The secret of Saturation


Although in many cases a misunderstood process, saturation in music production is something that can enrich the sound in your mix. It draws back its origins to the time when music was produced and recorded strictly in the analog domain. Back in those days, mix and recording engineers had to be really careful with the levels of the recorded audio signal fed to the tape machines. If the signal were too low, the type of noise called “ Hiss “ would overwhelm the entire mix.

On the other hand, if the signal were too high, the phenomenon known as saturation would occur. Accordingly, this saturated type of sound produced by tape machines quickly found its use in the music production realm. This is because it created a pleasant tone with natural compression and limiting characteristics. Today, we have a vast variety of digital tape recorder emulators available which, more or less, accurately produce the same tape effect.

Here are four tips that will help you apply the saturation effect more effectively in your mix.


1. The use of saturation on drum sounds


The mentioned effect can be applied to a wide variety of audio signals. In my opinion, saturation sounds better when applied to certain types of sounds only. Drums are maybe one of the best sounds to be processed with it. You can not go wrong with recording live drums using the finest microphones and preamps, but even then they could sound even better with some grit and attitude. Saturation can significantly help with that while not over coloring the original sound of the drums. It will add a certain amount of harmonics, which sounds pleasing to the ear of the listener. Also, it will introduce a bit of natural compression and perceived loudness. You can go extreme with the overall amount of saturation. However, you’ll get the best effect when you apply only reasonable, small amounts.


2. Warming up those synths


Another effective way of using the saturation effect would be by applying it to the synth sequences. So, you can push virtual emulations of the analog synthesizers a bit closer to the original. When used correctly on the soft synth sounds, it will add necessary harmonics, grit, bring them more upfront and finally make them louder.


3. Effective on vocals as well  


You may think that saturation has no place in the treatment of the vocals. However, be sure that vocals can shine after being carefully processed by saturation. By placing the tape emulation effect on the vocal recording and increasing the drive parameter, you will instantly hear how the vocal sounds ”fuller”. Moreover, one more useful aspect will occur. Harsh sounds in the vocal recording like “S” and “C” will be softened and therefore sound more pleasant to the ear.


4. Using it on the master bus


Saturation will find a very useful place on the master bus as well and introduce an analog quality to it. All in all, be very gentle with the amount you apply. If you use it too much, it can ruin your mix and eat up the transients.