How Saturation Helps Instruments Sound Bigger

Saturation comes in all shapes and sizes when you’re working with sound in a recording studio. It occurs so naturally whenever electronic components are introduced and while some manufacturers try to eliminate it from their product as much as possible, others embrace saturation as the perfect way to sculpt and color a sound.

There’s a great musicality to saturation that makes saturated instruments sound instantly more appealing to many listeners. It’s not that a sound gets audibly louder – it sounds fuller. It grows, sounding bigger and louder with very little actual volume change in terms of decibels.

So, if saturation isn’t just making your instruments louder, what is it actually doing?

The Role of Harmonics in Saturation 

The most notable difference between a sound that’s been turned up versus a sound that’s being saturated is the harmonic structure of what you’re hearing. Whether the saturation is being hit intentionally due to the configuration of your gear or unintentionally as the result of hitting hardware harder than intended, the net result is harmonic distortion. 

To the human ear, harmonic distortion is a super lush, preferable sound to digital distortions caused by clipping. This is because harmonic distortion follows a pattern – it doesn’t cut off sounds at random, it folds them back under in an ordered way. At its core, this is really what saturation is doing throughout your mixes. 

Harmonic Order: 2nd vs 3rd

Colorization and character come into play based on how your equipment handles saturation. In a very basic example, let’s take a look at how tools like the Solid State Logic Alpha VHD Preamps handle harmonics.

The Alpha’s preamps are fun to use with when learning how saturation works because they give you a way to blend between two of the more common forms of harmonic distortion. The VHD in the name stands for Variable Harmonic Drive – a fancy name for saturation that can blend between two types of harmonics.

The first type of harmonic drive is 2nd order harmonics, which sound like an overdrive tube circuit. The other type of harmonic drive is 3rd order harmonics, which are closer to a solid-state transistor clipping circuit. Any guitarist who’s used both types of amps knows how different distortion or overdrive can sound between the two, but it’s rare that you find a chance to manually blend the two sounds together!

Giving Up Control

Despite the flexibility of the SSL preamp, most manufacturers of both hardware and software prefer to keep the control of the saturation within their design. Fixing the components that are responsible for harmonic distortion in their chain (whether a circuit or an algorithm) is part of what gives their gear its own unique sound!

As engineers and producers, we should be comfortable giving up some of this control in the name of user experience. Most plugins that add saturation to our mixes do so as a byproduct – not as a primary function. Just think of all the EQs, compressors, and limiters you love because of “their sound”. That’s mostly thanks to the saturation they’ve included in the plugin.

And when you do need a dedicated saturation plugin, the amount is going to be the most important control of all. Just like a guitarist might throw a boost on their pedalboard ahead of an overdrive or distortion, saturation plugins can be a great way to add a bit more bite or aggression to your signal chain ahead of other processors. JST Clip is one of those tools, and it’s role as a peak clipper is to add more bite and character to instruments like drums to cut through even the densest of mixes.

Denser, Not Louder

Because saturation works on the harmonics of a sound, you end up with something that’s harmonically denser rather than louder. There’s only so much room to go up in volume before you begin clipping but squashing something through a limiter or compressor is going to cause that sound to spread out instead.

By taking up more of the frequency spectrum, you get a bigger sounding instrument.

While that might sound great, the truth of the matter is that saturation needs to be used sparingly or its effect is negated in the context of a modern mix. Most mixes today are already super full of high track counts and lush instrumentation, so any time you add size with saturation, you’re eating up bandwidth that could have potentially been used by something else.

A bit of harmonic saturation can be a good thing, just don’t overdo it. If you find your mixes start to get muddy as you add saturation throughout your next session, it may be a sign that you’ve gone too far.

Learning to Work Sounds Into Your Mix

One of the biggest challenges producers have in the studio is getting production sounds and samples that they didn’t record to fit into their mix. Fortunately, saturation can be one of several solutions to help mold them into a more convenient, consistent sound.

If you’ve tried saturation in one of those scenarios and still couldn’t get the sound to fit, it doesn’t mean that the sound is wrong; there’s still plenty more you can try. 

Check out The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers & Sweeteners for more info.