In today’s tutorial, I’ll be showing you how to use saturation on vocals to help them cut through the mix even better.
You’ll learn how to add punch and excitement without overdoing it or ruining a tremendous vocal performance.
This is something that I use on every recording, whether it’s Pop, RnB, Hip-Hop, Jazz, etc.
Before we get started, it’s crucial to mention that if you already recorded the voice using analog gear (console, compressor, EQ, etc.) then applying saturation is not always necessary. I’ll talk about when you should apply saturation later on in the post.
Look, I’m not going to bore you with the history or things such as “what is saturation” you can find all that stuff with a simple Google or Wikipedia search.
Let’s cut all the fat out and get straight to the meat.
How to Use Saturation on Vocals
To get the best results when using saturation on vocals it is crucial to always think about the journey of the signal’s transients.
Remember that saturation is a combination of a soft knee compressor and distortion. So it will change the waveform, reduce transients, and add information that wasn’t there (harmonic content).
So think about how each of the processing you’re applying to the vocal is affecting the transients.
Instead of thinking about one plugin, start thinking about saturation in different stages. From the first plugin insert to the vocal bus, mix bus, and mastering.
This is very important if you’re using hardware emulation plugins because they add some type of saturation. Too much of this effect can destroy the attack and punch, resulting in a vocal that struggles to cut through the mix.
Check out my previous blog post titled Saturation Before Or After Compression to learn more about how to avoid oversaturation.
Gain Staging (Finding the Sweet Spot)
The first thing you need to do before adding any saturation plugin is to make sure that you’re hitting it at the right level, aka the sweet spot.
For most plugins, this is around -3dBVU to 0dBVU. You’ll need to use a VU meter to measure this. Also, check that the plugin you’re using is calibrated at “18” then a -18dBFS reference tone will equal 0dBVU on the meter.
Most hardware emulation plugins come with a VU meter built-in so you can use that and the input gain to get your vocals to peak at the right volume.
This way the plugins will sound good or else you might get a messed up sound that will cause some aliasing.
So get the calibration and gain staging right for the best sound possible, especially if you’re using Waves plugins.
Waves Audio plugins don’t sound bad, people just don’t gain stage them the right way and then complain about the sound quality.
By the way, gain staging is not important if you’re using stock or transparent third-party plugins unless you’re just doing it to avoid clipping.
Whenever you find yourself mixing vocals that’s sounding too thin, you can use saturation to fatten the sound and make the voice sound fuller.
This happens if you’ve recorded a female or children, but some males have small voices as well.
To achieve fatness, you can use Tube saturation. Tubes produce more second-order harmonics, which produces a warm, rich tone.
Second-order harmonics are relatively lower than their third-order counterparts, so tube circuits are great for boosting your vocal's low-end and adding power.
Tubes are usually the best type of saturation if you’re mixing harsh-sounding vocals and need to tame down some of that harshness.
You can also apply tubes on supporting vocals so that they can get pushed back in the mix, allowing the lead vocal to remain upfront.
Experiment with tubes whenever you want to reduce transients or add fullness to a voice.
Increasing Presence on a Dull Vocal
The third-order harmonics produced by transistors and transformers usually result in more mid and high frequencies.
This normally makes your vocal tracks sound brighter and more defined, helping them cut through the mix.
Transistors and transformers are perfect when you’re working on a low deep tone voice to give it some air and sheen.
This type of saturation is great for adding excitement and character since it doesn’t completely destroy the transients.
A good choice for the lead vocal, especially if you’re working on a dense mix where the voice is struggling to cut through.
To get the best results without taming the transients too much, put it as the last insert in your vocal chain.
Balance the Frequencies of a Voice
To get a well-balanced vocal sound, particularly on the supporting vocals, you can use a tape emulation plugin.
Tape generates both even and odd-order harmonics that produce a rich and balanced tone. A tape machine is known for rolling off the high-end, which gives it a warm, classic sound.
You can use this effect when you want to give your vocals a vintage vibe, but it can also make the voice sound dull and muddy if you push it too hard.
So it’s not suitable for a deep-sounding voice.
It can be a great effect on your ad libs, backings, harmonies, etc. so that they don’t overpower the lead vocal.
Tape saturation works really well for reducing harshness on a voice to get a well balanced vocal tone. Even when you want to tame down loud sibilance.
Thicken Specific Frequency Ranges
Using a multiband saturation plugin you’ll be able to selectively apply saturation to different frequency bands.
You can thicken up certain frequency ranges that you want to emphasize and draw more attention to.
For instance, if you feel like the voice is sounding too thin in the midrange you can add a new band that targets the frequencies around the 1-5kHz range.
Find the most appropriate saturation effect for your source material by experimenting with different algorithms.
For sounds that feel thin, use a saturator as a colorful solution, and an EQ as a more transparent option.
Parallel Saturation on a Vocal
With parallel saturation, you can mix the original signal with the saturated signal. This gives you the best of both worlds.
You can route the effect through an aux track or use a plugin's Wet/Dry mix control if one is available.
The benefit of this method is that the original signal is preserved while you have full control of the saturated signal.
Use this approach if you like the sound of a heavily saturated signal so that you can keep the original intact. You can use parallel saturation to add some unique and exciting textures to a vocal.
This will add vibe and attitude to the parallel track without destroying the transients of the original vocal.
In some situations, you might find yourself mixing a recording that only has a single take of the lead vocal. This could make it hard for the lead to cut through the mix from start to finish.
To fix this problem you can create a parallel track and add a saturation plugin then automate the parallel track wherever the voice struggles to cut through.
You can also get the same effect by simply duplicating the track. Just make sure that you apply heavy saturation so that you don’t have identical signals. If the duplicate (or parallel) tracks are identical with original vocal they’ll cancel each other making the problem even worse.
You can also use this technique as a creative effect to only apply saturation in certain parts of the song to add more excitement and create contrast.
When it comes to automation, the possibilities are just endless.
Should You Always Apply Saturation on a Vocal?
By adding saturation to vocals, you can add harmonic excitement, thickness, and warmth, as well as control transients while adding some subtle compression.
Clean digital recordings can sound dull and boring; this is why some mixing engineers still use analog gear to this day. This is because they want to add that classic vibe and depth you get from having your audio passing through analog equipment.
So, if your vocal was recorded using transparent digital equipment then your recording will usually benefit from saturation.
However, if you already used high-end analog gear such as EQs, compressors, a console, etc. then you might want to avoid it so that you don’t over-saturate the vocal.
This article was all about how to use saturation on a vocal, if you found this valuable but are now confused about where to place the effect in your chain then don’t worry my next blog will cover that topic.
In the meantime, leave a comment below to let me know what you’ve learned today, or simply post your questions and I’ll get back to you.