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Fabfilter Saturn Team Assignment

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, Fabfilter are an Dutch company well known for their stylish high end audio plugins. Saturn is a multi-band saturation effect that works similar 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 its 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. Its that good.

Lets 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 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 gluing all your channel effects and EQ together nicely, and when used correctly is 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 dependant on your signal, but with a bit of practise it wont take you 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 growl.  A synth line might get split 4 or 5 times if its quite a complex wave form. 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 you’re got your split points 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 then a transparent channel saturation effect, way more in fact.

You get a massive a 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 their 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 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 form 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 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 then 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 its 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 a 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.

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MIDI Learn

Controlling FabFilter Saturn's parameters directly with MIDI is very easy using the MIDI Learn feature. With MIDI Learn, you can associate any MIDI controller with any parameter.

Click the MIDI Learn button in the bottom bar to enter MIDI Learn mode. The interface dims and the parameters that can be controlled are highlighted. Each parameter has a small text balloon that displays the associated controller number. Now do the following to associate a controller number with a parameter:

  1. Touch the control of the desired parameter in the interface that you wish to control. A red square will mark the chosen parameter.

  2. Adjust the slider or knob on your MIDI keyboard or MIDI controller that you want to associate with that parameter.

That's it! The parameter will now be controlled with the MIDI controller. You can now go back to step 1 to associate a different parameter. Note that there is no warning when you associate a different knob with a controller number that is already used. It will just be replaced.

To exit MIDI Learn mode, click the MIDI Learn button again, or click Close at the top of the interface.

Click the small menu drop-down button next to the MIDI Learn button to access the MIDI Learn menu:

  • Enable MIDI
    This globally turns MIDI control of parameters on or off: useful in hosts that automatically send all MIDI events on a track to all effect plug-ins associated with that track as well.
  • Clear
    This submenu shows all parameter associations and lets you delete individual associations or clear all associations in one step.
  • Revert
    Reverts to the last saved MIDI mapping (or the state when the plug-in was started).
  • Save
    Saves the current MIDI mapping so Revert will go back to this state. The current mapping is automatically saved when closing the plug-in.

Routing MIDI to effect plug-ins

For MIDI Learn to work properly, the plug-in need to actually receive MIDI of course. Depending on your host, it can be quite difficult to route MIDI data to effect plug-ins. Here's how to do it in the most important hosts:

  • Logic Pro
    Instead of adding FabFilter Saturn to one of the insert slots, create a new Instrument Track, and click on the Instrument slot. Then choose AU MIDI-controlled Effects > FabFilter > FF Saturn. Now, the plug-in receives MIDI. To get audio into the plug-in, click the 'Side Chain' drop down menu in Logic's plug-in header and choose the actual input track. Next, you can mute that original track, so you only hear the audio through the plug-in. The only downside is that plug-ins with an external side-chain cannot use it anymore.
  • Cubase
    Simply create a new MIDI track and set its output to the Saturn instance you would like to control via MIDI.
  • Pro Tools
    Create a new MIDI track. From the MIDI input drop down menu, choose your MIDI device (if not already selected) and from the MIDI output drop down menu, choose FabFilter Saturn -> channel 1 for the instance you would like to control.
  • Ableton Live
    First of all, create a new MIDI track. From the 'MIDI from' drop down menu, choose your MIDI device (if not already selected). Then, in the 'MIDI to' drop down menu, choose the Audio track that has FabFilter Saturn on it. NOTE: only the first plug-in on any track can receive MIDI!

Next:Undo, redo, A/B switch

See Also
Overview

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