"Saturation" might make you think of distortion, but it can be a powerful tool for shaping dynamics. So while a saturator might be used to turn a clean sound into a distorted one, it will also increase the average volume by knocking off peaks in a manner not dissimilar to a compressor. The harmonic structure of the sound will also become more complex and increase apparent loudness. The sound becomes thicker, richer and more present. These attributes make it a powerful tool for mix downs, but too much saturation turns a mix into a blurry mush. Again, it is a game of give and take. But it's not unusual for a producer to place a saturator on every single channel in a effort to increase apparent loudness while reducing peaks without negatively affecting dynamics or tone.
When you find a saturator you like, it tends to get pretty heavy usage. Like so many others, I have sworn by the Sound Toys Decapitator for years. Saturation is historically an analogue phenomenon but modern plug-ins like the Decapitator dominate the scene, especially considering they cost a fraction of an analogue saturator's asking price. The variety and sound quality of its algorithms have made a legion of producers stop looking at other saturation plug-ins. The Elysia Karacter, however, makes an extremely strong case for jumping camps. Despite both being saturators, they're not directly comparable—the Decapitator has more algorithms while the Karacter offers more signal processing options. And there's nothing stopping you, barring price, from using both. But the Karacter has a certain way of controlling volume that has me reaching for it more and more.
Elysia gives you two versions of Karacter: one called Mix and another called Master. Both have the same sound, but the Master variety offers linked and unlinked processing of stereo or mid/side signals while the Mix supports mono and linked stereo only. The default setting offers so-called "mastering-grade saturation" based on the discrete class A circuity of the hardware version of Karacter. A button labelled FET Shred introduces more intense, tube-style colouration. A Turbo Boost option gets you into increasingly gnarled territory but is also useful for boosting quiet signals.
On busses, the default saturation algorithm is surprisingly hot. Even when treating signals with a lot of headroom, the harmonics become obviously aggressive at about the 4 or 5 mark. Of course, this also depends on the input level, but I found it crunched up pretty quickly with peaks coming in at around -7db. Looking at the meters, the peak level becomes increasingly squashed until you're almost in brick wall territory. The key is that, despite the dynamics being strangled, the signal remains surprisingly open. This makes it a powerful tool for controlling loudness. It can clip off quite a few decibels from an entire mix without much damage, allowing for even greater boosting of the overall level further down the chain. The Gain control is important in this regard. As Plugin Alliance describe in the manual, pushing the Gain up while keeping the Drive low makes Karacter function almost like a limiter.
As such, it's a great plug-in for preparing premasters. Karacter helps maintain a flat, controlled level on mix downs without negative colouration or excessive compression. While a softer touch is needed on cleaner types of music, if you're making even slightly gritty stuff, Karacter can create disturbingly high RMS levels in transparent fashion. While the same could be said of Decapitator, Karacter holds the level tight in a way that feels more controlled. I had fun working without any compression or limiting on the master channel, dialling in a solid drive level to knock off some peaks and pushing the gain up toward zero on the master.
Karacter also excels at treating bass frequencies, especially those without a lot of harmonic content. Turning the Colour dial to its darkest setting and going soft on the Drive adds a subtle sense of weight to low sine and square waves. High drive settings tend to remove some low-end content, but extreme treatments can be blended in to taste with the Mix control. Saturating kicks and basses together can result in pleasing smearing in the mid range. Pumping is generally a dirty word in a production context, but Karacter can create a nice pulsating energy when it's pushing signals together. The effect is, for lack of a better term, very musical.
Whereas the default saturation uses symmetrical clipping, the FET Shred mode goes asymmetrical and emphasises different harmonics. It's a more obvious flavour of distortion but it's more tonally versatile, too. Tweaking Drive and Colour together reveals a wide range of harmonics, from guttural to full-bodied to sizzling. Using it on individual channels tended to work better than on busses. The way it smushes the transient and pushes up the decay greatly changes the impact of the sound—and again, the overall level comes down while presence increases without egregious squashing. You can turn snare drums into explosive, smashing bursts of noise. Hats, too, can really fizz, especially when setting the Colour control to enhance the desired harmonics.
Karacter also works as an expressive tool when using automation. Engaging unlinked mid/side mode and modulating the various controls can turn, say, a simple pad into a spatially and texturally evolving surface. Simply turning up the Mix to emphasise a crescendo can add an extra level of drama. Automating the Colour control can give life to static drums by subtly changing their tonal balance. You can do similar tricks with even the most basic saturation plug-ins, but Karacter inspires you to see what's possible. It's more expensive than the Decapitator but it's every but as versatile and sonically satisfying. The way it controls dynamics on busses alone makes it worth taking for a demo.
Ease of use: 4.5