When in doubt, saturate.

When in doubt, saturate

Do some mixing terms seem mythical or alien to you? Like not being able to crack the code on them? Well, maybe you are one of us who has experienced this with saturation.

What is saturation?

Such a weird term. One is often familiar with terms like overdrive and distortion, but saturation? What exactly do you saturate in your mix? 

 

Despite seeming complicated to grasp at first, it is not.  Saturation means distortion, which technically corresponds to limiting. Therefore when you saturate, you take a sound wave and introduce limiting - in a way, put a ceiling on it and amplify the wave towards this ceiling. That forces its edges to clip and distort and create additional harmonics, which affect the overall timbre of the sound. Some types of  saturation introduce a subtle compression and can also imprint various shifts in EQ - often a high-end roll-off, perceived as making the tone darker, more bassy, and changing its color a bit. That’s the heart of it.

Limiting ( as a feature or a consequence of a particular use) happens in almost all electronic audio devices. It is a case of multiple stages in a guitar pedal; it happens in amplifiers, preamps, equalizers, mixing consoles, and magnetic tape machines - latter ones are responsible for the term saturation.

 

In a broad sense of the word, saturation often describes more subtle effects of such  limiting , sometimes called soft-clippingalthough the definitions of soft vs. hard clipping (appearing in transistor-created saturation) may vary depending on the source and context. Saturation  in a context of mixing is done mainly in parallel to the original audio signal - meaning engaging the saturation by a particular amount or percentage.

You perceive the effects of saturation as a gentle rounding off of harsh edges of the sound wave. It is, in a way, a less drastic effect than a guitar pedal distortion. Especially the tape kind. For example, transistor-based saturation can be harsh and similar sounding to some pedals, and transistor console saturation gets even recreated in a pedal form nowadays.

 

Saturation adds what many call color (of tube or tape, depending on the source and the process), which closely correlates to creating odd or even-order harmonics and the EQ changes. Tube saturation, in general, creates more  even-order harmonics , while tape and transistor  saturation creates rather odd-order harmonics, although everything depends on the particular circuit.

 

The term saturation is also predominantly used in mixing or audio engineering. You can saturate tracks or buses when mixing or mastering.

At first, it was a fault.

In the early years of recording industry development, terms like overdrive or distortion were a bad thing, a fault, or a limit  (pun intended) of a particular design. The goal then was to amplify sound in the cleanest way possible.

 

But then, in the early 50s, Rock & Roll happened. Artists such as Ike Turner and The Kinks destroying the guitar speakers, or Marty Robbins recording via a faulty channel on a mixing console, led to the new era - overdrive became the new cool. Add a cultural movement and a musical genius, as shown by Rolling Stones or Link Wray, and the world was forever a different place regarding limiting and saturation .

First overdrive/saturation was simply overdriven input of Neve consoles. This effect was later taken and formed into a first fuzz stompbox.

Benefits of saturation

After the rich music history of the last decades of the 20th century, we now widely praise the terms like a tube or tape saturation. They are almost synonymous with an authentic character of a recording. Saturation can be both soothing and exciting at the same time. And there are indeed relevant reasons for praising it, even when putting history aside.

Saturate vocals for character

Many classic recordings of the last hundred years, no matter the genre or decade, can be characterized by considerably saturated and distorted vocal tracks. Despite starting as a consequence of overloading the microphone capsule or the input of a period-correct audio device, the reality now is that the sound of saturation and recorded vocals go hand in hand.

 

Tube saturation and its precise digital recreation are sought-after by audio engineers, musicians and producers alike.

The absence of saturation can often be why your vocal tracks lack the desired excitement when mixing. The answer is to saturate them. Subtly or overtly, gently round their edges or destroy them with distortion, but do not leave them plain (unless you want them to feel plain as well). The fact is, you can even help a less exciting vocal recording by adding saturation. It works great, and the vocal performance feels instantly more lively, especially when combined with some genre-appropriate EQ.

Combining EQ, Compression and Saturation snare drum tracks helps to smooth out spiky, aggressive transients. 

Saturate snare for smoothing the transients

Adding saturation to the snare tracks can add excitement to them. Yet there is a more crucial objective at hand. The first thing saturation distorts in terms of a sound wave are the transients of the notes or hits - the loudest parts of a sung note or a drum hit. Drums, especially the snare or a kick, can have loud and spiky  transients. This way, subtle  rounding off  can considerably help shape them and fit them in the context of the track. Combined with compression and the right EQ moves, saturation on drums can work miracles in terms of managing the wide-ranging dynamics of the recorded drum kit.

Saturate buses to melt tracks together

Another approach as to where to apply saturation are buses. Buses are mostly stereo tracks that combine individual mono tracks of certain instruments. Of course, it depends on your workflow or DAW of choice, but let’s assume you are sending your drum tracks or vocal tracks to their respective buses. We often compress and EQ the tracks on a track level and a bus level of a mix. Try to parallel saturate your drum bus to taste and see where it leads you. Using just a tiny bit of saturation, you will be amazed by how nicely it melts everything together.

Having a hierarchy in your tracks is crucial. Try using groups, VCA tracks, or any other grouping tool to apply saturation and other processing easier to multiple tracks.

Many plugins simulate the saturation happening with said devices. The unintentional became desired and intentional - a little sprinkle of saturation on a master bus is like a cherry on the top of the cake. 

Give your master bus a final touch of colour.

The highest level on which you can saturate is the master bus. Here it is used to the most meaningful effect, despite the amounts of saturation happening are often small. You do it parallel to the source audio signal, using a blend or mix control of the plugin or hardware. No matter the type, tape-like, transistor, or tube-inspired saturation, it is used to colour and tie together the final mix. Many master buses are more saturated than you would think - as a consequence of using magnetic tape machines or bending the console (meaning, overdriving the master bus of a mixing console on purpose).

Give secondary tracks a meaning.

Most said examples of saturation happen in parallel and often mildly. Yet you can overuse the saturation meaningfully, too. Does your mix session contain a few rather suspicious tracks with no character or purpose? Pick that weird background sample pad and distort it into oblivion. It gives the tracks the meaning and a purpose they have been lacking. Find the right blend of saturation, level, eq, and panning in terms of mix placement, and you got yourself a new favourite ear grabber.

Saturation can help synth tracks, pads, and atmospheric "secondary" tracks pop out and sound more interesting. 

When in doubt, saturate

Similarly, when you are stuck (maybe the mix doesn’t seem to move on as desired), you can try to saturate some tracks or buses. You will see the session in a new light. It may breathe fresh air in your session and get things moving. And you may even find a new path to follow for the whole mix.

 

Not everything needs saturation in a mix, yet when there is a lack of saturation on tracks or buses, it often seems plain, boring, and not exciting enough. It is possible to use saturation to sort out this lack of mojo and bring out more excitement from your tracks. So when in doubt, saturate! You can always back off that mix knob later.

 

So here you have it. Now you understand what saturation does for you and why you can benefit from using it on many different levels. Hopefully, your next project will be driven by excitement even more, and your musical desires will get saturated.