005 – saturated fat

Keeping with the theme of destroying sounds, let’s get into some distortion and saturation goodies. As you may notice by now, a huge part of my music writing process has to do with destroying sounds. With saturation, we can add some lovely (gross) harmonics to sounds to make them punch out of the mix, or just to simply change the character so the sound fits into the track in a smoother, more natural way. Of course, we can also make things stick out in a very non-natural way, depending on the specific sound and what feeling you are going for.

Very simply, saturation is what happens when there is too much audio data for a magnetic tape to store. It is another one of those analogue things we try to emulate in the digital world. It turns out that our ears don’t necessarily like things sounding too “clean.” In digital workspaces, saturation is usually done with a plugin that squishes the waveform slightly and adds some of the randomness associated with the varying magnetic field of a tape. This can, of course, be adjusted from very subtle, to incredibly obvious and over the top. Used sparingly, it functions as a mixing tool. Our ears are more sensitive to slight amplitude changes at higher frequencies, so by adding a little high-end to a low- or mid-range sound, we can actually increase the perceived volume of the primary sound, without changing its amplitude. Used a little more liberally, saturation makes a lot of sounds feel a little bit “warmer.” This is also one of the reasons analogue systems are often preferred by audiophiles and mixing engineers. Analogue systems often impart slight distortions onto sounds, which can make them feel nicer to listen to.

In a digital system, either a little or a lot of saturation can be very important to achieve a complete “feel” for a track. Digital sounds are, by their nature, very clean, and even if we don’t consciously hear this difference, we can sense the subtlety. Just a little bit of saturation, or other types of distortion, as I will go into next week, can make all the difference between a sound that is lost in the mix, to a forward element that is exactly where you want it to be heard.

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