Saturation plugins model analogue tape saturation, which sounds a bit like very gentle and soft overdrive. It is often used on lead vocals, and is a useful effect for buss mixes, and even on master mixes. If you don’t have a dedicated saturation plugin to try out, have a look at our Taphead review which is a free saturation plugin from Massey and very easy to get to grips with.
Here are a few ways that you can use saturation in your mixes, on lead vocals and drums.
Most modern vocal recording techniques are designed to keep the vocal sounding as clean and crisp as possible, to help it stand out in a mix. To give a vocal part more character you can very quickly and easily reproduce the old ‘analogue sound’, by adding the sound of tape saturation. It works particularly well on lead vocals because it adds subtle harmonics as the audio gently distorts which give the vocal some grittiness, and also adds some of the ‘analogue warmth’ which helps sit the vocal into the mix nicely.
Saturation naturally works on the louder parts of the audio, which can be a problem for vocals as they tend to vary in level quite a lot and you will hear the saturation coming in and out a lot. To solve this, send the vocal to a second channel in the mix window (either with an aux send or by duplicating the audio onto a new track). Then use a compression plugin on the second channel with a fast attack, a high ratio and a soft knee. This compression will level out the vocal for you, so now when you put the saturation plugin on the new vocal channel, you will get a much more even tone. You can now balance the analogue warmth of the saturated vocal against the original vocal in the mix window, usually just a small amount is enough.
This can be extremely effective on the second part of doubled tracked vocals.
Saturation sounds great on drums, but like vocals it will be most noticeable on the loud parts of the audio, in this case the initial drum hits. Only having the actual hits saturate will soften the attack of the drums but won’t really change the overall tone very much because it is only effective for such a short period of time. An easy way to add more colour is to compress just the drum overheads, and then use the saturation effect on them. Alternatively, you can duplicate the drum mix and then compress and saturate that to mix the effect back in, in a more controlled way.
Saturation can also be used on the final mix. It’s a really great way to add some grittiness to the overall sound of a recording, or to make it sound old and analogue, but be very sparing with it as a little really does go a long way.