Brainworx is the brainchild of engineer Dirk Ulrich, who while working on a Dream Theatre record, realised that he could really benefit from Mid/Side capability on the plugins he was using, instead of the complicated analogue set up that he had been resorting to. Brainworx was born out of that desire, and is now a mainstay in many professional mix engineer’s arsenals.
Recently they have released Saturator and Refinement – on the brilliant Plugin Alliance platform – which I think is the best platform around for plugin management. (Discussion for another time maybe). Saturator is an update of an already firmly established effect, and Refinement is a brand new plugin. Refinement I’ll review in the article following this one.
The GUI is classic Brainworx. Dark, simple, good-looking.
Saturator is a very versatile multi-band distortion plugin. The way the plugin is set up enables it to be useful for creative sound design, track mixes, and even mastering. As is the Brainworx way, it’s set up for Mid/Side processing, which in and of itself is extremely useful. Saturator V2 is a big update to the first version. Most importantly, the update contains a brand new audio algorithm that vastly improves the sound quality, reducing aliasing, and improving the performance of the plugin.
Saturator is divided into four separate distortion modules, Mid and Side Channels, Hi and Lo frequencies. Each module contains Drive, XL (amount, or mix) and gain. The Drive adds distortion to the signal, from very low levels of added extra harmonics, through varying stages of saturation, to the heavy solid fuzz of complete overload. The XL controls the amount of distortion you add to the original signal. The gain allows you to increase overall volume of that module. What I immediately loved about the distortion is that it’s applicable in almost every circumstance. When the knob is set to number 1 in the range, the distortion applied does not sound like marshall stack break up; rather it is a very gentle addition of those extra subtle harmonics. This has the effect of ‘lifting’ the sound. It’s hard to describe without actually listening, but fitting descriptors would be ‘adding life’, ‘air’ ‘richness’ to the sound. Much like when you run a digital signal through analog hardware or tape, the very slight harmonic distortion adds that element that just seems to bring a bit of life into sound. As you turn that distortion knob, the saturation gradually increases, passing through a really lush, smooth grit, into thick and heavy distortion. It’s not a character distortion type, and I didn’t find the extreme distortion setting to be a ‘tone’ I loved. But it was far from a harsh and jarring flavor.
I ran the plugin on loads of different audio sources. The results were always beneficial, whether on vocals, drums, synths, guitars. It just seemed to inject more life into the sound.
The crossover frequency for the modules is controlled with a slider that runs down the middle of the plugin window. It utilizes a freshly designed algorithm, that ensures the mid and side channels always stay in phase regardless of what you’re doing with the crossover frequency. You can set the crossover for both mid and side channels independently, or linked together. Using this crossover in conjunction with the distortion give multiple possibilities in how to shape the distortion. You can choose at what frequency to put some crispness into big pads on the side channel for example, without detracting from the main energy of the center sound.
As you introduce distortion to a signal, the level inevitably increases. Saturator has two different types of level compensation to deal with that, cleverly named compensation 1 and compensation 2. To my ears, they sound essentially the same, but comp 2 has a slightly louder outgoing signal than the original material, whereas 1 remains the same.
The overall amount and concentration of distortion of the plugin is controlled at the top of the plugin window with the Master XL and Master drive knobs. Next to them is a very useful auto-solo button With that depressed, every time you click on another button or knob in any of the modules, that particular module is solo’ed – focussing your ears on the area you’re working on.
This is an excellent addition to the plugin, For really solid foundations on tracks, it’s often useful to have the bass frequencies in mono. Any audio in the track/mix sounding below a frequency that you set on the knob, is changed to Mono. This can really tighten up the bottom end of a track, giving it a lot more energy and power. Very useful! Either side of this are gain controls for the complete mid and side channels for slightly more mix control of the distortion.
It’s absolutely amazing what this plugin does. This analog-style distortion really can lift parts. Anything dull or lifeless sounding can have the life blasted back into it with this plugin. I really loved using this on many different sources. Adding extra harmonics to most sources created a very pleasing feel of lift, air and life to tracks. Adding it to a synth line or Rhythm guitar helped the sound come more alive in the mix without it standing out volume-wise. Brilliant! Saturator adds a richness to the sound without necessarily adding any edge or grit (unless you want to, of course) I loved the multi band, and mid/side aspects of the plugin. That enabled you to really hone in on areas in a general mix that you want to add life or depth to. I found that adding it to pads and synths on the side channel really added to the quality and life of the sounds without making them cloud over other audio sources. If you need to add a little extra weight to guitar parts, the stronger distortion adds to the flavor without overtaking it. And of course you can use that heavy distortion creatively on vocals and kits to smash the sound up a bit.
Here’s a great video demoing the saturator:
This plugin has very quickly become an essential mixing tool. I’ve been blown away at how useful Saturator is at alternately bringing life, grit, edge, smoothness, and presence to tracks or mixes. I found that it doesn’t have too much to offer as a creative sound design tool, and I can think of several plugins that I’d rather use for creative distortion. For use in the mix, however, I think it’s unparalleled. It’s easy to be heavy handed with saturator, but I find that the subtle use of the XL and drive is the best way to use this plugin in bringing richness to your mixes. Very highly recommended.
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…This plugin has very quickly become an essential mixing tool…
- Adds a definite WOW factor to your audio
- Interestingly CPU light
LOVE IT OR HATE IT
- If you’re looking for a character distortion plugin, look at guitar amp emulators or Fabfilter’s Saturn. If you’re looking for something that can bring a lot more life to a mix, look no further