Using Saturation & Distortion in a Mix

Using Saturation & Distortion in a Mix

Saturation & Distortion

Why Use Saturation & Distortion?

Using saturation & distortion is a common modern mixing technique that can be used to add character, energy, and excitement to a mix. It can really enhance a mix when done properly. Most pop vocals these days have a good bit of saturation on them, for example, and I love the way it sounds.

While saturation is a type of distortion, it can add some nice harmonics and excitement, and can even help make things sounds smooth and lush. Saturation can be used to make tracks sound edgy and exciting, without making them sound harsh. Sometimes it’s cool to push it hard, where you really hear the distortion. Personally, I find that most times I use it, I’m going for some lush, edgy excitement, so that the listener does not actually perceive it as distortion.

We can of course also use the nasty, grungy kind of distortion. Even then, just a little bit can add some edge to things, without the distortion becoming obvious or really audible in the context of the mix. I often use this technique to give instruments some definition. For example, on a bass guitar track, I might add some distortion to help the track cut a little more in the mix, when EQ alone isn’t enough. In most cases when I distort bass, I don’t want the distortion itself to be audible. I simply add enough to help the bass cut through the mix, but not sound distorted.

This can also work on things like keyboards that just don’t seem to be heard in the mix, no matter how much you try to EQ. Here again, sometimes audible distortion is cool, and may be right for the emotion of the song, but sometimes you just need to get an instrument to pop a little more, and a bit of distortion can sometimes do the trick.

Some Things to Consider

When we add saturation & distortion to tracks for energy and excitement, but don’t really want it to be perceived as distortion, some careful listening is key to be sure we’re not pushing it too far. Listening at low volume helps quite a bit. I like to listen at low volume on headphones especially, where unwanted distortion can really be heard, even when it may not be noticeable at moderate or louder volumes, or even at all on your studio monitors.

As a side note, before sending out any mix, listening at low volume on headphones is a really good idea, as distortion, clicks and pops, and other unwanted noises become much more apparent, so that you can catch and fix those issues before anyone else hears them.

Another thing to consider when adding saturation & distortion in a mix is that it will enhance any distortion that is already on a recorded track. Sometimes the results may be unpleasing, especially if the distortion recorded on the track was unintended. In these cases you may think you’re driving the saturation or distortion too hard, when in reality something was clipping when the track was recorded. You can easily check this by bypassing all FX sends and plug-ins on the track in question, as well as on the mix buss. Then listen at low volume on headphones with the track soloed to see if the distortion is on the track itself.

It’s important to take great care when using saturation and distortion in your mixes. It can absolutely be a really cool thing to help bring a track to life, but just a little too much of it can add unpleasant artifacts that may not be heard on all systems, including your studio monitors. Careful, critical listening is key, but of course that’s key to mixing in general.

Example of Mix With Saturation & Distortion

Here’s an example of a pop track I mixed recently that has a good bit of saturation & distortion, so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about:

The vocals in this mix have a good bit of saturation on them, and I have a decent bit of distortion and saturation on various other instruments to help them cut and add some cool excitement to the mix.

If you’d like to hear more of my mixes, you can go here:

A Few Plug-ins to Try

There are tons of great plug-ins out there that you can use to add saturation & distortion to your mixes. Here are just a few:

Soundtoys Decapitator:
All the Soundtoys stuff is great, so check them out.

Klanghelm SDRR, and the free IVGI plug-in:
Klanghelm makes some really cool stuff, and IVGI is free, so go get it!

If you use Pro-Tools, some of the stock distortion plug-ins are really useful, including the SansAmp PSA-1, Lo-Fi, and Air Distortion.

So give it a shot – try some saturation & distortion on your tracks. Have fun experimenting with it on different instruments, pushing it hard, where you can really hear it, and pulling it back so it just adds some edge, excitement, and energy without sounding distorted. These plug-ins are incredibly useful mixing tools. I’d be hard pressed to think of a mix I’ve done recently without at least some saturation and distortion, if not a lot of it, to help bring the mixes to life!

Make waves & sound amazing!

Marc Frigo
Your Online Mixing Engineer

Please leave any comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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