Three Ways to Use Distortion in Your Mixes

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. Below are three tips using our Waves Audio / Abbey Road Saturator and J37 tape plugin.


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 can make the source audio feel anything from brighter to more “forward,” rounder or warmer, all dependent on the circuitry and analogue signal path being modelled. 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 colour and vibe while changing the tone of an instrument.

The example below uses Abbey Road Saturator directly on the vocal track. Dialling in some gain on the REDD setting drives the analogue modelled 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.

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.
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 colour 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 modelled on the TG mode of this plugin provides harmonic characteristics that are warm and round rather than bright and shiny like the REDD.
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 centre elements in the mix remain clean, clear, and not muddy.

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