When Should I Use Saturation Effects Plug-Ins?

Using saturation plug-ins to beef up your tracks, add color and texture, and for adding absolute analog realism, can help you define your personal touch in mixing and in mastering. If you’re just getting to know the different kinds of saturation that exist, or you’re just trying to decide which ones you like best, perhaps the first question you should ask yourself is when you should use this effect. Read ahead to get an idea of the best way to make the most of saturation effects in your mixes.

Ah, the glorious sound of analog. I love it, and for the most part I wouldn’t mix without it. But, not all plug-ins are created equal. Since I’ve been developing and beta testing software since 2005, and I’ve been working with analog since the mid 80’s (that’s actually starting to sound like a long time to me now), I’ve come to find it easy to tell when a saturation plug-in is well-made.

When the answer is “close, but no cigar” I can usually hear that a plug-in either softens things too much- coming close to the right effect but not leaving a big enough statement without leaving artifacts, or just the opposite- giving too much impact without the subtle nuance of real analog. With saturation, that’s a tough call because just about every variation of harmonic distortion exists in the real analog world, from wonderful to utterly annoying.

With the enormous list of options available in the plug-in world, how can you know which plug-ins are the best? How are you to know the right time to use saturation?

You have to start somewhere on this journey, so let’s start by simply saying that you are better off using too little than too much. Stay on the subtle side of things and learn to tune your ears to be aware of the changes that you’re making. As you get more sophisticated in your saturation use, you can pick favorites for different applications and learn to trust your ears more and more.

I recommend that you eventually come to a point where you are comfortable using saturation on any dry track that has been meticulously recorded and has a healthy dynamic range, and could use a little bit of added character. In a perfect world, a stereo pair of mic’s could capture a perfect live performance through such a remarkable pair of preamps and converters, that the best mixing and mastering options are to simply do nothing else. But, in the world of dense mixes in modern DAW’s, the big distinction for using subtle saturation is that it assists all other steps.

Giving a slight advantage to more volume with no artifacts, while avoiding any damage to peaks is the result of good use of saturation. Poorly used saturation rears its ugly head often too late, where the cumulative effect of the mix makes it possible to hear some of the sizzle and break-up of distortion when that wasn’t desired.

Back It Up

I recommend using gentle saturation at mix with a session that is backed up, so if for any reason there are some elements you need to do over, or wish did not have saturation, it’s easy to revert.

Avoid using saturation on tracks that come from pre-recorded samples, like loops, sample libraries, sounds that come from heavily produced sampler sounds and collections. Listen carefully to make sure you don’t simply use one formula for light saturation on every track, because when heavily produced, pre-recorded elements are combined with your original source recordings, you may be adding too much to the loops/sample tracks. Why is this?

Loops and sample libraries that are well-produced, often have already had some treatment with saturation of some sort, and likely multiple types. If they are also heavily compressed, there is distortion that enters in from the timing elements of compressors as well. Saturation has an ability to tuck away without being audible on an extremely clean track, but when a lot of things are already added to audio, even just a little saturation can become too much.

Sometimes What We’re Really After, Is Saturation

Use saturation on thin sounding drums before going crazy with compression. Use saturation in your mixdown chain just ahead of your final mastering limiter or mastering compressor depending on how you set things up. You will find, when done correctly, that a little natural saturation (if it is a good quality plug-in) will actually make the job of the compressor and limiter easier. In some ways it has the effect of a very deep threshold with gentle ratio, but again, it is simply adding natural harmonics to the signal and not changing any timing elements at all.

Use a little saturation on bus groups for things like backing vocals and any grouping of instruments that begin with a wide dynamic range. This has the nice ability to help gel things together and give that sonic glue that helps a recording come together.

Often, we find ourselves over-using EQ and compression to fix problems that might actually resolve themselves if there is just a fuller signal from the low volume sections of a dynamic performance. So, once you get more comfortable using saturation, consider using it before making drastic mix decisions. Over the years I’ve had many software customers rave about the benefits of the advice given here. I hope that you find the same to be true.