Dutch company Fabfilter have released a brand new distortion plugin in their 11th year of operations. Of course, being a fabfilter product, it’s never going to be ‘just’ a distortion plugin. ‘Saturn’ contains 16 different distortion types, from subtle tape warmth to extreme overdriven tube amp, with 3 more unusual distortion types as a cherry on top. More on them later. Although initially presented as a single-band plugin, there are actually up to 6 multiple bands that can be treated separately, and offer flexible modulation options per band.
Using the concise title ‘What-you-use-is-what-you-see’; Fabfilter continue the tradition of only having elements of the GUI present that you actually use. It’s kind of like a modular effects unit, where you add or take away the visual elements of the processing as they are required. This de-clutters the plugin massively. It takes a little getting used to, but is extremely pleasing once you know where everything is. I love this system Fabfilter have employed for most of their more complex plugins so that you only see what you use. It’s very intuitive and is actually a lot cleaner than a lot of plugins out there. This, combined with the use of bold, warm colors in the GUI make for a fantastic-looking set of plugins. The GUI begins as one window – a single band distortion unit, with all the basic controls at the bottom, and a warm red backdrop to a frequency analysis graphic, that displays the rough EQ shape of the sound you’re processing. So if all you’re wanting to do is add a little overdrive to a sound, it’s instantly set up for just that; the choice of the drive type coming from a drop down menu at the bottom of the screen.
There are essentially 4 main types of distortion that vary in tone – tube, tape, saturation and amp. For each of them, there are variations in intensity: clean, medium and warm. Then there are three extra effects that are more bit crushing and granular smearing than overdriven distortion, entitled Smudge, Rectify and Destroy. The initial ‘sounds’ created by the distortions are very pleasing to the ear – for a quick warm boost to any sound, the saturation adds nice body to the sound, providing a nice analog emulation. The tape emulation is very nice – adding subtle harmonics and knocking a little off the top end really adds that nice vintage thickness to the sound. Each distortion type can be further tweaked. There is a main ‘drive’ knob, for increasing or lessening the overdriven-ness of the sound. Then there are knobs for feedback, feedback frequency, dry/wet mix, a 4 band tone mixer, and a dynamics parameter. Increasing the feedback and freq knobs quickly get the effect into screaming territory, and subtlety quickly disappears. The 4 tone mixer is great for boosting the harmonics in general frequency areas, enabling you to really design the distortion. My favorite knob of this selection though was the dynamics knob. Very simple – anti-clockwise gives you expansion, clockwise gives you compression. No other parameters, but the knob gives very useful and musical-sounding results. I enjoyed being able to keep the general settings whilst flicking between different types of distortion to compare tonal and timbal qualities. I also liked the 3 extra distortions – smudge, rectify and destroy. Smudge was more of a granular smearing – stretching the sounds out. Rectify was a downsampling bit crushing type distortion. These types really widen the sonic scope of the plugin, enabling the creation of sounds you wouldn’t normally expect to be able to create from a distortion plug.
The 6 band processing is where the plugin really starts to take off. The GUI begins with just one frequency band. By clicking the little plus-sign box in the top right corner, a new band opens up, and the frequency range is set by clicking and dragging the borders. Each band can have it’s own distortion style selection ( from the drop down menu), and it’s own mix, feedback, frequency and compression (dynamics), Drive and tone. There’s a small 4 band EQ for each frequency band, offering even more control over the frequencies to be processed, enabling you to be more selective with the harmonics that are overdriven in each band. It’s also possible to mute and solo each band, so you can hear more clearly what’s going on. Removing a band is as simple as clicking the X button.
If you know Fabfilter’s products at all, then you’ll recognize the modulation system that they employ here. It’s very similar to the Volcano filter, and the Timeless delay plugin. The modulations are almost endless. Almost any parameter can be modulated by all the different modulation sources available. Again, the WYSIWYU system applies – there are no modulation sources available until you click in the window at the bottom of the GUI. From there you can pick from LFO’s, XLFO’s (Sort of step sequencers), XY controllers, envelope generators, envelope followers and MIDI sources. It’s an easy drag and drop system. You select the source modulation, and drag the target button over the parameter you wish to modulate. a cable extends out, and Boom. Job done. Very intuitive, and you’re quickly rustling up some complicated signal paths to mangle your sound! Of course, all the modulation options are host tempo synched or free, depending on how rhythmically tight you want the effect to be. You can send the signal from one modulation source to as many targets as you want, and you can also assign multiple sources to a single target. From reading the bumpf and playing with the plugin, I could find no discernible limit to the amount of modulation options available per plugin. That can lead to the creation of some very complex sound manipulation indeed! All these modulation options move the plugin far from the simple overdrive unit into a really moldable sound design plug that is really limited only by your imagination. Extras There are too many other useful features to list them all, but here are a few more that really aid and enable creativity. There are 150 presets that are designed for very different uses – from subtle warming saturation presets for vocals and instruments, to crazy glitchy burbly tempo synched loop mangling. If you can’t get inspired to create from these presets, then music might not be the right thing for you! I didn’t try the plugin live, but it’s set up for interactive midi learn, a couple clicks and its responding to whatever controller you want. I never had any issues with the plugin stability, so I’m assuming it would be rock solid to use. Mid/side – there is a channel mode that switches between right/left and mid/side. M/S processing is rapidly gaining ground as a standard option within plugin manufacturers. It can be a very useful technique for mixing and mastering. Basically, if you’re wanting to add the effect to the sides of the stereo mix, but leave the mono signal untouched, (or vice versa), then switching from L/R to M/S is the way forward. To know more about the basics of M/S processing I suggest looking here.
Here’s the tutorial video from Fabfilter’s site:
And a crappy video I took of me messing around with four Saturns on four separate channels, hopefully showing a little more of what the plugin can do:
Saturn (I’d love to know why it’s named that) has proven to be a very versatile and great-sounding distortion plugin. The sonic range extends from subtly warming audio, to outrageous rhythmic destruction of the source to unrecognizable ends. I love the way Fabfilter’s concept of What-you-see-is-what-you-use, has set the plugin up to visually be as simple or as complex as you want it. If you’re not using much elements of the plugin, not much shows up on the screen. Simple as that. Excellent. I really liked being able to throw totally different distortion elements onto different frequencies of the sound. I can’t think of another plugin that offers 6 bands of separate distortion, and on top of that provides enough modulation power to affect every parameter of every band! Blimey.
…I can’t think of another plugin that offers 6 bands of separate distortion, and on top of that provides enough modulation power to affect every parameter of every band! Blimey. …
Great sounds – from subtle warmth to blitzed destruction
great GUI – you only see what you use. Very flexible.
Modulation options are absolutely fabulous (no pun intended).
LOVE IT OR HATE IT
If you’re looking for more specific types of distortion (i’m thinking guitar amp simulations here) then this is not the plugin. But for a distortion plugin that is sound-design focussed, there’s not much else out there with this much versatility
Composer/Producer, and keyboard player. He has written and recorded soundtracks for a wide variety of media and co-owns DOsounds.com with Jake Owen, a music production company that gives him an excuse to buy more analog gear.