Let’s share a moment of silence for the analog studios of the world – once hallowed grounds of divine sonic creation, now dwarfed by the capabilities of the at-home digital producer. And yet, despite all the bells and whistles, tweaks and twiddles, and warps and wahoos available at the touch of your finger, we still want our music to feel like it was recorded live.
That’s why analog emulators are so essential in the world of Virtual Studio Technology (VST). The right distortion or saturation plugin can be the difference between your music sounding like a recording from your kitchen-table laptop, versus a recording from Studio One at Abbey Road.
Now, there are a ton of options when it comes to quality distortion plugins that can elevate the sound of even the most basic stock software. Many of these options also pair quite well with our CUBE software here at Lunacy. But when we narrow our ranking criteria down to overall sound, ease-of-use, and functionality, a small handful rise to the top. Here is our breakdown of the top five distortion plugins currently on the market.
Highlighted by a deep dedication to producing accurate analog saturation, there’s a reason why Soundtoys Decapitator is the near unanimous choice for top distortion VST. Everything Soundtoys puts out just looks right. From the wood-grained housings to the knob design, they do a fantastic job of making the virtual seem actual.
Modeled after five distinct and highly renowned preamps, Decapitator merges simplicity of use with profound sonic distinction. With analog-modeled tone control, the ability for subtle alterations of saturation feels both natural and precise.
The mix control knob is also an enormous plus, allowing you to blend in a dry signal for parallel processing without the need for any external routing and sub-mixes. This really allows for variations in layered tonality that could have felt too laborious to explore otherwise.
Decapitator’s real coup de gras though is the ‘Punish’ button, for when you want to throw caution to the wind with your gain and drive your sound to a world of hurt that seems unfathomable to not be coming out of actual screaming tubes.
FabFilter has a more unique look for their plugins; more akin to embracing the digital interface than trying to mimic an analog unit. That says nothing of their sound though, as Saturn 2 can create variations of warmth that seemingly could only come from vintage tapes, tubes, and transformers.
With 28 different distortion styles to choose from, you can have up to six bands operating with their own styles and full independent control. The range of capacity from subtle warmth and saturation to bludgeoning distortion is profound, and you can get delightfully lost in the possibilities.
The spectrum of modulation can feel virtually limitless, with XLFOs, EGs, XY controllers, envelope followers, and MIDI sources, and are easily manipulated with real-time visualization.
Like all FabFilter plugins, Saturn 2 offers hints and suggestions while you work – a feature that becomes less necessary the more comfortable you get with their interface, but incredibly beneficial while initially navigating the vast potentials of tone and frequency.
Ohmicide easily takes first prize in the name category, but it’s also the oldest plugin on this list. It’s been one of the most popular distortion VSTs for 15 years, used by some of the top producers in the game, and all for good reason: its user-friendly interface was designed with live performance in mind.
With over 80 distortion models that can be uniquely adjusted over four bands, the range of potential manipulation is off the charts. Focusing more on an extensive range of sound possibilities rather than accurate analog recreation puts Ohmicide in a unique position – one that cares more about where the sound can go, rather than where it came from.
Using their own Melohman technology, (they love their punny monikers,) Ohmicide features full MIDI compatibility. Preset changes can be adjusted using a hardware controller and respond with complete human-response-like accuracy. Coupled with the vast array of presets to choose from, this has been the distortion plugin for live performance.
In terms of range of creative exploration, iZotope’s Trash 2 offers one of the deepest ranges of potential sound manipulation. It has 60 different distortion algorithms, 20 filter types, and a handful of oscillators which can be manipulated across four bands individually.
Now, regarding user-friendliness, Trash 2 wasn’t necessarily designed for the novice producer, but rather for someone who already has an idea of how they want to manipulate their sound. As such, the interface can feel intimidating to some, and drool-worthy exciting to others.
With both pre- and post-distortion filters, and over 100 additional patches, the ability to compile your sonic manipulations in unique arrays is extensive within Trash 2. And the ability to design your own distortion algorithm using the graphic waveshaper offers a truly limitless range of possibilities.
Minimal Audio’s Rift is the newest kid on the block, and it’s taking the title of ‘distortion’ plugin lightly. Another VST that would rather push the horizons of sound than stress the accuracy of the past, Rift can feel more like an instrument than a filter.
There’s a lot to get blissfully lost in with Rift, including 400+ presets and a vast array of tone modulation. Unique features like pitch-tracking, intuitive pitch-snapping and transposition allow for a potential range of creative expression that can’t be found on any other distortion plugins out there.
With its physical modeling feedback of the waveform, which includes the ability to manipulate the positive and negative portions of the wave individually, it really feels like Rift gets your hands behind a curtain previously closed. Coupling Rift with our plugin CUBE could be deep rabbit hole territory.