Saturation is a commonly underutilized effect in music production. It’s one of my favorite effects to use and I find myself using varying amounts on most of my tracks. Ableton is notorious for its stock plugins and you should look to use the Saturator more if you aren’t already. In this article, we’re going to touch on what saturation is and focus on Ableton’s Saturation plugin.
What is Saturation?
Before the days of digital audio, music producers and engineers recorded everything via tape. The term “saturation” gained its origins from the amount of magnetism that tape could hold. The oxide particles on the tape is what causes distortion and by increasing the tapes magnetism, you get more distortion. When you increase the volume of your recording to the tape, you increase the magnetism. You eventually get to a point where the tape can no longer take any more magnetism and you overload the tape. This is where the sound gains color or character known as saturation.
From a digital perspective, you’re adding more harmonics and “soft clipping” the sound to achieve a similar effect to analog equipment. Using saturation throughout your mix is one way to make your songs sound like they were produced in an “expensive” studio on analog equipment. Except you’re doing it right there in your studio with the software you purchased (or pirated). No “Grammy-winning producer” needed.
The Saturator in Ableton Live adds the effect of saturation via a wave-shaping effect, adding characters of grit, punch, or warmth to your sounds. Whether it’s subtle saturation or more apparent distortion effect you’re going for, Saturator can get you there.
In the middle of the Saturator’s display is a giant curve (blue if you’re in Ableton 10) inside a grid. This is the Saturators shaping curve that helps you visualize what the Saturator is doing to your sound. The X-axis of the grid represents the input and the Y-axis represents the output respectively. This ultimately represents how the output values fluctuate in relation to the input values.
The Drive Knob
The Drive knob sets the decibel level at which the input signal will be clipped. Adjusting this knob, you’ll see the meter to the right of the shaping curve start to react to the input signal. This meter represents to what degree the Saturator is affecting the sound.
The DC and Color Button
The DC Button adds a DC filter on your input signal at the beginning of your saturator. This is mainly useful if you have a signal that contains DC offsets in them.
The Color Button activates/deactivates the Base, Freq, Width, and Depth filter knobs at the bottom of the plugin.
The Base knob increase/decreases the amount of effect the saturator will apply to very low frequencies. The Frequency (Freq) knob is basically a simple EQ. It determines what frequency range will be affected by the Width and Depth knobs. The frequency displayed under the Freq knob is the highpassed cutoff frequency.
Width is the band width of the frequency region that saturation will be applied to. Depth controls the amount of saturation being applied to this band.
Saturator's Shaping Curve Modes
Below the shaping curve, you’ll see a drop-down that displays “Analog Clip” by default. Clicking this will reveal more curve shapes for you to use.
In the analog and digital clip modes, the input signal is clipped immediately and completely.
The Soft Sine, Medium Curve, and Hard Curve soften the signal clipping to varying degrees.
Sinoid Fold will get you interesting and special effects. I recommend experimenting with that one.
The most dramatic effects can be achieved with the Waveshaper mode. This mode comes with its own set of controls. When Waveshaper is selected, the Drive, Curve, Depth, Lin, Damp, and Period controls will become active. If you don’t see them, click the triangle button on the top-left of the plugin display. Play with these controls to see how the curve warps shape and mangles the sound.
Adjusting the Drive percentage up increases the effect of the other waveshaper controls. Lin works together with Curve and Depth to alter the linear portion of the shaping curve. Curve adds (mostly) 3rd order harmonics to the input signal. Damp acts like a super-fast noise gate. Adjusting it, you’ll see the center portion of the shaping curve around the middle, flatten out. Depth adjusts the amplitude of the sine wave that’s superimposed over the distortion curve. Period adjusts the density of ripples on this superimposed sine wave. Period and Depth work together.
The Output knob controls the output volume of the signal coming from Saturator. In addition, when the Soft Clip button is active, Saturator will apply its own instance of an analog clip curve to the output.
The dry/wet knob adjusts the balance between the processed and unprocessed signals running through the saturator.
The Ableton Saturator is a very powerful and an underutilized tool. Now that you know how it works and all of its ins and outs, open your DAW and go experiment with it on how it changes your sounds. Try out some of the presets too. You may find it spurs brand new inspiration for you music.