Saturation often brings about misunderstanding of inexperienced tips for mixing vocals engineers. Sometimes it is caused by an overload effect which you can witness in case of incompetent use of plugins. It’s hardly fair as saturation if used right allows you to add “analog” sound to a mix. Most of saturation plugins are quite simple in use but the most important thing in use of the effect to understand the principle of its work. Let’s take a look at the process in details and analyze several examples.
Step 1. What is saturation like?
The process that is based on analog essence of sound is called saturation. When mixing engineers used a tape and high levels of recording, they received squeeze of a certain kind which was called tape saturation. When the tape was played back in such a way, the sound level reached 0 decibels (and in some cases it exceeded this rate) and clipped what was called “soft clipping”. As a result, there was small signal overload indicating natural compression and specifications of sound limiting. It was used by engineers as an instrument in certain elements of the mix.
As a rule, in digital systems everything is a lot more strictly with that what exceeds the point in 0 decibels. It is considered to be hard limiting. Everything that is outside these limits brings about distortions. By all means, it’s not a problem for DAW with which practically all mixing studios are equipped since the algorithm of soft limiting on masterbus is implemented in many of them.
Step 2. Saturation of the percussions
Saturation can be used with any combination of instruments; however, it guarantees a real effect on specific things, for instance, on drums and percussive sounds.
Magnificent performance of percussion part which was recorded through a preamp into 24 beat DAW can sound good, but sometimes the mix needs “power” and “grain”: saturation can work without coloring and changing the source part to a great extent.
The working principle of the most part of plugins is fairly simple and widely used during mixing trance songs. As soon as you grasp the core of the saturation process, you’ll realize when, where and how far you should use it. Any kind of saturation adds harmonics to the sound. Besides, it boosts the level of loudness to the level of natural compression. The complex of these effects allows you to make the sound much fatter and warmer. As a result, you’ll have a feeling kind of analog sound.
Step 3. Heating up synthesizers’ part
Another excellent technique of use of saturation plugins during mixing and mastering is their appliance to a synthesizer part. Sounding of virtual instruments can be approximated in quality to real analog devices by adding natural warmth for which “iron” equipment is famous. In skillful hands of an music mixing engineer who can use saturation properly any sound, even “plastic” synthesized, can revive and even have “retro” sounding.
Step 4. Use on vocals
What a wonder, but saturation even in vast numbers can be used as a creative technique on vocals. It’s fairly washy notion what it’s good and what it’s bad at mixing backing vocals. What is considered defective in most cases sometimes can be the spice of this exact mix. Saturation with great value of Drive which interferes with peaks of a vocal track will perfectly fit in a contemporary pop or rock song. If you don’t have a goal to get audible overload on vocals, it’ll be enough to add a distorted sound to a clear source signal – vocals will at once stand out noticeably against the background of a common mix whereas you have saturated vocals with harmonics.
Step 5. Saturation at the stage of mastering
Fairly often saturation is used by mixing and mastering engineers on master bus in a mix. It can add an effect of analog sound to the entire mix and mislead even the most captious ears by inclining them to think that hardware equipment might have been used.
Among many plugins of this kind, I like PSP Vintage Warmer most of all. While socializing with many studio engineers, I’ve found out that it’s a wonderful instrument which they often use for limiting and compression of master bus.
In comparison with a simple saturator, much more options have been implemented in Vintage Warmer. It allows you to squeeze as well as limit, and it also guarantees the effect of a tape. It’s even equipped with functions of primitive equalization – all as it used to be at the dawn of recording technologies.