Music production concepts and techniques are a lot and some times distinguishing between two or more may be a challenge especially for a beginner.
Saturation and distortion are two very handy tools in music production.
The main confusion surrounding the two is people often want to know the difference between them because they don’t know that saturation also utilizes distortion.
Saturation is a subtle form of distortion that adds warmth to a sound without changing a lot of its characteristics. While distortion not only alters the character of the sounds, it breaks it up completely. The intensity of the distortion is determined by how much the audio signal’s gain is driven past its volume capacity.
Saturation is the sound heard when an analog recording device or medium such as a tape machine or pre-amp is driven too loud resulting in the audio breaking up therefore resulting in added harmonics and punch to the audio. Saturation is a subset of slight distortion. Distortion is what happens when an audio signal’s gain is driven past its volume capacity which is usually 0 db.
Types of Saturation
Digital tape Saturation mimics the sound of audio recorded using tape machines.
Tape saturation introduces harmonics, subtle knee compression, and non-linear shifts in frequency response,
it also rolls off the high-end and gives a minimal boost to the low end frequencies.
Furthermore, saturation rounds off transient peaks, creating a form of knee compression that smooths out the signal.
Tape saturation is what you would go for if you’re looking for warmth and punch to your sound.
Plus, the harmonic distortion that comes with tape saturation is good for adding color and depth to your mix because the low level distortion introduced with tape; adds nice qualities to audio.
This type of saturation will work well on kicks, snares, guitars and any other sound that needs some extra punch and warmth.
Digital tube saturation mimics the sound created when audio is run through tube amps.
Digital tube saturator’s introduce even harmonics utilizing decent distortion and a subtle form of compression.
Tube saturation is heavily used in the rock music genre
whenever there’s need for an aggressive gritty edge on certain instruments.
Tube saturation is described as warm and punchy and it is what you would go for when you’re looking to get analogue warmth mixed with harmonics.
Digital transistor saturation mimics the resulting sound when audio is run through transistor‑based circuits.
Transistor saturation introduces some harmonics amd compression characterized by hard clipping.
With transistor saturation you’ll a fuzzy, gritty, and textured feel.
When transistor saturation is pushed to hard most of the punch and aggression will be lost.
Uses of Saturation
1. Using saturation on your drums can make for a well glued sound that is well tamed and soft.
This is a great tool to use if you want to bring your drums to life and make them more exciting.
2. Saturation can also be used on digital synths when they tend to sound too clean. A fair amount of saturation will introduce some harmonics in the synths.
3. You can also use saturation on your master bus in order to make it more gritty and more alive. Only a minimal amount of saturation is necessary here.
4. Saturation will also work magic on baseline’s that require some fatness and punch.
5. For vocals, saturation can be a great way to add harmonics and analogue warmth.
Types of distortion
Fuzz adds nasality to sounds but it is also quite an effective tool when you need something to cut through the mix.
Jimi Hendrix is well known for using fuzz distortion on guitars.
The common characteristics that Fuzz pedals or plugins have is their playability which is simply the way they respond to the dynamics of an instrument.
Exciters Work on very specific frequencies and as the name suggests they “excite” these frequencies.
They create upper harmonics making the signal sound brighter, this is why exciters are good for sounds that particularly lack certain frequencies.
You can also use an exciter in place of an EQ to bring up the high end of a signal.
plus, an exciter can also help you bring up your sub frequencies in your bass.
It may be confusing to basically differentiate distortion and saturation but what should guide you is this:
Saturation is a type of distortion because it uses aspects of distortion to bring harmonics and warmth into a signal.
Distortion is the result of a signal’s gain being raised above its volume capacity.
More Helpful Resources
How to Mix with Distortion vs. Overdrive vs. Saturation | Waves
What’s the Difference Between Distortion and Saturation? – Sage Audio
Q. What’s the difference between saturation and distortion? – Sound on Sound
Distortion and Saturation – Is there really a difference? – Mastering Box