You’ve come a long way, baby!
Saturation plugs have come a long way. What used to generally be something you can barely hear, or not hear at all on a per-track basis, is now becoming a blatantly obvious tour de force for tone manipulation. You used to have to put it on every channel and turn all the saturation plugs on and off in order to clearly hear the difference. With the newer saturation plugs you can make a big big difference with just one instance on one individual track.
There are two plugs from the Waves Abbey Road collection that I cannot do without. Reel ADT for bass, and Vinyl for the mastering 2-bus. I might also use other things for saturation, but I always use these two. They are so very very good. And let’s give a shout out to Sonnox’s Oxford Inflator while we’re at it.
On the newer front we obviously have Goliath from Tone Empire, but there are others that also make that big immediate difference instead of being subtle. There’s Valvesque from BeatSkillz (parent company of Tone Empire). The clipper in New Fangled Audio’s Elevate. Brainworx’ bx_saturator is a beast of a mid/side stereomaking saturation plug, and their Black Box has quickly become revered. And there are yet others that fit this bill of big badass saturation plugs as well.
Here’s the thing. I have all these awesome high-end tone-shaping saturators, among others. None of them is always better than all of the others on a particular track. I find myself throwing a number of them on a given track just to see which one is most magical. I have yet to crack the code to just know which is going to be best without experimentation, but I do know that Goliath wins more often than not, so in that sense Goliath is the best I have overall.
There is an art to using these saturation plugs. They basically all will brighten or heat up the tone, emphasizing and producing harmonics evenly, oddly, or just intensely. But they have a cumulative effect that can result in perceived noise in the output of the final mix that can be difficult to correct. These things add noise that on individual tracks you cannot hear, but if you add saturation to many tracks this noise can accumulate at final output resulting in undesirable high-end static-like noise. The problem is that you will not hear this noise on any individual soloed track, but it might undeniably be there with the full mix playing. Cumulative build up of frequency areas is a bitch.
OK, let’s get into this. The manual for Goliath is quite good and I’m going to basically go through it while writing this. Goliath is laid out in a number of discrete sections that make it easy to dissect.
Top left we have an input/output section. Raising the input can subtly to drastically affect the amount of saturation. The output knob is for simple gain staging of the outgoing result, and there is a dry/wet knob so you can mix the original signal and the saturated signal to taste. All these work great and are very intuitive.
Next, middle left, we have a rather nebulously labeled 3-way tone control with settings of Silver, Gold, and Titanium. These are meant to represent Transformer, Tube, and Tape styles of saturation respectively. It is both confusing and beneficial at the same time. Labeling these as metals pushes you more toward trying all three to quickly pick the best one and because of that I think it was a good decision. Raise the input drive until you can clearly hear an effect and then flip through these three settings and your ear will want one of them over the other two. It’s just that quick.
Down at the bottom left are two controls. One is a POWER On/Off button which simply bypasses and un-bypasses the plug. The other is labeled ROOF and goes from 0 to negative infinity. Consider this to be the threshold for the envelope section; at zero there is no effect, and as you approach negative infinity (no, this is not calculus), the envelope section will have more and more effect.
In the center is a pretty VU meter which can reflect the input or output signal. There is also a toggle to turn on or off a low-cut filter (high pass) hard set at 50 Hz. If you can’t hear a difference with that low cut filter engaged, by all means leave it on to avoid build up of undesired sound at the lowest end.
The upper right of Goliath is the envelope section. This can have subtle transient-control effects, and it can have enormous pumping compression effects as well, depending on where you have set the Roof (threshold). There is a switch to turn the envelope section on and off, and I prefer turning it off while I dial in the saturation first and then adjust the Roof and envelope section controls to taste. There are familiar attack and release knobs, and a special Motion controller that can be set from Splat to Sharp. The manual states that Splat provides a more typical compression effect, while Sharp more moves the saturation to the peaks (transients) of the signal. Goliath is a fantastic sounding saturation plug without this envelope section, with it, Goliath moves toward a league of its own in attitude shaping.
Bottom right we have a very capable EQ section that sounds solid and smooth. The frequencies and filter types are etched in stone and can not be changed. Low is a bell filter at 85 Hz, Mid is a bell filter set at 1.5 KHz, and High is a shelf set at 9 KHz. One thing I miss from parent company’s Valvesque is the ability to put the EQ before or after the saturation; but honestly, you can put all the EQs you want both before and after Goliath so it doesn’t really matter.
At the very bottom center is where you find your factory presets, and where you can store your own favorite starting points. I highly recommend going through some of the presets to see what this baby can do, adjusting the input level where required to get the full effect. If you don’t think Goliath can be extreme, try some of these presets and play with the input level.
Saturation is a big deal. This is not the flavor of the month, but a powerful old-school “problem” that has brought analog character and attitude into the modern digital era. Saturation adds things that were not in the original signal in the form of harmonics, and this can greatly help low-end sounds be audible in small speakers and otherwise make tracks pop. Saturation in the right hands makes for a better and more exciting mix, in the wrong hands a lot of undesired noise buildup can ruin everything.