4 Insane Uses of Compression, Saturation & Distortion

Going into a mix, it’s easy to get caught up in best practices and “clean-up” mode. When this happens, you forget that at its core, mixing music is a creative experience. So once you’ve got your tracks cleaned up and mix-ready, give some of these creative compression techniques a try.

Crush Your Bass Guitar

Bass holds a special place in nearly every mix, acting as the glue between your kick drum and mid-range instrumentation.

In most music composition, bass notes tend to fall in line with kick drum patterns because of its ability to create pseudo-sustain. Electronic music has taken full advantage of this ever since the inception of the 808 (and similar note-heavy drum machines).

With that said, rock and metal genres sometimes lose the bass guitar in the background with so much other instrumentation happening. While it does a great job of rounding out the mix, it’s rarely a “featured” instrument.

There is a modern push for “clanky” bass guitar that’s brought the instrument into the limelight though. A clanky bass is one that has plenty of mid-range attack, much like you’d find in a clicky kick drum.  So how can you achieve a similar sound in the mix?

By adding distortion to a bass guitar, you can bring out a lot of mid-range in the instrument without losing the low-end (especially when processing in parallel). There are several ways to do this, such as running the bass through a guitar amp simulator. Another favorite of mine is using a compressor like Gain Reduction Deluxe that has saturation built-in. Two birds, one stone!

Saturate Your Synthesizers

“Synthesizer” is being used in an extremely general way here. With so many variants from leads to bass synths to pads & beyond, nearly every type of synthesis can benefit from saturation.  For the sake of argument, we’ll include most samplers in this category as well.

Synthesizers can range from a single simple sine wave to lush soundscapes, but due to their electronic nature, they’re very accepting of post-processing.

Listeners can usually identify over-saturation on drums and other acoustic instruments, but you rarely run that risk with synths. Because of this, I love experimenting with heavy compression and saturation.

You run little risk of negatively affecting the audio quality since you’re starting with a uniquely created sound. Nobody is going to call you out for adding too much warmth or distortion to a synth.

Experiment with it. If you’re using software synths, you get the benefit of being able to tweak both the instrument and saturation plugin together – essentially making saturation a part of the instrument.

Parallel Compressing Your Overheads

Drums are probably the most common instrument to parallel compress. The process allows you to maintain your dynamic range while simultaneously boosting your transients and overall presence.

But in addition to parallel compressing your drum bus, have you ever considered processing your overheads separately?

The results can be shockingly effective, especially when trying to bring life to programmed drums or drums tracked in a small room. The reason for compressing overheads is similar to why you’d want to heavily compress a room mic (or the time we compressed a talkback mic).

You get a lot of room into the mix when parallel compressing your overheads. In a large room, this means additional depth to your drum sound. Even in small rooms, parallel-compressed overheads can result in added “air” around the cymbals, lightening up a dark drum mix without sacrificing its natural sound.

Using All Three On Your Vocals

If you didn’t know - compression, saturation & distortion meet their apex at lead vocal processing. Every vocal I’ve mixed has used each of these, and has formed a very recognizable sonic characteristic that I couldn’t be more proud of.

That’s not to say I’m the only one using them, far from it.

Top engineers from every genre are finding ways to use these three elements to carve out space around a vocal and bring them to the front of the mix in combination with other tools like reverb, delay & EQ.

I focus on compression, saturation & distortion though, because these three elements can make a great vocal regardless of the listening environment. While a vocal with heavy reverb may get lost depending on how you’re listening to it, a well compressed vocal with a bit of saturation will cut through every time.

How Are You Using These Tools?

Do you find yourself using distortion in your mix (as opposed to during tracking)? Are you using Gain Reduction on more than just vocals? We’d love to hear how these tools affect your mixing, especially if they’re boosting creativity.

Share your favorite techniques with us over on the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum & keep making great music!