Academy Dashboard Forum Production Production Techniques Saturation - When/Why/How?

  • This topic has 8 replies, 6 voices, and was last updated 5 years ago by James Gorman.
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      Seems like everyone is using it, when do you guys use it? What is the point? Do you use it on every mix? How do you use it? You lose your high end when you use saturation right? What do you do to counteract this?

      This one has been bugging me for a while, and been too ashamed to ask anywhere else. Phew, got that one off my chest.


      Guido tum Suden

        Hi James, just ask away.

        I think it‘s different for different people. I myself can barely hear differences when using saturation, except in extrem cases. But I have been using console emulations for a while now and it really helps me a lot, not getting harsh sounding mixes. I don‘t counteract loosing the highs in rock and pop music. You don‘t want to have too many hi highs.
        If you are looking for good inexpensive (meaning free) saturation, console emulation and similar plugins, take a look at Unfortunately or fortunately you can only use airwindows plugins by ear. 🙂



          Nice one Guido,

          Actually a big fan of Airwindows, I use Density/drive/PurestGain/BitshiftGain a “lot”,I really like that there isn’t a GUI though on their plugins.

          I’ll have to check out their tape emulation plugins, have a lot of faith in Airwindows stuff.

          So, I hear of people using saturation instead of compression. For an acoustic only track for instance, would this be the way to go? I understand it rounds off some of the transients but have no idea how it knows where these transients are as there is no threshold setting in any of the saturation plugins I have used. This is partly why I am getting confused as I don't really know what it is doing to the audio, and don’t know of any practical application for it, I don’t want to feel like I am missing out on some sort of technique that could make my life a lot easier.

          I remember using saturation on an acoustic instrumental song in the past that I did, but then had to use an exciter to add some high end back in again, granted I don’t really know what the hell I doing with it. I know it sounds strange but I am having an easier time mixing a dense Pop song than I am mixing a sparse 5track acoustic instrumental. I was wondering if saturation could help me get there for more transparent results, I’m not even sure if that is what I want, is it the norm to compress acoustic instrumental songs or not? This question is not directly aimed at you Guido, don’t feel obliged to get back to me on all of this because am rambling/getting sidetracked on original question.

          Also, will reply to you on the other topic I made in other section, but might not be able to tonight because babysitting duties tonight, but you will get a response mate, thanks for great post, it really helped me out.


          Edit: if saturation helps to smooth a mix out (get rid of harshness) then this is great information for me as (harsh)is my worst enemy. Especially recording my steel string acoustic guitar!

          • This reply was modified 6 years ago by JamEZmusic.
          Jason Davenport

            Hey James, I agree with Guido on it being different for different people. For me it is something that you really don't notice until the end when you spread it sparingly across several tracks/and or Busses. It seems to have a glueing effect when used lightly. Also, the way I understand it, it grabs the peaks of the transients and distorts those first, folding them back into the audio and thereby taming harshness on the highs. Used heavily, it can add grit to guitars, bass, and any thing else you want to have grit. Try doing an A/B on a mix with several tracks/busses with saturation and you should be able to hear the difference. Hope that helps some! Also Headcrusher Free is a cool free plugin. Similar to Decapitator. I personally use it to some extent on every mix, but how much depends on the sound you are looking for...


              Thanks Jason,

              I’ve been messing around with saturation for quite some time but I don’t like to use plugins for the sake of using them, so wanted to hear why other people reach for saturation. I’ve never used it heavily in a mix before, I’ll give it a go on one of my next mixes.

              Agree that it makes tracks glue, but it comes at the cost of distortion, trying to find that balance is tricky for me. Especially if using on clean sources such as Acoustic guitar (my nemesis when it comes to mixing)

              Really appreciate response! Great comment!


              Edit: cheers for the heads up on those plugins as well! Will google it now. Thanks again Jason.

              • This reply was modified 6 years ago by JamEZmusic.
              Jason Davenport

                Your welcome James! Warren has some good videos on this subject. I like using it on acoustic guitars. Seeks to take the brittleness away. I used it on the Owl Song mix pretty heavily. When the acoustic is soloed, it has some distortion, but when dropped into the mix, it makes them sound great. Not 100% sure why, you would think it have the opposite effect, but it works for me. I am trying to develop a lighter touch with it as I notice some of my personal stuff sounds over saturated when I go back and listen after hearing some of the academy mixes. Another good free plugin is Softube's Saturation Knob. Good luck!

                Ruud Degelin

                  I think the initial purpose of saturation was to make things sound more analogue, in an analogue mixingboard for example there are numerous components (transformers for example) that introduce a small amount of saturation that you can not really hear but that you can feel, just like you can 'feel' the difference between analogue and digital. Analogue is more rounded (due to the saturation rounding of peaks, peaks of volume and frequency) while digital is giving you exactly what you recorded.
                  So analogue is better? It is not as simple as that, digital is technically much better that analogue (that is a fact, look it up) but analogue, with all its imperfections or maybe thanks to them, sounds more pleasing to the human ear. That is why records (you know those black things they used to call LPs) are still popular (I mean not obsolete) and I think nobody will argue that those LPs sounds technically better than a cd.

                  I have been using saturation religiously for half a year or so and the point is that you dont want to hear saturation (as some people pointed out) but more that you can feel it and an invaluable thing achieve that is, for me, a mix knob on your saturation plugin. You put the mix knob at 100 procent and you adjust your saturation until it is just a little bit too prominent and then you back off with the mix knob, I usually end up with the mix knob at 15% or 20%.
                  I used to start with destroying things using saturation and then backing of with the mix knob but it was always still a bit too distorted (saturated) so I adjusted my method and ended up with the method I described earlier. But keep in mind: what works for me may not work for you, as it is with all those tricks and techniques floating around.

                  Also keep in mind different saturations do different things, even order harmonics, uneven if are looking for grit, for presence or something else dont forget to compare different kinds of saturation, tape for example is also a saturation device (thats not tis purpose but due to the technical limitations of the time saturation was inevitable) but reacts different to a signal than transformers or tubes.

                  I saw an interview with Dave Pensado (Pensados Place) with a guest (dont remember who it was) and they were joking around about using only saturation as an eq and you know what? I thought that was a splendid idea (I like weird ideas) so that is exactly what I did and off course I had to tinker and tailor (soldier, spy for the movie fans) till I had it right and you know what? It works! Little tip: wait with the subtractive EQ until you have applied saturation, with exception of the low end rumble maybe.

                  My favourites are the Kush plugins (Pusher, UBK 1) but dont expect a run of the mill plugin, no metering or numbers, just knobs you have to turn, let them takes some time before you get it so dont get disappointed as it doesnt work for you right away.
                  Remember: the key is not to saturate or distort but to enhance.

                  Now I use a lot less EQ and compression and that is a good thing right? I will be burned at the stake for saying this but I really dont care.

                  But remember: take the things that work for you and discard the rest.

                  @ James: I found all this while working on a bluegrass/country musical recording with acoustic guitars, violins, fiddles, yeah, it is possible with acoustic instruments, just dont over do it, just like with pepper or salt. Dial the plugin until you dont hear any distortion and than disable the plugin, it probably will put a smile on your face. Have Fun!

                  Niki Pichler


                    for me saturation is another powerfull tool if used correctly. i have a little bit of it on every track (virtual tape emulation (slate) on the 16 track setting on every track and the 2 track setting on the master bus) but i just use it as an analog vibe tool. (for me it smoothens out my mixes as some people before me already stated that it gives a bit more smoothness to everything) another tool i'm using is in the virtual mix rack (slate) the fg-73 (it's obviously a simulation of an 1073). i use it often on kick and snare and everytime on bass and vocals. sometimes it is also on some guitar or keyboard tracks if i want to have more grid to the tone.

                    on kick and snare, i use it to get rid of some really hot peaks without using a compressor as it is a more easy way because i don't have to fiddle around with attack or release times to get it right. sometimes i also like to go more into the red on the snare for sound reasons as an distorted snare can fit in some arrangements.

                    on bass i have 3 different tracks normally (DI, DI Distorted and Amp). DI is with a low pass on around 200, DI Distorted is with a high pass around 300-400 and the Amp is with a high pass at the same spot as the DI low pass (typical the trick warren's using nearly every time). sometimes i use a second amp for the distorted signal and if i don't have an amp i use amplitube 4 with an amp from my ampeg package for the amp track. the saturation part is the distorted one, i distort the DI (or amp) with the free tse bod plugin and saturate this signal even more with the fg-73 on maximum (this is a really disgusting sound) and blend it in with the rest (normally between 14 to 18 dB quieter than the other 2)

                    on vocals i use it first on the vocal directly second in the chain after the tape emulation if i want to get a dynamic influenced distortion on the vocal and the other track i'm using it to the max is the distorted part of the vocal (separate track) which is blend in really low in the mix.

                    sometimes i use it on room mics or overheads if they have too much fuzzy highs but more often i use a deesser for this applications.

                    this is my usage of saturation =)

                    cheers, Niki

                    James Gorman

                      Just came up from SonicScoop, Ariel Borujow talk a lot about how he uses saturation when mixing


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