The Hidden Dimensions of Stereo Mixing & Production – Part 1

Replacing EQ with Distortion & Saturation: Character is key

Author: Alex Sajjadi

Within the realm of music production, there are a number of stereo mixing techniques and practices which are key to mastering your craft and sculpting your signature sound. Among the arsenal of tools available to you, distortion and saturation emerge as effective and versatile allies, capable of transforming thin and lifeless sounds into vibrant and immersive texture-rich tones. While this may be nothing new to you, what is often overlooked is the additional value these tools provide with respect to equalisation. In this two-part article, we’ll dive into this topic in more detail, first discussing the applicability of distortion and saturation as an equaliser as well as exploring some famous songs and producers who have used this to define their signature sound. In part two, we’ll cover the practical side, giving tips and tricks to try for yourself, as well as highlighting the advantages and disadvantages between analog and digital counterparts with respect to their value within the modern-day workflow. But first, let’s take a moment to define both Equalisation, Distortion & Saturation.


Also referred to as EQ, equalisation is a fundamental tool in the music producers’ arsenal, serving as a surgical precision instrument in the mixing and production process. At its core, EQ involves the adjusting of frequencies within an audio signal, allowing you to enhance or attenuate specific frequency ranges to achieve a desired tonal balance. Every sound source and instrument has a unique range of frequencies in which the identity of the sound or Timbre is located. EQ helps to bring these frequencies out in order to ensure that the instrument occupies its desired place in the spectrum, thus providing a cohesive and balanced mix. Further uses include correcting imbalances, enhancing clarity and definition, managing masking, and creating depth and dimension.


Distortion refers to the practice of altering an audio signal through the introduction of additional harmonic content to achieve a desired sonic effect. This is often used as a creative tool to inject intensity and character into your sounds. As we will discuss later, though, this can also be used as a tool to achieve consistency and authenticity. By adding harmonic content, the sound in question not only gets louder but also changes in tone depending on the intensity and type of distortion applied. Typically, you will find either odd or even harmonic distortion referring to adding a richer, more pleasing sound (even) or an edgier, more aggressive one (odd). Combinations of the two, however, can also be found.
Below, you can find an audio example I’ve created to highlight the possibilities with distortion briefly. Initially, you’ll hear a beat loop twice with no processing on it, followed then by subtle distortion, which should add fullness and a sense of impact, again looped twice. Finally, I’ve exaggerated the parameters to make the distortion more obvious; note, however, that even exaggerated, the distortion adds a level of authenticity and character to the loop that wasn’t there before. Now imagine trying to achieve that same level of coherence and character with just an EQ.

Distortion examples - a wave form explaining distortion

Distortion examples



Saturation, unlike distortion, is the gateway to achieving the warmth and richness associated with analog recordings. While distortion can alter the waveform to create an entirely different tonality, saturation can be a much more subtle tool, incorporating compression and harmonic distortion to add warmth to sounds without fundamentally changing the tone. In the digital era of music production, saturation can provide a competitive edge by introducing a touch of vintage charm, making your mixes sound more organic and inviting. It’s the key to bridging the gap between the sterile precision of digital production and the warmth of classic analog gear. Much like distortion, saturation can be applied to various elements of a mix, such as drums, vocals, guitars and synths, imparting a level of richness that helps to tie sounds together and, much like an EQ, create a space for those elements to sit within the mix.
Below, you can find an audio example presented in the same format as with distortion but now with saturation applied instead. Note that while the texture and “warmth” of the sounds change, the tone remains more consistent than with distortion. As saturation can be harder to distinguish, I also recommend you experiment with it yourself to get a more precise idea of the type of sounds you can achieve.

A waveform that gives an example of saturation

Saturation examples


Stereo mixing – Character is key:

So, we’ve discussed the basic premise of distortion and saturation, and hopefully, you have a clearer picture between the two. But why actually use them instead of an EQ when an EQ is so good at being… well, an EQ? In short, distortion and saturation add character. Have you ever wondered why some producers have such a distinct sound and style? Aside from having a collection of trusty instruments, recording and production tricks (see psychoacoustics), each is able to successfully utilise distortion and saturation to achieve authenticity to their sound, which cannot be achieved through EQ alone.
Take a digital synth, for example. By applying EQ, you could certainly remove unwanted frequencies to help it fit into the mix; however, considering the harmonic content of the sound was only surgically edited, you would still be left with an overly pristine and edgy sound lacking in character and emotion. Instead, you could boost those same frequencies with a saturator, all the while imparting the analog warmth necessary to achieve the authenticity and musicality for the listener to resonate with. Of course, EQ is still very important in making sure that specific frequencies are carved out to prevent masking or even to push a specific frequency range out in the mix; however, once you’ve done the objective part of the mix process, it is safe to say its time to put down the EQ and start using distortion & saturation instead to colour your sound and impart character. In the second half of the article, we’ll dive into practical examples for you to try yourself, but for now, let’s build on this understanding by highlighting some producers who have mastered this art to produce award-winning albums authentic to their genre.

Hall of Fame:

Take Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. His guitar wizardry epitomised in tracks like “whole lotta love” and “Black Dog” features groundbreaking use of amplifier distortion, contributing to the genre of hard rock. Or Rick Rubin who is renowned amongst other things for shaping the sound of hip-hop and rock alike. His work with artists such as the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chill Peppers often incorporates intentional distortion, creating raw and edgy sonic aesthetics.
Moving over to electronic music, Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) has pushed the boundaries of distortion, blending glitchy textures and distorted beats to define the genre of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music). Another example would be Brian Eno, known for his pioneering work with ambient music. Eno’s use of tape saturation (characterised by its smooth high end and warmth) and unconventional studio techniques in albums like “Music for Airports” laid the foundation for ambient music’s ethereal textures.

Finally, a personal favourite of mine is Mark Ronson, a Grammy-winning producer and musician who has demonstrated a keen mastery of distortion when crafting his signature sound. Notably, his collaboration with Amy Winehouse on the album “Back to Black” showcased Ronson’s adept use of vintage distortion techniques. The album, with its throwback soul and R&B influences, became a modern classic, largely due to Ronson’s production choices. In tracks like “Rehab”, Ronson employed distortion on both Winehouse’s vocals as well as various instruments to create a gritty retro ambience reminiscent of classic Motown recordings. The intentional use thereof added a timeless quality to the sound, seamlessly blending modern production with vintage aesthetics.


Until now, we’ve focused quite a bit on the theory to build on our understanding of these processes with the aim of viewing both distortion and saturation in a different light. While it’s important to state that EQ still exists for a reason and is still a highly effective tool in the producer’s arsenal, you can hopefully already appreciate the value and importance of character in music. and the ability of distortion and saturation to create and emphasise it. Try listening again to the songs above while asking yourself whether they would carry the same emotional weight without the same colours present. In part two of this article, we’ll build on this philosophy, laying out clear examples of situations in which you can use distortion and saturation instead of an EQ to provide your music with character and authenticity. On top of that, we’ll explore the differences between analog and digital distortion with one eye fixed on the modern-day workflow and its applicability therein.

Alex Sajjadi is an audio engineer and music producer based in Amsterdam. He works under the pseudonym Miniatour and graduated from Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam. To follow his journey and check out his latest release, click the link below.

Learn more about psychoacoustics: