If you're here, you may already have an idea of how powerful saturation can be for mixing drums. You may already know that it is a crucial part of achieving great-sounding mixes that can compete.
In fact, you could almost say it's necessary for the majority of successful records.
The "magic of saturation" could be the missing puzzle for you to get those crispy and punchy drums.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the world of saturating drums.
How to use Saturation on Drums
With music being recorded digitally these days the recording doesn't go through analog gear (pre-amps, tapes, analog desks, converters, etc.), the tracks tend to sound too clean.
When a sound is too clean, it can sound boring. This is why we use saturation to add some character, attitude, and excitement to an otherwise boring recording.
The goal is to emulate the extra depth and harmonics you get from an analog signal flow without overdoing it.
Remember, saturation is a combination of distortion and compression, so too much can easily destroy a sound.
Use one or two analog emulator plugins; too many emulators on one sound will make it sound flat and introduce aliasing.
Drums are most likely percussive, which means they'll usually have a strong transient and a short decay.
This can be great if you’re going for a punchy sound. But in some cases, this can be too aggressive, sound piercing, or overpower other sounds in the mix.
Saturation can be used to reduce the loud transients and make the recording sound smoother and fit perfectly in a mix.
This is a great technique to use on overheads to control loud or harsh cymbals.
Saturation can also be used to create contrast between drum sounds. For instance, if you have both a top and bottom snare, you don’t want both of them to sound punchy.
So, you could use saturation to make the bottom snare smoother and keep the top snare punchy. You can do the same with kick-in and kick-out.
This can be a great tool for controlling transients, adding depth, and creating contrast in a mix.
Whenever you see the word "warmth," just know that it means "thickness."
These terms can be confusing for beginners, but this blog is here to demystify everything for you and teach you mixing and mastering in plain, simple English.
Basically, saturation can also be used to make your drums sound “fat” and “warm.”
Oh, saturation plugins also use terms such as "warm tape," "warm tube," and "warm saturation." It all means the same thing; the only difference is the type of saturation.
Others use odd harmonics to achieve "warmth,” while others use even harmonics to get similar results.
So, you can use saturation to fatten your thin-sounding recordings.
Just be careful not to apply this style of saturation to a thick sound because it will make it muddy and dull.
Adding warmth is useful for high-frequency sounds or if something sounds harsh. Apply it on anything that sounds thin or has too much high-frequency information.
Excitement is a common term used by audio engineers to explain the opposite of warmth, which is simply brightness.
Other terms that are used to explain this are sheen, shine, and air. Although these terms describe different high-frequency areas, at the end of the day, they all mean the same thing.
Saturation can take a dull drum sound and make it bright and exciting. This will also help make the instrument sound clear in a mix.
This is great for making kick drums translate well on small speakers or other low percussive sounds such as toms, congas, cajons, etc.
But don’t add excitement to anything that already sounds bright because this can create aliasing and make your drums sound harsh.
The Glue Effect
Saturation also has the power to glue a group of drums together and make them sound like one.
This is ideal for gluing a drum sound recorded with multiple microphones.
For instance, if you have multiple tom tracks (maybe 3 rack toms and 2 floor toms), saturation often makes them blend well together.
Multiple microphones will make the drums sound separated, but with saturation, you can make them sound like a drum kit (one instrument).
"Glue" is all about the movement of the drums. Without glue, the drums will sound isolated, but with glue, they’ll sound like they were recorded with one mic and move together.
So, the glue technique can be applied to two or more sounds or the entire drum kit.
Expanding TIme-Based Effects
Using saturation to make things sound expansive is not something that you usually see being done on drums.
But I have to add this section just in case you come across a mix that needs it.
Basically, this technique is used when you want to make effects such as reverb sound bigger. So, you’ll add a saturation effect to your reverb track to expand the reverb signal.
This is useful as a creative tool to add excitement and contrast to different parts of the song, such as breakdowns.
It can also sound amazing on slow-tempo songs or if the instrumentation is sparse.
But on a dense mix, this will often make your drums sound muddy and create clutter, especially in the midrange.
Even though this technique is rarely used in modern music, it’s always good to know it in case you do come across a mix that needs it.
FAQ About Saturation
Here are the three most commonly asked questions about saturation that beginner mixing engineers always ask:
When Should I Use Saturation?
Saturation can be used in various ways in a mix.
It can be used to tame harshness, add depth, fix thin-sounding instruments or vocals, create contrast, glue sounds together, add character, and more.
For instance, applying saturation to drums usually increases the sustain while making each hit more consistent.
The end result is that the drums will be perceived as being louder, but the peak levels will remain the same.
So, there are various reasons to use saturation in a mix.
Should I Use Saturation on Every Track?
The simple answer is no; you shouldn’t do things by default when mixing music. You need to have proper intent before adding saturation to any instrument or vocal track.
The goal is to listen to the mix and let the music determine whether saturation is necessary or not.
You can’t apply any type of processing simply because you saw it being used on a YouTube video.
If you're still confused then you better not add it at all because you'll mess up your mixes.
What Does Saturation Do to a Kick?
Saturation can be a powerful tool to help your kick cut through the mix. It can make your kick drum sound fuller, add character, and make it fit perfectly with the rest of the instrumentation.
However, when used incorrectly, it will usually make your kick fall flat. Used wrong, saturation can make a kick sound muddy and lifeless.
So you always need a valid reason as to why you’re applying it.