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3 Subtle Ways to Use Distortion in Your Mixes

Dec 29, 2019

When mixing or producing a track, you can use distortion and saturation in subtle ways to mimic other processing chains, achieving more musical results overall and without making the track sound clipped.

By Josh Bonanno

3 Subtle Ways to Use Distortion in Your Mixes

When mixing or producing a track, you can use distortion and saturation in subtle ways to achieve more musical results overall, without making the track sound clipped. Distortion is a utility that can mimic the behavior of other processors, often creating more unique sounding tones and colors. Here we’ll look at 3 subtle ways to use distortion when mixing.

1. Distortion as EQ and Tone Control

Distortion in its most subtle form is referred to as saturation. The additional harmonics generated from saturation processing can change the overall harmonic balance of the original source without adding harsh audible clipping. In other words, saturation has the ability to make the source audio feel anything from brighter to more “forward,” rounder or warmer, all dependent on the circuitry and analog signal path being modeled. Using distortion in this manner can be understood as acting like an equalizer or tone knob, making subtle adjustments to the overall tonal balance of the material. This is a great tool to use when you don’t want to reach for a surgical EQ plugin or prefer a bit more color and vibe while changing the tone of an instrument.

Below are two examples of saturation being used in this way.

The first example uses Abbey Road Saturator directly on the vocal track. Dialing in some gain on the REDD setting drives the analog modeled tubes and brings a sparkle and shine to the vocal’s top end that almost feels as if a high-shelf EQ has been added to the source. This is a great way to bring a vocal forward in the mix and make it feel brighter and more exciting without having to boost a lot of top end, which can feel harsh or sibilant.

Abbey Road Saturator

The vocal settings used on Abbey Road Saturator.

The second example showcases similar harmonic characteristics of brighter harmonics being added from the REDD tube-based circuitry, but this time on a piano track. Since an instrument like piano is fairly dynamic, using saturation directly on the source can provide a quite uneven (though sometimes desirable) result. The louder parts will more than likely become distorted while the clean open tails of each note remain unaltered. I solved this issue in this example by using a fair amount of compression from the built-in Compander section of the Abbey Road Saturator. Leveling out the overall dynamics of the performance before it gets distorted allows for more even saturation and in this case, a much more pleasing result.

2. Distortion as a Transient Shaper

While distortion is most well-known for its ability to add harmonics, creating the audible overtones that we associate with distortion, it also possesses the ability to shape transients in a pleasing way. On some hardware units, like a tape machine, the soft-clipping of over-driven audio, paired with the unit’s inherent inability to reproduce high-end frequency content, results in a saturation characteristic that feels much darker and rounder. This sort of saturation is perfect to use on sources which have sharp transient information or brittle feeling high end, like a poorly recorded acoustic guitar or overhead drum track.

The example below is a drum overhead loop with some added percussion elements. The audio has plenty of transient information overall with sharp peaks from the tambourine, cymbal crashes, and hi-hats. Inserting an instance of the J37 Tape plugin across the track and adjusting the input level to drive the tape harder begins to soften the transient hits and round out some of the harsh high end present in the track.

J37 Tape GUI

Using the Saturation knob, you can then control the amount of added low-end saturation characteristics that the tape adds to your signal. Another great way to change the tonal shape of your sound is to dial in the tape speed, formula and bias. These settings change how the tape machine is reacting to the incoming audio, thereby changing the color of the added saturation, top-end loss and transient impact.

3. Distortion as a Stereo Imager (Mastering)

A place often overlooked when using distortion is mastering. In this context, opting to use a subtler saturation and tone shaping version of distortion is obviously better suited than heavy-handed fuzz which could destroy a mix. Using the Abbey Road Saturator with the TG saturation active on just the sides of the overall mix allows for some versatile tonal shaping options at the mastering stage. The solid-state circuitry modeled on the TG mode of this plugin provides harmonic characteristics that are warm and round rather than bright and shiny like the REDD.

J37 Tape GUI

The settings used on Abbey Road Saturator for the master.

The added harmonic information on the side signals of the mix highlights the body and size of the guitars that are panned left and right. This pushes the edges of the mix further out, making your stereo image feel wider and more engulfing. The benefit of using M/S mode in this situation means that only elements panned hard left and right are getting saturated, and the kick, snare and another center elements in the mix remain clean, clear, and not muddy.

Learn how Waves’ modeling captures analog magic in the digital world here.

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