Fab Filter Saturn – Saturation Perfection
Fabfilter Saturn VST Plugin review
Multi-band saturation and distortion processor.
Hello and welcome to our hands-on review of Saturn by Fabfilter. For those not familiar with the company, the Dutch company Fabfilter are well known for its stylish high-end audio plugins. Saturn is a multi-band saturation effect that works similarly to a typical multi-band compressor but with a few extra tricks up its sleeve. The installation is fairly painless, and of course, there is a demo version you can download now and play with to see if it’s for you.
I am always totally impressed at everything I have used from Fabfilter, the interfaces are flawless, the sound quality is top notch and the customer support is amazing. Saturn, if you can believe it, goes a step further again by presenting a truly excellent and usable piece of gear. I would pretty much say Saturn is one of the best plugins I have ever used, and pretty much a required purchase for everyone, from bedroom producers through to million-dollar facility owners. It’s that good.
Let’s break it down to start with. I mean, why would you ever want to buy a distortion plugin to start with, right?
Back in ye olde days of audio, when all the recording equipment had large Bakelite dials and VU meters, tubes and discrete transformers were commonplace in all the top studios due to the happy side-effect of the induced harmonic distortion analogue equipment produced – especially when pushed hard. Recording console manufacturers took advantage of that by building in specific electronics into their consoles that allowed you to shape and overdrive the effect, producing pleasing warmth and low-end punch. In the 80’s the trend was to stray away from the old-school sound, preferring the new crisper digital format. Some say a lot of the mojo was lost. And of course today, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will be fully aware of the massive resurgence in vintage, or ‘retro’, plugins and emulators on the market.
A lot of guys might think of a distortion effect as maybe a guitar pedal, or something to mess up your lead synth lines with. Sure, Saturn is capable of doing all that silly stuff, but for me what immediately got me interested was the signal saturation potential.
Here’s a mixing trick for all you new guys – one of the best ways to add a large console vibe is to add very subtle distortion to your tracks, almost like a sprinkling of goodness somewhere towards the end of the signal chain. Distortion has a way of glueing all your channel effects and EQ together nicely, and when used correctly it should almost be transparent. Just by inserting Saturn in default mode, you get a nice amount of colouring straight away. The trick is to split the bands in the right places. This is totally dependent on your signal, but with a bit of practice, it won’t take long to judge the best places to put your crossover points.
For instance, a rock bass track might get split at 120hz so you can add some warm tube saturation to the low end, and maybe a crunch amp saturation to the high end to bring out some of the growls. A synth line might get split 4 or 5 times if it’s quite a complex waveform. Vocals perhaps split at 100hz and 2k, allowing you to saturate the mid-range and apply a little high-end boost. Keep it subtle though – if you can hear it, you’ve probably gone too far.
Once your split points are sorted, gently pulling down the threshold so you merely tickle the peaks is all you need. A wee tweak on the compressor and you’re set. You might not even hear the difference immediately, but once you apply the same process to all your tracks – a quick flick of the A/B button shows you how much glue you’re applying. Make sure your gain structure is set right, to begin with, you want to aim for around -18dbfs, and also compensate with the output controls on Saturn for any modification you make to the gain in the unit. Correct input gain is essential for Saturn. Have a look over the video below where we run through this technique.
Of course, Saturn is more than a transparent channel saturation effect, way more in fact.
You get a massive toolbox of distortion models. Saturn has 16 (!!) distortion models you can choose from, in fact, everything from clean through to distructo stupidity. The before-mentioned split crossover points allow you to set up to 6 bands total if you wish, each having its own EQ, compressor and sat models – you simply click on the top of the screen to add crossover split points. The background gives you a spectrum view of the signal, and each band changes from dark to bright red depending on how much oomph you give it. You can put the plugin in wide-mode for extra screen real estate, though it would be cool if you could go full screen like the amazing Pro-Q2.
Also, nearly unnoticed at the button at the bottom of the GUI, is the small button labelled Modulation. Once you open the special little interface area you can really bring the effect to life. You’ll find a plethora of LFOs, XY controllers, MIDI CC and envelope generators to choose from – each with a really simple drag-and-drop cabling system making set-up a breeze. This is taken from their Twin-2 synthesizer instrument and really brings a new dimension to what is traditionally a fairly basic effect.
Finally, you get some great i/o options including M/S mixing, mono or stereo versions, side chain and panning on both in and outputs. Included are over 150 presets to get your creative juices flowing.
In the studio
I used Saturn as a guitar amp for a track as an alternative to Guitar Rig 5, it was great. None of the fuzzy digitalness you’d expect from a plugin like this. It doesn’t model guitar cabinets at all, so I coupled it with RedWirez MixIR2 to provide the cabinet impulses. I was going for a Rammstein/Richard Z Kruspe-style modern wall of guitar tone, and the results were brilliant. Very controllable dynamics and the results cut through the mix a little better than using the amp sim I originally had inserted.
Of course (for me) the main job of Saturn is to provide channel saturation, and wow it performs that very well. You need a gentle hand when using it like this as it’s tempting to boost the saturation levels too far. If you’re producing music I think the possibilities with the modulation section are pretty much endless. Teaming Saturn up with a decent synth and delay plugin and you’ll have yourself an incredibly creative and powerful setup.
So all in all, great stuff. I’m loving everything I see from Fabfilters, and Saturn is absolutely going on the top of my list. I don’t t know how I could mix without it from now on, to be honest. Fabfilter offer a Mixing Bundle for about $800 NZD, which might sound a bit steep, but you’re going to get Saturn, Pro-Q2, Pro-C compressor, Pro-DS de-esser, Pro-G gate and Timeless 2 tape delay – considering Saturn is $220 NZD on its own, this is a pretty good deal, and outstanding value when you consider these are all without a doubt among the best plugins money can buy.