Perhaps more than any other type of plugin effect or processor, the ways in which saturation processing is used (or not used, as the case may be) are such a subjective choice.
However, hearing this as someone who might not know what saturation really is, what it can do and why it might be used in a DAW/digital recording environment, probably isn’t much help. So, what is saturation and what can it do for you?
Here’s a quick primer to get you up to speed, with some tips at the bottom for using saturation like a pro:
- “Saturation” in the plugin domain often refers to both tube-type distortion and, in a more accurate sense, the distortion created by”saturating” magnetic tape.
Basically, it refers to the incidental (and later, much sought-after) side-effects of running audio signals, perhaps slightly too hot to heighten the effect, through equipment of various types that use analogue valves or “tubes” (such as guitar amps) or tape (in the case of analogue magnetic recording tape).
- Why are these distortions sought-after when we can now produce our music in perfectly clean, completely digital environments that producers of old could only dream of?
Audio created and mixed in the digital environment can feel too clean and perfect – sterile, in fact. For the last hundred or so years we’ve gotten very used to the character of music created using mostly analogue equipment. This is because this equipment creates subtle distortions that are actually harmonically related to the source material – creating additional ‘dimensions’ to the sound that are not just plastered on at the end, but that breathe, ebb and flow with the music that goes through them.
So when we compare music created in a DAW with music created on an analogue mixing desk, with tube compressors and guitar amps, and mixed to ¼” analogue tape, while the former is undoubtedly more “pristine”, the latter will have vibe, character, mood and many other superlatives that generally enhance the overall sound and give it some additional life and vitality.
- But I’m making EDM! Why do I want to sound like a 70’s rock band?
Now we’re really getting to the crux of the argument: do “analogue”, “vintage”, “retro”, “old”, “professional”, “classic” and “flared trousers” all mean the same thing? Of course not! But there’s definitely confusion of varying degrees between all of these terms and the idea of “saturation”…
- Essentially, artifical saturation in the digital environment is a way of introducing some of that life and character – and yes, imperfection – that is inherent in analogue recording. In this sense, every genre and style of music can benefit.
- Ultimately, will using saturation plugins help me achieve a Pro Sound?
On their own, saturation plugins, and pieces of real analogue gear come to that, are not magic treatments that will instantly transform your tracks into professional-sounding masterpieces. But I’m sure you know that already.
What saturation and analogue-modelled plugins and software can do, when used with care, is help bring some “human” warmth and depth to your tracks.
Like compressors or reverb, it’s not just something to be strapped across the master buss (although this can work in moderation), but you should develop a strategy…
Aim to integrate little hints of saturation into the signal paths of selected individual channels and sub groups, so they all add up subtley to an overall effect. Have a plan, and aim for a fantastic cumulative effect rather than trying to achieve a “pro analogue sound” in a single step at the end. This is the Pro way.
- Parallel Saturation
Talking of subtlety, for starters try using these plugins as a send so you can parallel mix them with the original signal – unless the plugin already features a mix control for just this job. This way you can really crank up the amount of saturation enough to easily hear it; then blend it carefully with the original, for the best of both worlds: the clarity of digital with the warmth of analogue.
- Not Saturating Everything In A Mix
And remember, you don’t have to saturate/distort everything: great results can be achieved by mixing more analogue/warm sounds with relatively harsh-sounding digital synths and effects. This kind of contrast equals more depth and interest in your mix.
Think of saturation as simply another colour on your mixing palette. It’s not a fix-all for getting a professional sound, but use it sparingly and with care and it can literally add subtle new dimensions to your digital mixes.
Now have a look at a selection of the best tools for the job: