Saturation Before Or After Compression

If you’re working in an analog environment where you’ve got pre-amps, console, and other outboard gear you wouldn’t have to worry about saturation.

This is because saturation happens naturally as the audio passes through these different pieces of gear. You don’t even have to think about it. 

But when mixing in the box you sort of have to think about where to place it to get the best results.

That’s another reason why some engineers still love analog so much. It gives you more depth and glues sounds organically.

Analog adds color, tone, vibe, and harmonic saturation without you having to put your mind into it. This is what we’re going for every time we use saturation plugins.

So...

Does Saturation Go Before or After Compression?

There are no rules to this, the sound that you’re mixing should direct you towards which processing tool should come first in the chain.

But let me explain this further.

Controlling Dynamic Range

When you are working on a sound that has a drastic dynamic range (difference between loud and quieter parts), you may need to compress first so that the signal hits the saturation evenly without the saturation amounts changing all the time.

So in that situation it makes more sense to use a compressor before saturation to control the loud peaks first and reduce the dynamic range.

This is the approach most people will go for in most cases. Some will even tell you that having saturation before compression makes no sense. I totally understand why one would say that but it’s not entirely true (you'll find out why later on in the post).

Having the saturation after compressing will also increase perceived loudness and make the signal sound much more fuller.

I would recommend this if you’re going for a punchy and aggressive sound, especially for sound such as drums, vocals, or guitars.

Dynamic Saturation Effect

In some situations where the signal is not too dynamic, you can use saturation before the compressor. This way the saturation will become dynamic and sound natural.

You can also sort of get away with heavier saturation settings because it's mainly affecting the signal’s loudest peaks and then eases off during the release portion of the sound. This approach sounds more musical and less like a static distortion effect.

This gives the signal some character and it adds excitement. It’s crucial to mention that the saturation will reduce the transients so it’s wise to use a slow attack on your compressor if ever the signal is sounding too flat.

I would recommend this approach if you’re going for a smoother sound particularly if you’re working on background sounds such as keys, strings, pads, etc. to push them behind the main sounds in a mix.

As you can see, it's not ridiculous to have the sasturation before the compressor. It all depends on the results you want to achieve for a particular sound and how it affects the entire mix (we'll talk a bit about contrast later).

Avoid Oversaturating the Signal

It’s also important to think about the plugins that you’re using. If you’re using hardware emulations then you could be oversaturating your sounds.

Emulation plugins usually add some type of harmonic content so they could also be saturating your sound. This means you might not even need to add a dedicated saturation plugin in most cases (that’s if you’re using hardware emulations only).

There are two ways you can avoid oversaturating your signal. The first way would be to use a lot of stock or transparent third-party plugins and then add a saturation plugin at the end of your chain.

However, feel free to add it anywhere in the chain if it makes sense.

The other way would be to apply saturation to your signal in different stages to emulate an analog signal flow inside your DAW.

So for instance, your vocal chain could look something like this:

  • Pre-Amp
  • Surgical EQ (subtractive)
  • Compressor 1
  • Compressor 2 (optional)
  • Tonal EQ (additive)
  • De-esser
  • Limiter (optional)

If you choose to utilize the chain above then there’s no need for a saturation plugin. That’s how you’ll be able to avoid over-saturation.

You also have to think about other parts of the mix such as groups, mix bus, and the mastering stage as well.

If you use too much saturation in your mix, it will shave off most of the transients and you run the risk of making your song sound too thin.

It’s always important to think about contrast. Thinking about contrast will also help you avoid guessing which approach you should go for. Basically, determine which sounds should have more transients and which ones must sound smooth.

That way you’ll know when to use transparent plugins and when to utilize hardware emulations.

Choosing the Right Type of Saturation

The type of saturation also plays a big role.

For instance, a tube will most likely give you a smooth, deep, and warm sound with the transients shaved off (great for controlling harsh sounds).

A transistor will keep some of the transients intact, giving you a punchy and aggressive sound.

When it comes to tape, think about how it was used in the analog domain. What I mean is that using a tape emulation at the beginning of a chain seems kinda ridiculous since it’s meant to be used on the mix/master bus as the final processing tool before the limiter.

So in your individual tracks, it makes more sense to go for other types of saturation such as tubes and transistors.

However, that’s just a general guideline it’s not a rule since you can add tape in your group channels or even individual sounds. Tape will also reduce the transients, cut off the top-end, and give you a warm sound but not as deep as tubes.

Once you know what type of sound you want (smooth or punchy) then it becomes much simpler to choose the right type of saturation.

Is Saturation the Same as Compression?

No, these are two different types of processing tools. Compression is used for controlling dynamic range (loud and quieter parts of a signal) to get a consistent sound. Basically, it's an automated volume controller. Saturation is a combination of a soft knee compressor and harmonic distortion, which is used to apply vibe, warmth, and add a classic analog sound to a signal.

It’s important to mention that some compressors can add pleasant and musical distortion when pushed hard, especially hardware units.

Digital plugins tend to add unwanted artifacts when you apply heavy compression so be very careful not to push them too hard.

Saturation also changes the waveform and adds new information. It also lowers the dynamic range, can glue a group of sounds, and add new frequencies that can make a signal sound fuller.

Wrap

As a general rule, consider saturating after compression.

Here’s my final verdict.

Compress before saturation if you want to make a more even tone throughout.

Applying saturation before compression means that the dynamics will interact more and some parts will thicken up than others.

So, it’s important to have intent. When you have a valid reason as to why you want to add saturation then you’ll never rely on guesswork.

Try to picture the final results in your mind before even pulling out your favorite saturation plugin.

Some may say it boils down to personal choice or taste. No, it depends on what will work best for the particular sound you’re affecting and the entire mix (choice and preference are secondary).

Hope you found this tutorial valueable and no longer confused about where to place these two processing tools in your chain.

Leave a comment below to let me know what you've learned today and feel free to ask me any questions.

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