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Unsure What Saturation Does? Learn How To Use Saturation Effectively.

Saturation can often be difficult to understand for beginners, unlike equalizers or reverbs which are somewhat straight forward.

Many people hear about saturation but are not sure what its effects are on a audio signal. Is it just pure distortion, or it adds color? Saturation does that and even much more.

In fact, some people are confused on what the difference is between saturation and distortion, not sure when to use it and how to use it.

So there is no need to worry as I will be showing you what saturation is and how to use it effectively in your mix.

Hoping that by the time you are done reading this, you will be more confident with what saturation does and how to apply it in your mix.

I will be going over some audio examples with images to demonstrate the effects of saturation, in order to help you take your production and mixing to the next level.

So sit tight, grab your headphones or listen on your studio monitors.

What is Saturation

Saturation is basically a form of subtle distortion that adds harmonics to the sound being processed. It is essentially what makes the analog world very exciting than the digital world.

Which is why there are now several types of saturation plugin emulations out there today, with the goal to recreate the vibe that saturation gives in the analog world.

Saturation can easily be used to give character or add warmth to a sound.

In the analog domain, when a sound is driven so loud or too hot into a analog recording device like a preamp or a tape machine, the audio starts to break up or clip, creating a very pleasant, and musical sound.

Unlike the digital world where things begin to clip at zero and sounds awful and unusable.

Difference Between Saturation and Distortion

Before going into the types of saturation and examples, let me briefly explain the difference between saturation and distortion. The simple difference is this:

Saturation is subtle, while

Distortion is aggressive(extreme saturation).

Here is a synth track, showing the 'before and after' of saturation and distortion.


Saturation of a synth sound using Decapitator by Soundtoys
Using Decapitator, a subtle amount of saturation is added.

Did you notice that the waveforms looks similar, but the saturated track sounds way richer and edgy than the original track.


Using Decapitator, a heavy amount of saturation is added.

The distortion on the guitar might sound terrible on its own, but it can certainly play a major role in the mix. You can use distortion when you need an element of the mix to cut through.

Types of Saturation

There are different types of saturation, but the most common ones are tapes(emulation), preamps, tubes, transistor and distortion.

These units all have their own unique qualities and characters, and they can be used in different scenarios depending on what you want to achieve.

The common reason why many saturation plugins like Decapitator, NLS by Waves Audio, VCC, Saturator 2  are created is simply to replicate the way things are done in the analog world.

In the analog domain, audio goes through phases of saturation from recording to mixing and even during mastering.

A typical analog setup would be like this:

The audio signal from a microphone or any other instrument goes through a preamp, where the first stage of amplification and saturation begins, it thens goes into an equalizer or a compressor to shape the tone of the sound, which can also introduce some kind of subtle saturation.

Then the audio signal goes into the console, and from the console it goes into a tape machine to record and then it comes back to the console, where you can then add loads of processing inboard and outboard.

Saturation is a secret weapon for professional mixing and mastering engineers. They sometimes use it for compression instead of a traditional compressor.

It’s also a great tool for sound designers as it helps them create really intriguing sounds which we are all familiar with from the movies we've watched.

Saturation when used properly can produce a mix that is full of character.

Visual Representation on How Saturation Impacts the Sound

If you grab a frequency analyzer and drive a pure sine wave into it, you will hear and see a single tone. But as you apply saturation to the sine wave at different incremental values, harmonics will be added.

In this case, we are using a tube saturation plugin from Slate Digital called VTC, and as you can see that we have some upper harmonics being added, which can really give a pleasant and musical vibe to the sound.

Saturation plugins are very easy to use, once you understand what the parameters are for. It's very important to know when and where to apply saturation, as you don't want to go too far by applying heavy saturation on all tracks within the mix.

You can always use a saturation plugin across your entire mix if you are trying to emulate the way it's done in the analog world, and I absolutely encourage this. Just make sure you balance how much the effect is doing, because is always right around the corner if one isn't careful.

And the good thing with plugins is that you can always go back to reduce the saturation if it's too much, just make sure you save and keep the original tracks.

Let take a quick look at some examples on how you can improve the quality of your mix using saturation on instruments.

In our first demonstration we will be using saturation on a drum loop.

In this instance I have used decapitator to add more grit and color to the already good drum track.

Note that the effects used here are exaggerated simply for demonstration purposes.

The second example is using saturation on a synth patch, and as you can hear, the added saturation warms up the sound, and it does that by smoothing out the top end of the synth, and also adding more weight and color to the entire sound.

These examples are just to give you a feel of what saturation does, as you know there are different types of saturation plugins out there and you can always get a good sound from majority of these plug-ins without spending a fortune on any analog gear.

Other Things That Saturation Does

There are many more things that saturation does. You can use saturation as a form of compression as stated earlier, and you can also use it as a tool to create more headroom during the mixing which gives your mix the potential for loudness during mastering.

You can use saturation to  shape your transients, as percussive elements like snare and kick drum can easily eat up the headroom. Basically, you can use it to control the peak level of a track.

You can add grit to vocals, punch to drums, weight to pads and much more.

There are instances where instead of grabbing a compressor you would want to grab a saturation plugin first or any hardware unit. Early engineers realized this and have been using it ever since to get a more natural form of compression.

Saturation has many applications, and you shouldn’t be scared to apply it effectively in your mix. Professional mixing and mastering engineers have developed workflows or approaches that continues to help them achieve great sounding records, and the use of saturation is definitely one of it.

You can use it on a bass track to help a it cut through the mix which will make it audible on small speakers. You can add grit to vocals, punch to drums, weight to pads and much more.

In Conclusion

So I hope you are very much confident now about saturation than you were before? Saturation can be your favorite tool when you know how to use it properly.

What it does mainly is to add harmonics to your sound, and the harmonics added will simply achieve different results based on the source material.

Everyone has the terms they use to describe the effect of saturation. Some say color, warmth, fuller, weight, solid, whatever you call it, if it sounds good, then it's good and that’s all that matters.

Have a wonderful time producing, recording, mixing music, and If you love this, please do not hesitate to share with people that you think might need it.

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