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The Hidden Dimensions of Stereo Mixing & Production – Part 2

Replacing EQ with Distortion & Saturation: Unlocking your creativity.

Distortion and saturation are highly effective tools in the producers’ arsenal, going beyond the limits of EQ by imparting your music with character and authenticity. In this article, we’ll be building on the ideas brought up in part 1, focussing on the practical side to provide a clear understanding of when and how to use distortion and saturation to bring life to your music.

If you haven’t already read part 1, now is the time to check it out, as it’s important to understand the context before covering the practical. Click here for part 1.

Author: Alex Sajjadi

Analog vs Digital:

Before we dive into any practical examples, it’s important we take a brief moment to discuss the differences and merits between analog and digital processing. Understanding the two will give you an idea of where to begin.

Analog distortion, often associated with vintage hardware and analog circuitry, imparts a warm, harmonically rich character to a sound. The gradual, nonlinear nature of analog distortion introduces subtle nuances and a pleasing coloration that many producers find appealing. It’s quite often said that the character imparted on a sound processed by analog hardware is in its nature more musical. However, analog gear can be costly and it also comes with limitations in terms of recall ability and flexibility. You can’t just save and load presets or copy them over to other instruments with the click of your mouse.

On the flip side, digital distortion and saturation offer precise control and versatility. The ability to save settings and experiment with a vast array of options makes digital tools invaluable to the modern production workflow. Yet, some argue that digital processing can sometimes lack the organic and more musical nuances of their analog counterparts. While precision and accuracy may be perfect for certain situations, the random and subtle variation offered by analog gear is just as desirable. Striking a balance often involves leveraging the best of both worlds – using analog emulation plugins within a digital environment or blending analog and digital processing to achieve a desired sonic character. Ultimately, the choice hinges on your preference, workflow and the sonic qualities you aim to capture. So, by all means, experiment and figure out what works best for you.

Practical Examples:

Synths:
One of the unique qualities of distortion & saturation is their ability to introduce harmonically rich overtones. This goes beyond the capabilities of traditional EQ, which only influences harmonics already present in the sound. By using distortion and saturation, you can shape the timbre of your sounds, adding complexity and depth.

Take a synth lead, for example.

Synth Lead example

Synth Lead example

By choosing between odd and even harmonic distortion, you can boost or attenuate specific frequency ranges while altering the tone & texture of your synth. This technique is particularly powerful for creating evolving and atmospheric synths perfect for ambient and electronic music alike.

Below is an example for you to listen to. The use of EQ at the beginning and end of the chain is for corrective purposes only. The sound shaping is done through multiple uses of odd and even harmonic distortion and saturation to create a vintage, lo-fi feeling.

Example of a synth before processing

Example of a synth after processing

Vocals:
Try applying tube saturation to add a touch of warmth and character. This can be particularly effective for, though not limited to, genres like soul and Jazz. Experiment with tape saturation plugins to introduce gentle analog-like coloration that enhances the richness of the vocal tone.

Example of vocals, using a DAW and applying distortion

Example with Vocals

Alternatively, distortion can also be a great tool to provide your vocals with an aggressive edge capable of cutting through a mix and matching the energy of the performance. Experiment with odd harmonic distortion for a more aggressive tone while even will provide a warmer richer feel.

Below you can hear how the application of odd harmonic distortion clarifies & sharpens the tone of the vocal making it stand out more by sounding edgier.

Example sound of vocals before processing

Example sound of vocals after processing

Guitars:
Instead of pushing your guitars through a mix with EQ, use distortion to shape the tone. Applying overdrive or fuzz can be a great way to add grit and presence, while tape saturation will introduce a subtle warmth and richness to the guitar. This works well for any genre, but especially Rock and Blues.

DAW picture with guitar examples

Guitar examples

Check out the example below. The aim here is to create a warm tone that maintains enough presence to cut through a mix while not becoming too aggressive. Though subtle, the guitar is more harmonically rich and thicker, something not achievable through EQ alone.

Example sound of guitars before processing

Example sound of guitars after processing

Drums:
Experiment with saturation on drum elements to enhance their presence and impact. Apply subtle saturation to the kick drum for added warmth, or use distortion to shape a snare drum, adding a touch of aggression to push it through a mix. This is particularly effective in genres like rock, where bold drum sounds are often desired, though this can also be used effectively in House and Techno.

screenshot of DAW with drum examples

Drums example

In the example below, you can clearly hear how distortion and saturation not only add punch and energy to the drums but also add more life to the performance. Take note of the snare, which transforms from lifeless and hollow to impactful and rich.

Example sound of drums before processing

Example sound of drums after processing

Bass:
Use distortion on basslines to add presence and bite. Tube distortion goes a long way in adding warmth and a subtle bit of fuzz while applying saturation to the midrange frequencies can make basslines more audible on smaller playback systems without sacrificing the low-end foundation. This technique is commonly used in EDM and Pop.

screenshot of DAW with bass example

Bass example

In the example below, note how saturation not only colours the tone but also opens up the sound. You can also see from the image above that the sub and midrange have been split. This is to shape the tone of the bass while maintaining low-end clarity.

Example sound of bassline before processing

Example sound of bassline after processing

Keys:

Applying saturation to electric piano or organ tracks will emulate warmth and vintage tones. Adding subtle distortion can also emphasise the timbre, giving the keys a nostalgic, analog feel. This technique works particularly well for genres like Soul, Funk and Jazz, although you’re free to experiment with any genre.

DAW screenshot with keys

Keys example

Below you can hear how tape and tube saturation transforms the Wurlitzer from dark and muffled sounding to open and rich. I could have boosted the same frequencies with an EQ, but that vintage feel would then be lost.

Sound of keys before processing

Sound of keys after processing

Balancing Subtlety and Intensity

It’s important to consider whether you’re going to be subtle or intense with your approach. The art of colouring your sound lies in finding the delicate balance between the two. While distortion can be a bold, expressive tool, it also excels in subtler applications. Take time to explore these nuances to understand how they can best enhance your music. Try using multiple plugins to subtly build on your sound, using the colour of each to build a layered and characterful tone.

This can also be achieved through parallel processing, blending a dry signal with a distorted one to subtly impart character while maintaining the integrity of the original sound source. This will go a long way in creating unique textures that stand out in your productions.

Check out the example below. I’ve decided to crush my synth until it sounds broken, but rather than leave it there I’ve put the sound in parallel, added some reverb and created a beautiful lo-fi sounding reverb that also adds texture and life to the synth.

Synth parallel example

Mix glue:

Don’t be afraid to experiment with these tools on your master and group tracks as well. While working on individual sound sources can provide a level of precision not achievable otherwise, processing groups of sounds through the same plugin can help to achieve a more cohesive sound with elements fitting together more naturally than they would otherwise. Try applying tape saturation to the drum bus, or to a group of synths or even the entire mix for a final touch of analog warmth.

Unlocking your creativity:

Before concluding, it’s important to mention the opportunities distortion and saturation create in extending and developing your inspiration and creativity. It can be difficult sometimes to “know what to do next” due to a lack of inspiration or knowledge. In these cases, using distortion and saturation will not only showcase tones and textures but also inspire you to think about your sounds in ways you didn’t before. If you don’t know where to start, scroll through some presets. You might even stumble across a sound or texture so authentic to the style of music you’re making that you question how you didn’t think of it before. The benefit of this process, aside from discovering unique tones and textures, is that you’ll end up building a knowledge base of plugins that you can rely on in the future to shape and colour your sounds.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, distortion and saturation offer unparalleled creative potential, going beyond the basic capabilities of an EQ. The ability to shape sounds with intensity, capture analog warmth, enrich harmonics, add unique colours, impart authenticity and emotion, and achieve a cohesive mix sets you on the path to becoming a sought-after producer with a competitive edge. While there is certainly still a place for the conventional EQ, notably in its unrivalled ability to surgically process sounds and “clean them up”, embrace the potential of distortion and saturation. Perhaps the next time you find yourself wanting to use an EQ, consider first whether you might want to try adding some character instead.

 

About Alex Sajjadi

Alex Sajjadi is an Amsterdam-based audio engineer & music producer and a graduate of Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam. He works under the pseudonym Miniatour. Click the link below to follow his journey and check out his latest release.
https://linktr.ee/miniatourmusic

Vocals credits: Gijs Jeuken

Graphics: Dennis Beentjes

Learn more about psychoacousticshttps://abbeyroadinstitute.com/miami/blog/learn-psychoacoustics/