Are your sounds a little too clean, pristine, stale, boring, or neat? Then there’s nothing quite like distortion to amp things up a notch.
There are a variety of different types of distortion with different character. Some are more subtle. Others are more extreme. Many claim to do all the above. And they run the gamut from warm, vintage saturation and grit to dirt and grime and all-out fuzz fests.
In this guide, we look at the best distortion VST plugins. These are must haves.
FabFilter Saturn 2 by FabFilter – Best Overall
Time and again, FabFilter has proven itself reliable as a VST plugin developer, and the FabFilter Saturn 2 distortion is no slouch either.
This space-age piece of tech puts everything from warm tube- and tape-like saturation to multiband guitar amp style overdrive and fiery distortion right at your fingertips. We wouldn’t expect anything less.
Given that it’s Saturn 2, it is an improvement on the original. FabFilter has painstakingly redesigned the interface to include modulation visualization, subtle saturation and linear phase processing for mastering, new distortion styles, and much more.
FabFilter improved upon the 28 distortion styles, optional HQ modes (Good with 8x oversampling, Superb with 32x oversampling), multiband processing (up to six bands), optional linear phase processing, modulation options (with 16-step XLFOs, XY controllers / sliders, envelope generators, envelope followers, and MIDI sources).
Saturn 2 also comes with an interactive multiband display, per-band drive, mix, feedback, dynamics, tone, and level controls, drag and drop modulation with a 50-slot modulation matrix, per-band solo and mute options, mid / side processing, GPU-powered graphics acceleration, per-component presets, interactive MIDI Learn, Smart Parameter Interpolation, and a great deal more. FibFilter is cool like that.
Again, though, the question is whether this thing passes the auditory test. Well, like I said earlier, this is a FabFilter plugin. Would you expect it to sound bad? Because it doesn’t. The saturation and distortion are highly configurable, so there’s little doubt you’ll be able to dial in a variety of tones you love.
All factors considered, FabFilter Saturn 2 is our best overall pick for this guide.
FabFilter Saturn 2 works on Windows and Mac systems.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
Decapitator by Soundtoys – Best Premium Option
Soundtoys is well known for their vocal effects, but they’ve landed themselves another gold medal with the Decapitator distortion. Tchad Blake said he likes it on everything, Fabrice “Fab” Dupont said it gives you instant results, and Ryan Hewitt warned that the Decapitator could “tear your head off” (nice pun there).
What is the Decapitator? It’s an analog saturation modeler that can give you everything from subtle to extreme saturation. And as many producers know, saturation can breathe some much-needed liveliness into stale or “dead” instruments and make your sounds sonically pleasing and more musical to the ears.
If you love the sound of analog recordings, then you simply can’t be without analog style saturation. It can beef up your bass, thin out acoustic guitars, give your vocals edge, add warmth to keyboards, make lead guitars stand out in a mix, or help you create trademark sounds.
Soundtoys did their homework in creating the Decapitator. They studied all the classic and modern analog units (watch the video below to learn about the exact hardware they modeled) and brought a total of five saturation models to the table. Also included is a modeled tone control and mix control for endless customization.
Instead of capturing static analog sounds and calling it “one and done,” they went so far as to capture the feel of tubes, wires, and transistors. Which means that, as the Decapitator reacts to tracks and their dynamics, you hear subtle changes. Wild.
They even included the “Punish” button in case you want to take advantage of all-out fizzy mayhem on your tracks.
With the five algorithms, drive, low cut, tone, high cut, output, mix, and Punish controls, Decapitator gives you access to a variety of saturated tones you can add to any instrument or vocal track and give it a variety of pleasing sonic characteristics.
It’s a great plugin. But it does cost a little more than the others. But there isn’t anything exactly like Decapitator, and that makes it our best premium pick!
Decapitator is compatible with Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutiques
OneKnob Driver by Waves – Best Budget Option
Developer Waves obviously knows that some producers appreciate one-knob tone boxes that make your tracks sound better. Period. The details? Not as crucial as the sound you can achieve.
And the OneKnob Driver is just such a VST distortion. The tone was inspired by famous guitar overdrive pedals, and it can go from light drive to heavy distortion. Its tone “switches gears” as you crank it up to higher levels too. It sounds great on guitars, sure, but it’s equally at home on vocals, drums, bass, pianos, synths, and other instruments as well.
Mike Patton liked that the OneKnob Driver is delightfully easy to navigate and use, producer Gil Norton said he uses it on his mixes a lot, and Kara-Lis Coverdale found it intuitive and effective.
While it might not be versatile, OneKnob Driver could easily become your all-in-one, easy to operate, go-to overdrive effect. And, just as advertised, it is quite usable on a variety of instruments.
Most days, you should be able to get it at a discount at Waves. So, while it can’t do anything close to FabFilter Saturn 2 or Decapitator, we do think it deserves a look as our best budget options.
OneKnob Driver works on Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Waves
Trash 2 + Expansions by iZotope
iZotope’s Trash 2 + Expansions is a multi-band, dual stage, waveshaping distortion with post-filtering. This highly rated plugin caught the attention of many, including Attack Magazine who thought it was versatile, musician / composer / producer Atticus Ross called it one of the best plugin distortions, and Grammy-award winning Dubfire said it was one of his favorites. So, it can’t be all trash, right (get it)?
Apply this to your vocals, guitars, basses, drums, synths, pads, brass, woodwinds, and listen as they transform. The dual distortion modules combined with an array of multi-effects allows for creative sound design.
Trash 2 lets you chain two distortion algorithms in each frequency band for up to eight flavors of dirt and grime. Also included are over 100 impulse responses with the Convovle module, Delay and Dynamics modules, and two filters with 20+ filter types.
Trash 2 also lets you apply different distortion types to up to four frequency bands, chain two distortion algorithms for each frequency band, choose from 60 distortion algorithms, design your own distortion with the graphic based Waveshaper, filter each stage, refine your sounds with the DC Offset Filter and Logarithmic Distortion modes, and take advantage of the Delay, Dynamics, and Output Limiter features.
The filter modules let you experiment with more than 20 sweepable filters, add LFO and envelope modulation per node with wahs, wubs, tremolos, and other sweeping effects, sidechaining, parallel filter modules, and more.
Similarly, you can deep dive into convolution, multiband dynamics, delay, and output limiter, for versatile customization. Honestly, after a point, we feel like we’re just repeating ourselves, so check the video or link below to learn more about what’s included in Trash 2.
More importantly, how does it sound? For a lack of a better way of saying it, this thing is cool! You can get all kinds of wicked effects suitable to a variety of instruments. I love how it sounds on bass myself. It’s even capable of achieving talk box style effects. At this price point, Trash 2 is simply superb.
Trash 2 is compatible with Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
Sausage Fattner by Dada Life
With a name like Sausage Fattner, and the silly graphical user interface, you know straight away that the folks at Dada Life have a sense of humor.
The Sausage Fattner is their first creation. After being asked how they were achieving their “greasy” EDM tones, many people asked them how they were doing it. Yep, you guessed it – Sausage Fattner is the answer. And this plugin is used by the likes of Kaskade, Diplo, Laidback Luke, and a variety of others.
Beginners and newbies will probably love the two-knob design. There isn’t much to fiddle with here besides the Fatness and Color dials. Once you start fiddling with them, you get a good feel for them.
Dada Life still says there’s a lot you can do with Sausage Fattner. It can be used as a musical compressor with moderate settings, and with more extreme settings, well you’ve got yourself a dirty, fat distortion. It basically works on individual tracks, busses, and masters alike.
Electronic producers will obviously love this, especially if they need to fatten up their favorite bass tones. But as Dada Life says, you can use it in a variety of ways, whether on individual instruments or entire mixes.
If you’re looking for deep customization and endless features, options, and parameters, then Sausage Fattner is obviously not for you. But if you want to make your electronic music projects especially dirty and greasy, you will love this. And who knows how else you might be able to take advantage of it?
Sausage Fattner works on Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Splice
Wave Box by AudioThing
AudioThing’s Wave Box has attracted more than its share of customers and has maintained its overall popularity.
What is it? It’s a dynamic dual waveshaper plugin for symmetrical and asymmetrical distortion. A waveshaper distortion is where the input signal is mapped to the output with a fixed or variable shaping function. Thus, its name.
Wave Box comes with two distinct waveshapers that can be mixed while being modulated by an envelope follower and two LFOs. Create your own curves with six pre-defined functions (tanh, sinh, sin, linear, floor, round), and dial in anything ranging from tube-like overdrive to digital mayhem.
The shaping function gives you control over the harmonics. With symmetrical waveshaping, odd harmonics are generated, and with symmetrical waveshaping, even harmonics are generated.
Wave Box is obviously a cool concept, and while it does do more than several plugins, we’ve looked at here, it is relatively humble in scope all told, with two waveshapers, six shaping functions, two LFOs with six waveforms, envelope filter, oversampling up to 16x, 30 factory resets, and preset system with randomizer.
Its graphical user interface is quite nice so far as flat vector inspired designs are concerned. It’s colorful without being loud, well balanced, and it’s easy to understand.
As for its sound, it’s relatively versatile. It can deliver modulation style effects along with some added grit, and that gives you flexibility. It’s also great as a track enhancer in a general sense, as it can add life to sounds that can easily get lost in the mix. One might even say that’s what the plugin is for!
Wave Box is compatible with Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
Faturator by Kilohearts
We love the name of this plugin. Kilohearts is well-known for the modular snapin effects that can be chained together. And naturally, the Faturator is one such effect (they also have other distortions, just for reference).
This highly rated plugin has received plenty of love from the community. Data Romance’s Ajay Bhattacharyya found it user friendly and versatile, Pat Pardy of Evil Nine called it his favorite, and EDM producer KSHMR says he adds Faturator to almost every track.
Regardless of what you might be looking for – color, oomph, grit, fatness, rawness, or some other X factor – Faturator is just begging to be added to your VST arsenal. After tearing apart whatever you throw at it, it will piece it all back together and deliver it back to your ears with increased rawness and fatness.
Faturator also claims to maintain the dynamics of your sound while giving it that dirt you shoveled on it to begin with. It can also color your input or even increase stereo width of your tracks. To that extent, this is a “quick and dirty” (got that?) solution for all your distortion needs. No, really, it is easy to use and apply, and not bad to look at either.
You can see from the interface that the controllable parameters are basically drive, fuzz, color, mix, and stereo turbo. Pretty self-explanatory.
Personally, I find Faturator to be a little one-dimensional. It can certainly go from light to heavy, but its overall coloration seems to stay about the same. It’s still a good plugin, but if you need many distortion types, this may not be your ideal solution.
Faturator works on Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
BDE: Big Distortion Engine by DJ Swivel
DJ Swivel’s BDE: Big Distortion Engine comes with multiple distortion styles, effects, M / S and frequency control, as well as user-definable dynamic preservation control function, which lets you keep the dynamic range of your signal while adding some grit.
The six distortion types (Nuke, Napalm, Mortar, Grenade, Molotov, and Cherry Bomb) can be applied to a variety of styles of music, whether rock, pop, hip-hop, or EDM. The bandpass function lets you apply distortion to specific sections of frequencies while keeping the rest of the signal clean, and the M / S function lets you put distortion across any part of the stereo field.
You also get the dynamic preservation function mentioned earlier, along with a variety of effects to take your distorted sounds to the next level – bit crushing, downsampling, compression, color, and filters.
The concept and user interface are obviously quite cool. You don’t see many plugins styled exactly like this. It looks more like a piece of handheld space-age com tech versus a VST plugin. But it is very attractively designed, and as promised, simple. The dials and sliders are clear, and if they aren’t, you will get used to them (also see the video below for instructions).
Electronic producers will love the flavors of distortion onboard BDE: Big Distortion Engine and should find them quite versatile too.
BDE: Big Distortion Engine is available for Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
MDistortionMB by MeldaProduction
MeldaProduction always has something to bring to the table, regardless of the type of effect (kind of like KiloHearts). No surprise, then, that they have a distortion solution known as MDistortionMB.
This distortion was created primarily for use with guitars and synths. With a multiband core, though, it’s versatile enough to be applied to individual tracks or to the entire mix. And as every developer seems to like to say, this one goes from mild to overcooked with the twist of a dial.
MDistortionMB comes with generalized amp simulation with 12 predefined sounds organized by style, five digital distortion algorithms, two graphical user interfaces, one to six configurable independent bands with three transparent algorithms (analog, linear-phase, and hybrid), and a continuously adjustable oscillator shape.
You also get four global modulators that can modulate any set of parameters (including other modulators). These work as LFO, follower, MIDI / audio triggered ADSR envelopes, a pitch detector, or a combination thereof.
Up to eight channels of surround processing, full randomization, adjustable up-sampling (1x to 16x), automatic synchronization to host tempo, MIDI controllers with MIDI Learn, and other features are also onboard.
MDistortionMB is chill, so far as we’re concerned. It can give your tracks a telephone style EQ, a lo-fi quality, and even adorn them with all out blast, depending on what you want to do.
This plugin is relatively affordably priced, and it’s compatible with Windows and Mac systems.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
Subvert by Glitchmachines
Glitchmanchines’ Subvert is a three-channel distortion processor built around five effects – multimode distortion, FM ring modulator, digitizer, metalizer, and multimode filter.
Yes, it can go from subtle to brutal. Just like the rest. You’ve heard that already.
With a multi-channel layout and a per-effect bypass option, you feel as though you’re operating futuristic space-age tech. And true to form, Subvert has various unconventional routing options, global EQ, 15 effects processors, various modulation options, and even a global randomizer.
Distortion is clearly at the heart of Subvert, but it does offer access to additional customization with two envelope followers, four LFOs with optional tempo sync (their output can be inverted or combined with up to four mixers), and a master EQ for fine-tuning and additional tone shaping.
The multi-mode filter (first processor in each chain) allows for multi-band effects patches. That means you can process different frequency ranges with each channel. The order of effects can be configured with the bypass functions, for parallel and serial processing.
The user interface looks a little convoluted, but it’s basically three modules laid out side by side. When you look at it that way, its operation becomes considerably clearer. We like the colors and balance of the interface, though we do think more separation between the modules would help with visual clutter.
Based on what we hear coming out of this little fuzz box, we think it will appeal to electronic producers. Subvert allows you to add sweeping, modulating distortion to your sounds, which infuses your tracks with subtle changes as they play out. It’s lots of fun!
Subvert is available for Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
Rift 2.0 by Minimal Audio
Minimal Audio’s Rift 2.0 features a perfect rating and sleek, eye-catching user interface. Computer Music Magazine said it’s one of the best distortions they’ve ever used, Sound On Sound found it powerful, creative, deep, and versatile, and Skream thought it was “next level.”
Rift 2.0 is a hybrid distortion with a multi-polar distortion engine, 30 distortion types and up to six stages of processing, over 400 presets with deep macro control, easy to use Play view and in-depth Advanced view, physical modelling feedback and delay, morphing filters, multi-band effects routing, and modulation sequencing.
You also get pitch snapping, transposition, MIDI tracking, dark and light UI modes, intelligent randomization, in-app tooltips, oversampling, CPU optimized algorithms, and more.
Music production geeks will love that Rift 2.0 applies distortion to the positive and negative polarities of an audio signal. It’s one of the things that sets apart Rift 2.0 from a lot of other distortion VSTs out there.
The average creator will probably care more about the sound of the included distortions, as well as the built-in features. And from what I’m hearing, in addition to being a distortion module, it’s a capable sound shaper too. So, whenever you want a track to pop in a mix, this is sure to come in handy too.
Rift 2.0 is compatible with Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
Thermal by Output
Output’s Thermal has an instant visual appeal and intrigue about it. Future Music Magazine called the highly rated plugin an “inspiring sound-mangler.”
This interactive distortion VST gives you the ability to dial in new distortion sounds using its multi-stage engine. There’s an XY control that allows you to enhance harmonics with analog and digital distortion algorithms, effects, modulation, and imaging options.
Thermal also comes with 15+ custom distortion types, over 250 presets with favoriting feature, mid-side and time-based width, nine built-in effects (reverb, delay, flanger, etc.) with a master compressor and filter, value readout panel, and Bult-in ToolTips.
The presets are arranged by category, and have been optimized for use with drums, bass, vocals, guitars, keys, lo-fi, feedback FX, rhythmic, and more.
If you’re looking for a plugin that can make a track “pop” in a variety of unique and interesting ways, then you’ve found your match made in heaven. Thermal is ideally suited to such applications, and it’s a blast to play with besides.
Thermal is available for Windows and Mac.
Learn more: Plugin Boutique
What Should I Look For In A Distortion VST Plugin?
If we merely stated here that distortion is an individual thing, then you would probably take that as a copout answer, right?
So, if we were to offer a little bit of additional guidance on your shopping journey, it would be this:
Consider the sound quality / character of the distortion. Some plugins have different algorithms and others don’t. Some are versatile and others aren’t. What types of sounds do you need?
Consider how you’re going to be using the distortion. Are you planning to apply it to vocals? Guitars and basses? Keyboards? Busses? The entire mix? Different distortions work better for different purposes, and as much as possible, we’ve offered our input on this. See above.
Consider the included features. What parameters does the distortion give you access to? How do these controls change the sound or quality of the distortion? Do you know what you need? Carefully consider after exploring the different options available.
Finally, consider your budget. How much money do you have to spend? We don’t recommend going into debt to buy a distortion VST, or any musical gear for that matter, so if you plan to forego spending responsibly, you might want to think twice. Use your budget to filter your purchase.
Top Distortion VST Plugins, Final Thoughts
Unless you’re only recording pristine, crystal-clear acoustic recordings, regardless of what type of composer, music producer, or sound engineer you are, and regardless of project type, distortion is an essential to add to your VST palette (and arguably, even if you are primarily handling acoustic music, you might still have your uses for distortion!).
Distortion is often the X factor not considered in music production, and it is a powerful effect if used in the right situations and with moderation (although sometimes it works when used in excess too!). Happy shopping and enjoy your new distortion VST(s).