In this roundup, we review six of the best exciter plugins available today and also talk about three free ones.
Interestingly enough, the exciter plugin was first discovered by an honest accident. The pro-audio manufacturer Aphex discovered that playing back an audio clip with a thin, distorted signal of itself gave it clarity. This opened the doors for many enhancers, exciters, vitalizers, etc., to be created.
What Is An Exciter Plugin?
An exciter plugin is an effect plugin that adds harmonic distortion to a targeted frequency range to add more spectral content to the audio. The most common exciter plugins are the high-frequency exciters, which add harmonics at frequencies generally higher than 3kHz.
Exciters have been used to lend clarity to audio by using calculated distortion to generate high-frequency harmonics. Similarly, there are also exciters made for adding low-frequency harmonics to make the audio sound fuller.
Some modern exciters have been built to intelligently generate harmonics based on the target frequencies you select for analysis. So, if you used such an exciter on the vocals to generate high frequencies and set the analyzer to focus on middle frequencies, the exciter will ignore sibilance. Instead, it will focus on enhancing clarity for the main body of the vocals.
What’s The Difference Between Exciter & Saturation Plugin?
The biggest difference is that the exciter plugin targets a specific frequency range, whereas a saturator most often affects the entire frequency spectrum as a whole. However, this isn’t quite the end of the difference, especially with modern plugins.
Nowadays, many saturation plugins will have some sort of emulation going on — some emulate the character of a certain mix console, while some emulate vintage EQs. This means that you might even find a saturator that sounds more like a high-frequency exciter than a general saturation plugin.
Nevertheless, it is enough to understand that while the fundamental function of both exciters and saturators is the same, the difference lies in what frequency range they primarily affect.
The 7 Best Exciter Plugins 2021 For Mixing & Mastering
1. Waves Aphex Aural Exciter Review
As the name suggests, Waves Aphex Aural Exciter is modeled after the very first design by Aphex themselves, renowned for its use on many classic hits.
This exciter adds clarity and sparkle to any audio you feed into it. The plugin also adds some character to your audio as the original hardware used to. We enjoy the sound of it on vocals and strings in particular.
Turning up the Input adds more drive and character to the sound, and the AX Mix essentially mixes the distorted sound to your audio. However, too much of anything is a bad thing, and this exciter is no different. Adding only a touch of excitement using this plugin and boosting the air with a conventional EQ adds a pleasant sheen to the audio without it sounding tiring.
- Mix Modes
This model is based on a tube-based exciter, which means the sound of the same unit used as a send and as an insert differs in character. Waves have emulated each usage method and provided multiple mix modes to get the characterful sounds in a convenient insert workflow.
- Ax Mode
In the Auxiliary Mode, the Ax Mix knob is disabled. Instead, you use the plugin on a send track and adjust the input and output level on the plugin, which gives out a less colored signal relatively. This mode also adds a high-pass filter around 800Hz to avoid muddying the sound.
- Convenient Interface
The GUI of this plugin in the Waveshell v12 is resizable. The VU meters at the top can be customized to display input, output, and auxiliary readings, and they can also be calibrated as required.
Character & Sound:
Waves have taken the extra step to ensure full flexibility in capturing this vintage hardware’s character. For example, each of the two Mix modes has a distinct style. While the Mix 1 mode is somewhat clean, the Mix 2 mode changes based on the amount of Ax Mix. At first, the effect remains quite subtle; halfway up, you will notice some phasing occurring at the mid-high frequencies. And turning the mix up even more results in a huge treble boost.
Similarly, an optional noise section is dedicated to giving a hum based on the A/C power hertz (50 or 60Hz).
This plugin is available for Windows 10 64-bit and macOS 10.13.6 or higher 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, AAX, and RTAS formats.
If you enjoy the sound of vintage sounds of popular artists like Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, you will find this plugin highly satisfying to use. The amount of detailed work in capturing the true sound of the hardware is exceptional.
2. PROCESS.AUDIO Sugar Review (Multiband Exciter)
Prioritizing ease of use, Sugar is a universal answer for almost any kind of enhancement needs you might face.
Behind its simple UI, some complex coding is happening to ensure each band of frequencies stays predictable and musical. The buttons under each band let you select either of the two exciter algorithms designed for said band.
You can adjust the amount of excitement by simply grabbing the handles in the band view at the top or use the “wet inject” knob to increase excitement on all bands at once. There are also input filters to help rein in stray frequencies.
Its usage could vary from adding some clarity to vocals, strings, synth pads to adding bite to drums and guitars. Or perhaps even adding some low-end depth to a bass track. Experimenting with the plugin is highly recommended and delivers quick, gratifying results.
- Multiple Algorithms
Each band has two kinds of excitement algorithms, which give a particular trait to the enhancement appropriate for the band. This simplifies the process of excitement to the point of literally pushing a button and moving a slider.
- Linear Phase Filters
The band crossover filters and the input low-pass/high-pass filters are all linear-phase. So, you needn’t worry about phase issues occurring because of any of the filters. Although, if you prefer the sound of a minimum phase filter, this could be a downside.
- Mid/Side Mode
Sugar can work parallelly in mid/side mode, so you can adjust how much excitement it adds with even more detail. This feature is convenient for stereo depth enhancements.
There is a master saturation section, which can add three kinds of saturation to your audio. If you enjoy smooth, analog warmth, try adding just the slightest bit of Drive to your vocals or instruments.
Character & Sound:
The inclusion of multiple algorithms per band is very thoughtful. For example, if you select the Thick algorithm for the Low band, you will hear enhanced low end without any regard for quick transients (of bass drums, for instance). In contrast, the Punch algorithm does exactly what it says — it adds punch to the low end depending on the transients. And the frequencies it focuses on are somewhat higher than the Thick algorithm.
Due to the linear phase filters and the deliberate design to remain neutral, there isn’t any coloration going on at the fundamental level. Manual adjustments deliver all colorful saturation and character.
Sugar is available for Windows 7 or higher and macOS 10.9 or higher, both 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, and AAX formats.
If you are after a convenient, all-in-one sound enhancement plugin, Sugar is a great choice to consider. However, the CPU usage of this plugin is fairly high, so you may be limited to using this plugin only on busses or full mixes.
3. Noveltech Vocal Enhancer Review
Focused on bringing out vocal presence and clarity, Vocal Enhancer uses adaptive excitement to help your recordings cut through the mix.
This plugin features a convenient interface with a frequency spectrum display between 1kHz and 20kHz. You can easily set the high-pass and low-pass filters to target a specific range of frequencies on this display.
Below the display is the filter section, where you can see what frequencies you have selected and adjust the Q-factor of the filters. On the left is a Focus Frequency knob that adjusts where you want the exciter to focus within the selected range of frequencies. Keeping an eye on the spectrum is helpful while adjusting this parameter.
The plugin is highly efficient — you could easily bring up a voice’s breathiness or just add some shine to the body by adjusting the frequencies affected. You could certainly also experiment with this plugin on synth, drums, and other instruments.
- Adjustable Band
The frequencies this plugin modifies can be adjusted extensively using the filters, the Q-factor, and the slope steepness. This feature lets you focus on what element of the vocals you want to emphasize.
- Silky Smooth Sound
This exciter never makes the vocals sound over-the-top or brittle. The airy boosts remain smooth and pleasing thanks to the adaptive processing.
Character & Sound:
Noveltech Vocal Enhancer “listens” to your audio and generates harmonics based on it. This results in a natural-sounding enhancement without introducing unwanted distortion. We found that it performs well to improve the presence of the vocals’ body without boosting sibilance excessively.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 or higher and macOS 10.9 or higher, both 32-bit and 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, AAX, and RTAS formats.
Among the many exciters available nowadays, Noveltech Vocal Enhancer is one of the winners for sure. We found that it works particularly well on the female voice. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work for male vocals. Truth be told, it works excellently on just about any mid-range instrument or recording. Try out the demo and find out for yourself.
4. SPL Vitalizer MK2-T Review
Vitalizer is an enhancing plugin with a patented filter network that can bring up clarity and focus in individual stems and even in busy mixes.
This plugin is far more than a simple exciter. Plugin Alliance modeled this plugin on the hardware bearing the same name. The concept is that by creating a set of filters based on research findings on people’s hearing perception, you can create highly effective and musical results.
It has another feature called “unmasking,” which uses both loudness and length of sound to enhance the perceptive loudness of desired frequencies. The result, combined with its stereo widening circuit, is a truly effective sound-enhancing plugin.
We recommend using this plugin on vocals and individual instruments. Tightening up or enhancing the bass, widening and adding clarity to synth, etc., are just a couple of its many uses. And while it can be applied on busses, building up its effect per track results in a truly pristine mix with barely any EQing.
- Innovative Filters
There are two high-frequency enhancement parameters on this plugin: the Mid-Hi Tune and the LC-EQ. The Mid-Hi Tune enhances the high frequencies and attenuates the frequencies below the set value. The LC EQ is a passive coil EQ that enhances over a broad high shelf. What’s special about a passive coil filter is that it can enhance the high frequencies without making it sound sharp.
- Bass Enhancer
On the left are two parameters named Bass and Compression. The Bass knob sits in the middle by default, and by simply turning it to the left, it becomes more rounded and loud. Similarly, turning it to the right makes the bass sound tighter. This simplicity is a huge time-saver.
- Stereo Widener
The Stereo Expander parameter utilizes a mid/side stereo widener. This means you will need stereo audio in the first place to hear any enhancements. However, it is certainly convenient to have that feature readily available.
Character & Sound:
The character and sound of this plugin are that of the original hardware, which has been tried and tested to give unmistakably outstanding results. Enhancing the bass using this plugin instantly lets you control its style without ever touching a transient processor. Similarly, the LC EQ never lets the high frequencies become overly sharp and annoying. This is one of the few plugins that are really difficult to make sound bad.
A fact worth noting is that this plugin is based on tube components. So, it does add some warm, analog sound using the filter shapes and by itself too.
The plugin is available for Windows 7 or higher 64-bit and macOS 10.9 or higher 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, and AAX formats.
If you are looking for an all-in-one sound enhancement plugin that actually works, you should give this plugin a try. While it may look simple, the features it offers for controlling both bass and treble are astounding. Interestingly, it tends to affect the entire frequency spectrum to give a highly desirable sound right off the bat.
5. Drumforge DF-Xcite Review
Focused on being a drum shaping exciter, the DF-Xcite provides control over the tonality of your drums with convenient preset multiband saturation.
When you need to add some power, bite, and presence to your drum sounds, some saturation targeted to a range of frequencies goes a long way. However, for the beginner, the question is which frequencies to target.
Drumforge provides an easy solution to that question. The Mode dropdown menu at the middle of the plugin lets you select various kinds of presets such as EDM Kick, Rock Kick, EDM Snare/Clap, etc., to aid you in shaping the sound. What it does essentially is that it changes the band crossover frequencies, and it does help.
The sound of this plugin can go from nice and subtle to heavy distortion quite easily. So, for the experimenting producer, it should give plenty of playing field.
- Multiple Excitement Types
Each band has three types of saturation: American, Vintage, and Extreme. The American mode sounds more like a modern saturation, while Vintage focuses on sounding warm. The Extreme one is heavy saturation, which is handy for bringing out biting tones.
- Helpful Modes
The presets for changing the band frequencies are excellent for saving time. We also found that going for a non-conventional mode for experimental purposes delivers surprisingly interesting results.
- Convenient Interface
This plugin has to be one of the most straightforward multiband exciter available. But, it stays true to what it’s meant to do and offers only the fundamental controls to getting a great sound. So, there is no endless fiddling with parameters with DF-Xcite.
Character & Sound:
This plugin is certainly helpful for bringing up life in your drum sounds when they sound dull. The three saturation modes per band can also help your drums have varying characters. For example, you could use the Extreme mode on EDM toms’ low to mid frequencies to give them a lot of bite. And you could mix in analog-sounding treble sheen to it. So, the sound you could get out of this plugin is quite varying and a lot of fun to experiment with.
DF-Xcite is available for Windows and macOS 32-bit and 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, AAX, and 32-bit RTAS formats.
This is a handy tool to shape your drums and add clarity and presence without spending a lot of time dialing in the right settings. And if you need to get rid of any aliasing, there is also an HQ mode that introduces oversampling. While on sale, the price is quite low for this plugin and justifies the investment easily.
6. AudioThing Type B Review
Taking inspiration from the vintage Aphex Aural exciter hardware unit, Type B adds brightness and presence to your vocals, bass, leads, and other instruments.
In this plugin, we have a Tune parameter, which is the frequency selector for the filter section right below it. The Color knob acts as a subtle low pass filter for the generated harmonics.
We liked the sound of it even more on melodic instruments than drums and percussions. The Emphasis on the filter section can generate interesting sounds on synths. You could also try automating the Tune knob to get even more dynamic sounds.
Next, the Direct toggle switch helps add any lost low and mid frequencies while you are exciting. And we also liked the Env toggle switch for the Noise, which makes the noise only come up when there is audio input.
- Classic Sound
The sound of this plugin is that of the Aphex hardware unit. So, if you are a fan of the late 70s hits, this plugin will aid you in achieving that sound.
- Convenient GUI
The GUI of this plugin is resizable. And you can hide the additional sections beneath the six fundamental parameters if you prefer simplicity. So, it caters to both straightforward and adventurous producers.
- Experimental Filter
You can place the filter section before or after the saturation. Similarly, you can also experiment with using a band-pass filter instead of a traditional high-pass filter. Similarly, the Emphasis parameter can give an interesting peculiarity to your sound with ease.
Character & Sound:
By default, this plugin sounds faithful to the Aphex Type B unit. However, with some experimental tweaks, you can get it to sound very distinctive too. We recommend trying this out on electric keyboards, huge saw pads, and vocals. Driving the input higher gives an analog grit that could be the missing element in your wavetable synth or guitars too.
AudiotThing Type B is available for Windows 7 or higher and macOS 10.9 or higher, both 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, and AAX formats.
We would recommend this plugin if you are a fan of analog-sounding plugins and enjoy having some flexibility too. There’s even a noise section that lets you add the hum the original hardware used to make for authenticity. And if you just want to hear heavy distortion — check out the 12dB wet boost.
7. Brainworx Vertigo VSM-3 Review
The Vertigo VSM-3 is pure saturation freedom unleashed.
For the people who want to control every aspect of their effect plugin to create a truly unique sound, the Vertigo VSM-3 offers two kinds of analog saturation with a ton of flexibility. In addition, the two saturators can work in parallel as well as serial mode.
The ‘2nd Harmonic Fat Crusher’ is a warm saturator based on tube stages, and the ‘3rd Harmonic Zener Blender’ is a brighter exciter best suited for adding clarity. Each saturator can be set to affect low, mid, or high frequencies or the entire spectrum.
There is also a mid/side mode for both the saturator giving you ultimate control over your spatial image. We particularly liked using the Crusher on the mid while using the Blender to add sparkling air on the side.
- Ultimate Control
The VSM-3 offers complete flexibility over the sound of the exciter, even more so than the original hardware it is based on. There is also a mid/side monitoring feature along with a distortion solo that lets you hear exactly what’s happening with your audio. And on top of that, the two saturators can work in parallel or serial mode.
- Resizable UI
The GUI of this plugin can be scaled up to 150% of its original size. However, we would have liked to see a bigger zoom factor as the tiny font and knobs of the plugin can get very tedious to work.
- Analog Sound
Brainworx is known for its meticulously accurate emulations of hardware units, and the VSM-3 is no different. The sound it generates remains faithful to the original gear, offers some upgraded controls, and still manages to be CPU-friendly.
Character & Sound:
The difference between the two saturators the plugin has is fairly easy to distinguish. One is warmer, and the other is noticeably brighter and sparkly. Used together, you can create a sort of sound reminiscent of the vintage era and yet somehow very contemporary.
The low-frequency enhancements work particularly well for getting punchier kicks. You could also try using the Crusher for adding saturated air to synths and keyboards. For vocals, the Blender works well at adding presence and sheen.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 or higher and macOS 10.9 or higher, both 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, AAX, and RTAS formats.
For Universal Audio users, it is also available for UAD-2 hardware and Apollo interfaces.
The sound quality of this plugin is highly commendable. The level of detail and control it offers for a hardware-based plugin is unsurpassed by any other. However, the user interface could be a little overwhelming for an inexperienced producer.
The 3 Best Free Exciter Plugins 2021
1. Slate Digital FRESH AIR Review
Slate Digital needs no introduction to the pro audio community, and this breath of Fresh Air is possibly one of the smoothest exciters in existence.
There are only two knobs in this plugin. However, don’t let its simplicity deter you. Under the hood, it utilizes vintage exciter technology, complete with its smooth high-frequency shine. The Mid Air and High Air parameters, as the names suggest, add brightness to said frequency ranges.
We love using it on vocals, drums, synths, and even full mixes. The plugin never fails to add clarity and presence seemingly magically. And being a free plugin, there is truly nothing to lose in giving it a try.
- Easy-to-use Interface
Despite having multiple parallel processings underneath the plugin, Slate Digital nails the interface design by keeping it astonishingly minimal and elegant. If you are just getting into the world of exciters and enhancers, Fresh Air is the best place to start, without a doubt.
- Smooth Sound
The sound of Fresh Air reminds us of expensive, high-end vintage gears that use induction and capacitors to get their filters, resulting in a smooth sound. Similarly, the plugin also manages to keep the excitement process without distortion or brittleness.
Character & Sound:
According to Slate Digital, Fresh Air was modeled to have the Dolby-A NR band splitting for smooth multi-band function. As a result, the sound of this plugin is that of smooth, analog gears. Also, it doesn’t introduce any frequency dips or notches with either of the two parameters.
This plugin is available for Windows 8 or higher and macOS 10.12 through 10.14, both 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3, AU, and AAX formats.
We highly recommend this free plugin as a universal exciter for adding clarity and shine to your vocals, instruments, and mixes. Even for those with no experience with saturators or exciters, the simple interface of this plugin has zero learning curve.
2. Variety Of Sound ThrillseekerXTC Review
The ThrillseekerXTC is a Pultec-style EQ emulation with an exciter stage added.
This plugin focuses on being all about analog sound and making sure the sound you get out of it is rich and silky smooth. There are pre-selected frequencies in the EQ section. On the right are two knobs, “Mojo” and “Drive,” where Mojo adds harmonic excitement, and Drive gives some analog warmth through the modeled EQ.
Another thing worth noting is that when you download the plugin, you receive two files. One is the black-colored version, which is for quieter audio around -18dB RMS. And the other blue-colored version is meant for louder audio.
- Three Saturators
This plugin uses a separate exciter for each band processing parallelly. However, the Mojo knob only lets you adjust them all at once. Keep in mind that overusing the Mojo can introduce some strange effect into your mix, though. So, it’s probably best to avoid using it on full mixes.
- Customizable Metering
The needle meters can be set to display classic VU as well as LUFS readings.
Character & Sound:
Along with the pleasing sound of the likes of Pultec EQs and the Lang PEQ-1, it uses emulation of transformer-powered tube stages to give it its “mojo” excitement magic. Similarly, the EQ section itself also generates some harmonics and warmth too.
ThrillseekerXTC is only available for Windows 7 or higher 32-bit. It comes in VST 2 format.
Being an EQ and an exciter both, this plugin can single-handedly shape sounds with ease while also adding brightness and thickness as needed. However, being a 32-bit plugin makes its use limited. And bridging isn’t recommended if you need many instances of the plugin.
3. Fine Cut Bodies La Petite Excite Review
One of the quickest ways to add some shine and thick low end to your audio.
La Petite Excite has become a favorite among many producers, and for a good reason too. Both its low and high excitement simply work. Whether it’s drums or vocals or a synth part, you can enhance it using this free plugin, and the results won’t disappoint.
- Simple Interface
We love how you can figure out the GUI of this plugin almost as soon as you open the plugin. It’s no-nonsense and clean to work with.
- High-Frequency Compression
The CV knob at the lower left part of the plugin introduces compression on the high frequencies. This helps when your audio has a lot of sibilance or high-frequency transients. However, avoid overusing it as it introduces heavy ducking unless that is exactly what you are after, of course.
Character & Sound:
The excitement features ensure the output doesn’t have phasing issues. So, the plugin is generally very predictable and easy to work with.
This plugin is available for Windows XP or higher and macOS 10.5 or higher, both 32-bit and 64-bit. It comes in VST 2/3 and AU formats.
If you were to install just one free exciter, the La Petite Excite could be the one. It’s smooth, light on the CPU, and sounds excellent on almost anything. We highly recommend giving it a try.
Nomad Factory COSMOS Review
Cosmos is designed as both an enhancer and a fattener, and it excels at both without a doubt.
If you are looking for a plugin that can thicken up your kick or vocals or any other instrument, you’re in luck. Cosmos uses a sub-frequency generator to artificially add low-end thickness to any audio you feed into it. You could use it for getting huge-sounding synth pads or thundering bass drums.
It doesn’t end there, though. There is a separate low-frequency and high-frequency enhancer, with the crossover somewhere around 600Hz. The Bottom Drive knob controls the former and helps add punchiness to kicks or some oomph to vocals. Similarly, the Exciter Drive adds shininess and richness to audio at the same time.
The sub-generator analyzes your audio and levels the generated sub-bass accordingly. You can select the generated frequency as well.
- Stereo Widener
The Stereo Imaging knob lets you widen your stereo image right from the plugin interface. It uses the mid/side technique to achieve this effect.
There is an in-built limiter in the plugin. And you can control the gain (post excitement) feeding into the limiter.
Character & Sound:
Cosmos is built to sound mostly flat. It doesn’t introduce any noticeable character to the sound. And it doesn’t affect the overall level of the audio with its excitement. Of course, the sub-generator makes the audio sound weightier, but that is to be expected. The exciter section of this plugin is quite predictable and easy enough to use.
This plugin is available for Windows XP or higher and macOS 10.7 or higher, both 32-bit and 64-bit. It comes in VST, AU, AAX, and RTAS formats.
Nomad Factory has always remained a reliable audio plugins developer, and Cosmos proves it true even further. We like the sub-generator the most in this plugin, and the exciters are also just as commendable.
There are plenty of options available nowadays for your perfect enhancer. However, it’s important to note that some enhancers are designed to work better on certain instruments better than others. So, if you are a podcast-maker, for instance, you will want something like the SPL Vitalizer to get smooth, airy vocal recordings.
Or, if you intend to focus on fattening up drums, perhaps the Drumforge DF-Xcite or the Nomad Cosmos is a better choice. Try out multiple options and find one that works best for you. We hope this article helps you find your favorite.
K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica.