Synthesizers and outboard music equipment in a music studio

What is a Saturator and How to Use It for Richer, Fuller Mixes

What is a Saturator and How to Use It for Richer, Fuller Mixes


In the world of electronic music production, achieving a rich and full mix is crucial to making your tracks stand out. A saturator is an often overlooked but incredibly powerful tool to help you do this. In this blog post, we'll explore what a saturator is, why it's essential in music production, and how to use it effectively to create richer, fuller mixes. Whether you're a seasoned producer or just starting, understanding the power of saturation can elevate your productions to new heights.

  1. What is a Saturator?

  2. Types of Saturators

  3. When to Use Saturation

  4. Tips for Getting the Most Out of Saturation

What is a Saturator?

Saturation is a form of harmonic distortion that occurs when an audio signal exceeds a device's or medium's dynamic range, such as tape or analog hardware. In digital audio, saturation is often introduced intentionally using plugins that emulate the desirable characteristics of analog saturation.

The origin of saturation in analog recording

Historically, saturation was an inherent part of analog recording processes, resulting from pushing signals through tape machines, tube gear, and transistor-based equipment. This natural saturation added warmth, character, and depth to recordings, which many music producers and engineers still seek today.

The origin of saturation in analog recording

Digital saturators are plugins designed to replicate the pleasing sonic characteristics of analog saturation. By introducing harmonic distortion, warmth, and subtle compression, saturators can add depth, character, and richness to individual tracks or an entire mix. They can also help control dynamics, enhance perceived loudness, and shape the tone of your audio.

Types of Saturators

  1. Analog emulation saturators: These saturators mimic the specific characteristics of classic analog gear, such as consoles, preamps, and compressors. Examples include the Waves NLS Non-Linear Summer and Slate Digital's Virtual Console Collection.

  2. Tape saturators: Tape saturators recreate the warmth, compression, and subtle distortion characteristics of analog tape machines. Popular tape saturator plugins include the UAD Ampex ATR-102 and Waves J37 Tape.

  3. Tube saturators: These plugins emulate tube-based audio equipment's harmonic distortion, warmth, and character. Examples include the Soundtoys Decapitator and Softube Saturation Knob.

  4. Transistor saturators: Transistor saturators model the unique sound of transistor-based equipment, often characterized by a more aggressive distortion. The UAD Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Collection and Waves Scheps 73 are popular transistor saturator plugins.

  5. Multiband saturators: Multiband saturators allow you to independently apply saturation to specific frequency bands, providing greater control over the effect. FabFilter Saturn 2 is a widely used multiband saturator.

  6. Creative saturators: These saturators often provide unconventional distortion types or additional modulation options for creative sound design purposes. Examples include the iZotope Trash 2 and Kilohearts Faturator.

When to Use Saturation

Adding warmth and character to individual tracks

Applying saturation to individual tracks can help emphasize specific harmonics, add warmth, and create a sense of cohesion between elements in your mix. For example, using a tape saturator on a drum bus can add punch and weight to the drums.

Enhancing the mix bus

Gentle saturation on the mix bus can add glue, warmth, and depth to your entire mix, making it sound more cohesive and polished. Experiment with analog emulation or tape saturators for a subtle yet effective enhancement.

Taming transients and controlling dynamics

Saturation can smooth out transients and provide a form of dynamic control, making tracks sit better in the mix. This is particularly useful for instruments with sharp attacks, like drums or plucked strings.

Creative sound design

Saturators can also be used as a creative tool for sound design, adding unique textures, warmth, or even aggressive distortion to your audio.

A audio mixing desk and a music production DAW for saturation
A audio mixing desk and a music production DAW for saturation

How to Use a Saturator Effectively

Choosing the right type of saturator for your mix

Consider the character and tone you want to achieve in your mix when selecting a saturator. For example, use a tube saturator for a warm, vintage sound or a transistor saturator for a more aggressive, modern tone.

Adjusting drive, input/output gain, and other parameters

Experiment with the drive control to find the right amount of saturation for your audio. Balance input and output gain to maintain consistent levels, and explore additional parameters like wet/dry mix, tone controls, or modulation options for added flexibility.

Balancing wet/dry mix for parallel processing

Using parallel processing with saturation can maintain the original audio's clarity while adding warmth and character. Adjust the wet/dry mix to find the right balance between the processed and unprocessed signals.

Frequency-selective saturation techniques

Apply saturation to specific frequency ranges using multiband saturators or by routing your audio through an EQ before the saturator. This allows you to target problematic frequencies or enhance specific harmonics.

Saturation outboard equipment and compressors
Saturation outboard equipment and compressors

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Saturation

  1. Subtle vs. extreme saturation: While some situations call for subtle saturation, don't be afraid to push your saturator harder for more noticeable effects. Experiment with different levels of saturation to find the sweet spot for your mix.

  2. Layering multiple saturators for added complexity: Try stacking different types of saturators or using multiple instances on a single track for a richer, more complex sound. This can help you achieve a unique tone impossible with a single saturator.

  3. Monitoring and referencing your mix: Always monitor your mix on multiple playback systems and compare your work to professional reference tracks. This ensures your saturation is translating well across different listening environments.

  4. Avoiding over-saturation and other pitfalls: Be cautious not to over-saturate your mix, which can lead to muddiness and a loss of clarity. Use saturation tastefully and make sure to maintain balance and separation between elements in your mix.

Master engineer troubleshooting bus-related issues
Master engineer troubleshooting bus-related issues

Popular Saturator Plugins

List of recommended saturator plugins

  1. Soundtoys Decapitator: Known for its warm, tube-like saturation and versatile tone-shaping options, Decapitator is a go-to choice for many producers seeking character and warmth.

  2. FabFilter Saturn 2: This powerful multiband saturator offers a wide range of saturation types, modulation options, and precise control over frequency-specific saturation.

  3. Softube Saturation Knob: A simple yet effective tube-style saturator, the Saturation Knob is perfect for adding subtle warmth and character with minimal effort.

  4. Waves NLS Non-Linear Summer: This plugin emulates the sound of three legendary analog consoles, adding warmth, depth, and subtle harmonic distortion to your mixes.

  5. Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection: With six meticulously modeled console emulations, the VCC provides a variety of analog warmth and character to enhance your tracks.

  6. Waves J37 Tape: This plugin emulates the iconic sound of the Abbey Road Studios J37 tape machine, offering a classic tape saturation sound.

  7. UAD Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Collection: A classic transistor saturator, the Neve 1073 imparts a rich, vintage sound with its iconic preamp and EQ modeling.

  8. Waves Scheps 73: Based on the renowned Neve 1073 console, the Scheps 73 offers the characteristic warmth and punch of its analog counterpart.

  9. iZotope Trash 2: A versatile and creative distortion and saturation plugin, Trash 2 excels at everything from subtle warmth to extreme, experimental sound design.

  10. Kilohearts Faturator: A unique and powerful creative saturator, Faturator offers a wide range of distortion types, stereo widening, and modulation options for inventive sound shaping.

  11. UAD Ampex ATR-102: A highly regarded tape saturator, the ATR-102 adds the warmth, depth, and glue associated with analog tape machines.


In summary, saturators play a crucial role in electronic music production, helping you achieve a richer, fuller, and more polished sound. Understanding what a saturator is and how to use it effectively is vital for both novice and experienced producers.

By experimenting with different types of saturators and applying them thoughtfully throughout your mix, you can create warmth, character, and depth that sets your tracks apart. So, dive into the world of saturation and unlock the full potential of your audio with this powerful production tool. Happy mixing!

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