
First some freebies to get you going:
Softube Saturation Knob
Klanghelm IVGI. ( also check out the compressors)
Super good and not expensive preamp/transformer emulations:
Kush OMEGA (three kinds to check out) - and these are super close for me…
Rolls Royce level shiz:
SoundToys Decapitator ( Soundtoys also make some other killers )
PA Black Box Analog Design HG-2