02 Feb Distortion and Saturation
I’ve decided to write some stuff on this topic because I spend half my life distorting, saturating and mangling sounds and it’s a pretty integral thing in the world of making big, fat, and (sometimes) disgusting sounds.
There are a multitude of ways you can distort saturate things. Doing this to your sounds increases perceived loudness, compresses and adds new material (harmonics, frequencies) to current sounds. I think this is really important as DAWs are, inherently “cold” and “empty” places to make music in; if you don’t make something, it’s not there and everything you want in your music has to be added there by you. The nature of soft instruments too means that there it takes a lot of processing to make a sound interesting and pleasing to the ear because harsh, simple and one-dimensional sounds (like the ones that come straight out of sample packs and synths) don’t usually sound that great. Saturating things can bring them to life and add fatness, richness, size and sparkle to elements which otherwise sounded dead and lifeless.
There are a few plugins I use all the time in every project so I’ll give a rundown of them and how I use them.
The distortion module in this plugin is super nice sounding and effective.
This is a ridiculously good plugin, by far my most used. It does a bunch of stuff but I’ll just focus on the distortion part of it. One of the modules is a distortion section with a bunch of different modes; 3 “symmetrical” distortions, 3 “asymmetrical” ones and a clipping mode. The symmetrical modes provide a softer, gentle distortion, the asymmetrical ones give weird harmonics and overtones to things and clipping is just brutal.
I like to use the clip function on tonnes of stuff. It’s especially great for fattening drum hits (kicks, snares), adding grit to synths as well as just making stuff louder/compressing as it drastically boots level. It only takes a few dB of clipping till something starts to break up nastily though.
The asymmetrical mode gives weird harmonics and has a unique sound. A cool side effect of this mode is the way it can break up treble sounds when being affected by bass. What I like to do is bus an 808 kick with a hi hat, put N2O on the bus with the asymmetrical setting, and then EQ the 808 kick out of the group on the bus channel (the kick should be basically just a low sine wave) after the distortion. Because the bassy sound triggers the distortion, the hi hat gets broken up really nicely. The EQ after the distortion means you can just have the distorted hi hat by itself.
PSP VintageWarmer2 is a nice tape emulation plugin, great for also limiting basses.
PSP VintageWarmer 2
Another sick, sick PSP plugin. I’ve had this one for years but only kind of recently figured out how to use it properly because it’s designed in a really strange way and the manual is astonishingly scant on details. It’s essentially a tape-modelled limiter/compressor.
Cranking the drive knob makes it work kind of just like a limiter but the interesting parts are the speed and knee knobs. The knee doesn’t really refer to a threshold cutoff angle like it would in a compressor but more like a threshold control with built-in make up gain (this isn’t even vaguely mentioned in the manual…). The speed knob refers to tape speed, 0 being the “slowest” and 100 the “fastest”. I’m not sure of the specifics but the “slower” the setting, the more coloured and “tape”-ey the sound gets; harmonics start popping up, especially in bassier sounds and stuff gets fatter.
Generally, the distortion you get from this is pretty subtle but if you rape the drive/knee controls it gets pretty gnarly. It’s important to use the mix control as it just gets too extreem at 100%. I like using about 10-30% mix and then cranking the knee and speed controls to taste to add grit to synths and basses. Just cranking the drive control and tweaking the in-built EQ can also level out sub lines.
Ohmicide is a great multiband distortion unit. It has some really quirky, sound-shaping effects.
Probably the most erratic and unpredictable plugin I use. It’s a 4-band type deal that lets you set bands of frequencies and distort each one individually with a tonne of different distortion algorithms. It’s not the most well-designed plugin but you can get a TONNE of sound shaping out of it.
You can completely change a synth sound with this thing or you can just beef it up a bit. As it’s so extreme, it’s easy to completely wreck and mangle sounds but with some tweaking you can bring stuff to life. Generally, I just split stuff into subs, mids and highs and distort like that, on a whole sound. I don’t usually get a shitty sound then try to use this to make it sound great, I usually bring this in to kind of “finish off” and fatten a sound which is kind of lacking a bit.
There’s so many obscure features in this plug in (mid/side encoding, envelopes for each band, the “morph” (???) feature) that I tend to just use it in a basic way. Aside from fattening stuff up and adding grit to things, I think the most logical way to use it is just to abuse things with it because you can get some seriously whack sounds out of it. Works great on turning drum loops into demonic cries and transforming vocals into distorted upright bass sounds.
As well as plugins, in-built FX bits and pieces in synths are integral to making a sound fatter and more interesting.
Trash is another multiband distortion unit, great for going in-deep and getting surgical with sounds.
iZotope Trash 2
Trash is another multiband distortion plugin, very similar to Ohmicide but also much more in-depth. It has a bunch of modules (filters, distortions, convolution reverb, dynamics and delays) and allows for an insane level of tweaking and processing.
It can be quite daunting trying to make good usage of this plugin but I like to use it without most of its bells and whistles and just use the “trash” section.
The distortion section allows single or multiband distortion and has some very nice distortion characters to cycle through and process basses or drums with. I like to throw on Ohmicide to get stuff with some character really fast but Trash is more useful for in-depth tweaking and layering distortion onto something.
Vintage Tape is a more subtle unit, great for adding warmth and getting things sounding less digital.
iZotope Vintage Tape
Vintage Tape is a module available in iZotope Ozone 7 and above. It’s a tape emulation plugin which allows you to crank gain into it (similar to VintageWarmer) but also to adjust things like bias (distortion/saturation character) as well as harmonic level and low/treble levels.
I find this plugin most useful for drum busses and in mastering; it can glue things together and add subtle “niceness” with saturation and warmth. It does, however, colour the sound even with neutral settings so you have to be aware of the character it’s bringing and to
The distortion units inside synths like Massive are really useful!
The sine shaper, hardclipper, T-tube and phase modulations in this patch are all contributing subtly to creating this particular sound. Getting to know what each section does and how it sounds is important. It’s also great to put modulations on dry/wets and amounts of distortion in all the individual sections to add
more subtle inflections and effects. Generally speaking, it’s always better to get the sound good at each step of the process so it’s good to make stuff sound great inside the synth and then use plugins like one’s I’ve mentioned to further enhance the sound.
As great as distortion and saturation is for creating a warmer, deeper and livelier sound for your entire mix, too much will wreck stuff. It’s easy to hear when good distortion turns ugly but pay attention to how squashed things are getting; some sounds need to be squashed and mangled whereas other sounds that you were gonna combine and rip to shreds may sound better just slightly fattened and left open to sit above or behind other sounds. That being said, if you want your tracks to sound huge, loud, aggressive and “pushed”, tactical distortion is the way to do it. Couple it with careful compression and you can get tracks sounding as loud as Noisia’s or Skrillex’s.