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