A great mix relies on many elements coming together – the right balance, EQ, effects, and more. One important but often overlooked tool for taking your mixes to the next level is saturation.
Saturation in audio engineering refers to the distortion that occurs when an audio signal exceeds the headroom of a piece of equipment or processing unit.
In simple terms, it’s what happens when you turn up the volume so high that the signal starts to distort and “clip.” The peaks of the waveform get flattened as they hit the maximum level that can be reproduced.
Light saturation can make sounds fuller and more analog. Heavy saturation significantly changes the timbre and introduces more grit/distortion.
Low levels of saturation generally sound pleasing on full mixes. High amounts are more often used as an effect on individual tracks.
In this post, we’ll explore 20 ways to harness the power of saturation. Whether you’re working in a DAW or with analog gear, you’ll find tips for adding richness and polish.
Let’s dive in!
- Add warmth to vocals – A touch of saturation can add pleasing warmth and richness to vocals. Use subtly and try different saturation plugins to find what works best. Start with a low drive setting.
- Fatten up bass – Saturation can help make basslines sound fuller and more present, especially when mixed low. Try saturation on just the low end using a multiband processor. Boost lows slightly after saturating.
- Blend acoustic guitars – Light saturation helps blend multiple acoustic guitars together by adding cohesion. Use in moderation to avoid muddiness. Try parallel processing.
- Make synths richer – Saturation adds pleasing harmonics to synth sounds, making them richer and more analog-sounding. Try on pads, leads, and basses. Use before compression.
- Glue a mix together – Use subtle saturation on your mix bus or drum bus to help everything glue together more cohesively. Start with a low mix amount.
- Add grit to drums – Saturation is great for adding some dirt and edge to drums. Try it on individual drums or the whole drum bus. Use a fast attack and release.
- Thicken background vocals – Saturation can help background vocals blend together and sit better in a mix when used lightly. Automate the amount for interest.
- Bring out guitar textures – Use heavier saturation to make guitars crunchier and emphasize pick attack and string noise. Try in parallel to retain clarity.
- Make samples more vivid – Dull or lifeless samples can benefit from saturation to become more vivid and exciting. Use a tube emulation plugin.
- Create lo-fi effects – Heavier saturation settings create gritty lo-fi effects. Automate the amount for creative transitions. Use a bitcrusher too.
- Thicken drums – Subtle saturation on drums can help make them sound punchier and more blended. Try on overhead mics or drum bus.
- Add character to pianos – Saturation helps make piano sounds less sterile by adding harmonic richness. Use sparingly to avoid muddiness.
- Shape reverb tails – Applying saturation to reverb returns shapes the decay tail and blends with the dry sound.
- Enhance vinyl emulation – Saturation or tube emulation helps complete the vintage vinyl sound on samples.
- Warm-up orchestral sounds – Orchestral sounds can benefit from a touch of saturation to give them more analog warmth.
- Increase sustain – Mild saturation can make sounds more sustained by enhancing decays. Useful on pads and guitars.
- Tame harshness – Saturation can help take the edge off overly bright sounds. Start with a fast attack.
- Create tape stop effects – Automate saturation amount down quickly for cool tape stop/slow down effects.
- Add crunch to vocals – Subtle saturation on aggressive vocals adds pleasing harmonic crunch and blend.
- Glue parallel layers – Use saturation to help blend parallel compressed or distorted layers together.
5 Saturation Plugins You Could Consider Adding to your Toolkit
- FabFilter Saturn 2: A versatile plugin that offers a range of different saturation modes. From subtle, clean tube or tape saturation to the wildest multi-band guitar amp effects, FabFilter Saturn delivers.
- Soundtoys Decapitator: This plugin is renowned for its punchy, aggressive saturation. It’s perfect for adding grit and edge to your tracks, but can also do subtle warmth.
- Waves J37 Tape: Modeled on the machine used to create countless classic ’60s tracks, this plugin not only adds distinctive tonal coloration but also can beautifully mangle your sound when pushed hard.
- Softube Saturation Knob: This is a simple, FREE one-knob plugin that lets you add distortion and warmth to your tracks. It’s surprisingly flexible and can go from subtle tube-like harmonic saturation to full-on distortion.
- Black Box Analog Design HG-2: This plugin is a tube-emulation saturator that aims to make digital tracks sound more analog. It’s great for adding harmonics and weight to your mix.
Finally, the golden rule of saturation
Don’t Overdo It. Remember, you don’t need saturation everywhere. Critical listening is your best friend here.
Always compare your track before and after adding saturation to ensure it’s genuinely enhancing the sound and not muddying it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Have you found any saturation techniques that work particularly well for you?
What’s your go-to plugin for saturation? Do you have any tips or tricks you’d like to share with our community?