Saturation: The Secret Weapon of Mixing (+ 5 Best Free Saturation Plugins)
Saturation is one of the most misunderstood and underused plugins in mixing – it adds warmth, punch and depth to your mix, and can give it a high quality, “expensive”- sounding sheen.
At some point in the music production journey, EVERY successful producer and engineer I know has at some point stumbled across the revelation of saturation and distortion.
Saturation really is an integral part of the process when it comes to creating amazing-sounding mixes, and it doesn’t even have to cost you anything.
There are some incredible free plugins out there on the market, and I’ll share them with you later in this post.
Of course, the distorted sound of electric guitars is known to us all, but what about using saturation and distortion (being two heads of the same beast) in a more subtle way? What does it do in the mixing process?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it: It can mean the difference between your music sounding like it was created at home on a laptop, or sounding like it was created in an expensive, professional studio. Mixing with saturation can mean the difference between a thin, tinny, digital-sounding mix and a full-fat, warm and organic mix.
Interested? You should be because it’s simple, easy and the impact can be huge.
In this post, we are going to look at:
- What saturation is
- Why you absolutely should be using saturation
- The different types of saturation
- When & how to use saturation
- WHERE to use saturation and…
- My top 5 free saturation plugins
- My top 5 premium saturation plugins
For more tips on using saturation, click here.
What is saturation?
In the audio plugin world, saturation involves emulating the audio being driven through analogue hardware equipment, adding harmonic distortion. There are different types of saturation – and they all have their own character – but the premise is the same.
Saturation simply enhances the frequencies that are already in a sound. I like to think of it like the saturation control on a television; it makes the colours more intense and vivid, right? Saturation plugins do the audio equivalent.
Here’s a diagram of what I mean. On the left-half is the signal with no saturation applied, and on the right is with saturation:
(Notice the example wave with saturation is fuller and fatter without peaking any higher).
Why should you be using saturation in your mixes?
As already stated, saturation will take your music from sounding in the “digital” realm to sounding warm, analogue, with added depth and character. It’s subtle, but our ears pick up on the subtleties of music. If your music sounds thin, weak or “cheap”, the chances are very high that saturation will help.
The different types of saturation
So what hardware are these plugins actually emulating? Well, there are three main types of saturation: Tape, tube, and transistor. They are generally used in subtle amounts, but collectively over a mix can make a huge difference. Let’s have a quick look at each of them, their typical characteristics, and then where we might use them:
Obviously, we record straight to our computers nowadays, so tape saturation plugins emulate the sound of the audio being recorded through tape machines. But why would we want to do that?
They introduce what are known as “odd order harmonics” (don’t worry too much about the difference between even and odd order harmonics – that’s for another day), which create subtle compression and slight, irregular shifts in frequency response. They tend to roll off high-end frequencies and boost the lows a little, too.
As I say, pretty subtle, but tape saturation is often described as sounding punchy and warm, which is great for adding fatness and depth to your mix.
Tube saturation plugins emulate the sound of the audio being driven through tube amps, introducing what are known as “even order” harmonics (again, don’t worry about these terms too much!).
Tube saturation adds a subtle form of compression, but when pushed hard can have an aggressive edge. It’s often characterised as sounding warm, musical, and punchy. It can increase perceived loudness, dimension, and fatness.
Transistor saturation plugins emulate the audio being driving through transistor circuitry. This gives a “hard-clipping” kind of compression, which is aggressive if driven hard (think of pushing the levels too high in your DAW).
The is great for creative sound design purposes like making a guitar or vocal fuzzy or gritty, but for mixing one would usually be a bit more delicate with the settings, creating a smoother tone.
When, where & how to use saturation
Ok, so now you know about saturation and why it’s great, where should you use it in your mix?
Well, there are no hard and fast rules that can’t be experimented with, but generally speaking (and with all audio processing in general), the moves get smaller the further along the chain you go, for instance. Also, I almost always use an EQ after adding saturation plugin, just to reign in some of the boosted frequencies (usually sub-bass frequencies).
Your saturation moves will most likely be larger on your individual elements than on the buss you send them to, and smaller still on the master channel (if, indeed, you are doing your own mastering). In a nutshell, the further along the processing chain you go, the less you are likely to need.
Let’s have a look / listen at some examples…
The trouble with a lot of soft-synths is that they can sound quite flat, thin or dull – basically like they were generated by a computer! Saturation is a perfect way to add character and analogue warmth. Try adding some tube saturation to enhance the harmonics and add a little grit. This method will increase the perceived loudness and bring your synths more upfront in the mix.
Saturation on drums can be used both on the individual drum sounds and – more commonly – on the drum buss. Tape saturation will help glue your drums together with light compression and experiment with the other types of saturation to add “fatness”, high-end excitement and punch to help them pop out the mix more.
Saturation on bass is a great way to fatten up your low-end. It also adds mid and high frequencies, which is perfect for getting your bass line to pop even on poor quality speaks without much bass response (e.g. smartphone speakers). I recommend experimenting with different types of saturation to get the best sound.
Vocals & Guitars
Saturation is fantastic on vocals! If you ever feel your vocals lack warmth, body or weight, some gentle saturation can really fatten them up (in a good way) and make them pop. You can also use saturation to gently compress them and tame any wild transients, and warm up harsh-sounding vocals. Guitars (particularly acoustic) can be enhanced in the same way, and for the same reasons.
Vocals No Saturation:
Vocals With Saturation:
Guitar No Saturation:
Guitar With Saturation:
Remember, the further along the processing chain you go, the less saturation you are likely to need. However, using it on your busses can sound great. On the vocal buss, for example, it can help “gel” the different vocal tracks together (i.e. lead vocals, doubles, backing, etc.). Also – as mentioned – it can also glue your drums together and make them sound more cohesive.
I tend to use saturation VERY subtly on the master buss, to create more cohesion, perceived loudness and analogue warmth. Tape saturation is perfect for this, but experiment with tube saturation, too.
All together then
So, what does it sound like going from no saturation to using it on all of the above elements? Let’s have a quick A/B test to hear the difference 🙂
A BIIIIG difference in quality, right? Hopefully, I’ve convinced you of the merits of saturation – now let’s look at some of the best (free) tools out there at the moment…
Top free 5 saturation plugins
Ok, now let’s get you kitted out with the best free saturation plugins! You might end up using just one or two of them….pick what works for you (These are all available for both Windows and Mac):
Top 5 premium plugins
Now free is all good (and we love it), but you generally get more control and quality from premium plugins. When you are ready to invest, these are the plugins I use in almost every mix:
- Soundtoys Radiator
- Soundtoys Decapitator
- Kush Omega458A
- FabFilter Saturn
- Sonnox Inflator (technically a harmonic exciter rather than a saturation plugin)
And there you have it! My guide to saturation. Hopefully, you’ve been convinced of the transformative power of using saturation in your mixes.
If you enjoyed this post, don’t forget to download my free “30 Essential Mixing Tips” here.
In the meantime, what are your favourite saturation plugins, and do you have any particular saturation techniques? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
Will Darling runs EDMtips.com – a website and YouTube channel dedicated to helping Electronic Dance Music producers seriously improve their production skills. Will has written for EDMprod, LearnMusicTech, ADSR, and has featured in Future Music magazine. His popular “Music Theory for EDM Producers” course has helped thousands of producers get to grips with fun, simple techniques for writing better dance music.
Audio Production, Blog, Music Mixing