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5 Quick Saturation Mixing Tricks

Hello, I hope you’re doing marvelously well! We’re going to do five saturation tricks. Please subscribe. Please hit the notification bell and you’ll know when we’ve got a new video coming up, and of course, you can go to You can sign up for the email list and get a whole bunch of free goodies. You get free drum samples, and some extra videos, and some sessions, and all kinds of fun stuff.

Saturation is pretty darn impressive. You can use it to do something pretty obvious. Now. [laughs] What it will do is it will control peak levels. Because of course, if you’ve got things like drums with huge dynamics, they can appear to be loud in one way, because the transients are super loud. Like, let’s listen to these drums here.

[drums and bass, then drums only]

Now, the snare sounds great. It’s got some good snap to it. But let’s just say I want to take that live snare top here…


It’s a little choked. That’s cool. It’s a tiny bit choked. It doesn’t have a huge amount of energy to it. But if I was to just go and say, get Decapitator, for instance. Good old friend Decapitator. Just put a little bit of drive on it.

[snare with Decapitator]

Now, it appears to be louder. Why don’t we check our peak value? So this is without it.

[snare, without Decapitator]

It’s peaking pretty heavily. Hitting at zero. Because that first initial transient with the EQ I’ve got on it is like, slamming right at zero. So let’s now put the Decapitator on it.

[snare with Decapitator]

Turn it off. Back on. It feels louder, but the reality is, if I set my peak limiter for the Decapitator on… The actual peaks themselves are 6.9dB down. So it’s like, nearly seven dB quieter on that initial transient. So what does that tell us? That tells us what saturation does. It’s remarkable.

So there, you can see me using on drums. You could use it on any of the drum elements themselves. It’s nice on the snare top in this instance. Let’s listen to it looped with and without.


Take it off. Back on. It’s not that subtle. I mean, I could bring it up to really, really bring home the point, but the obvious thing it’s doing is it’s keeping the characteristic of the snare drum, but it’s sucking in that initial transient, so it’s actually making the energy higher in the whole of the drum.

If we were to just print that snare drum…


Okay. That’s with the Decapitator on. Let’s now print it with it off and you’ll see the difference. Turn off the Decapitator.

[snare, no saturation]

Cool. We’ll zoom in on these two now. And you can see the difference is pretty dramatic. Like, go here for instance. Look at the amount of energy contained in this top snare with the Decapitator on. It’s — the whole snare is thicker. It’s more inherent.

And on this one down here, it’s just like, you could just tell there’s not as much energy in that snare. It’s pretty remarkable the differences.

So saturation is your friend. There, you can see it on a snare drum working wonders.

Now, you might say, while we’re at it, “But Warren, I see a little bit more bleed in the snare drum from the kick.” Well, there’s little tricks for that. We’ll get to some advanced compression techniques. We’ll do some five compression tips.

Okay, but — so there you go. A great, great tip on the snare. And of course, you can apply that absolutely anywhere. Right, so we’ve seen what saturation does. It’s fantastic. It tames transients, it gives more energy, more perceived volume to the actual signal itself, because we’re not just looking at peaks.

One of the biggest things that we debated, or had been debating about is those peak values, because people are talking now about what level they should be printing their mixes at.

Well, if you’ve got massive peaks all over the place, you’re not going to have the headroom to be able to give the mastering engineer something he can really work with. Mastering engineers tell me quite often this thing they call fish tails. Where they get these transients, and this kind of this look. It’s usually from kicks and snares, but sometimes it’s from bass guitars.

So let’s look at the bass guitar. Here’s my bass guitar sound.


It’s cool. And if you know the way I do bass guitar, the DI is all the low end. You see all the high end is wiped off it? And the opposite is true of the amp. That’s where I’m putting some personality.

Now we can go a little nuts on this. Let’s have a listen to just the amp.

[bass amp]

And we can look at the peak value as well. So -3.1. I bet if we take off a couple of dB of that peak with some saturation, we’ll get some amazing results.

So let’s go to harmonic. But, I am going to go a little nuttier, because I actually want to bring out some more personality. Soloed, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but here we go. So…

[bass amp, adjusting SansAmp]

It’s immediately so much better. Let’s match the levels.

[bass amp]

The peak is minus 7.5. So it’s already significantly quieter.

[bass amp]

Let’s bypass it. Clear the peaks and listen. Look at that. So it sounds louder and fuller. I actually turned the level down, but more importantly, listen to that… There’s a little bit of noise in the track, which I can deal with. We can put a gate on afterwards.

But there’s more high end, there’s distortion in it, and — which I like — now put the two together with the DI.


Take it off. Alright. So we’re going to get — let’s put a little bit more low on it.

[bass guitar]

Back on. I really like it. Let’s put it in with the drums.

[drums and bass]

What I like to do, and you can do it from here, is get a gate whenever you’re dealing with distortion, or noise, or whatever like that. This SansAmp doesn’t have a gate built into it, so I’m going to do a quick gating trick here. So we can just go and get any generic gate like this. We can key it from the DI.

So we’ll take 19 is the gate in. We’ll take the DI. Send it from 19.

[bass and drums]

Now, if I take the distortion off…

[bass and drums]

Put it back on. That little grit, that little tiny grit is coming out of it, is just giving it a bit more personality. So you get a little bit more of the bass. I’m just bringing the output on the gate up.

[bass and drums]

Once you put everything in there, you don’t hear the distortion on it. You don’t hear it sounding distorted, you just hear it sounding fuller.


So you can see what’s happening with saturation here. We’re choosing to use saturation on the snare drum, we’re choosing to use it a little bit on the bass guitar, and what is it doing? It’s like, incrementally improving things. I’m cherry picking things to improve. I don’t want to go along and distort every single track, but do I want to add saturation to things here and there to improve them? Heck yes, and that’s really what’s going on here with the snare drum and the bass guitar.

So on the piano, let’s just try something fun. Let’s go and find a different distortion. I really like the FutzBox, as it’s called. And you’ve probably seen other people online using it and talking about it, so let’s go and pick it up.

What is cool about this is it’s a little bit more than just a distortion. Now, you can add distortion here…

[piano, adjusting distortion]

Fat. That’s pretty freaking awesome. So that’s the default saturation one we were putting on the piano.


What I like about that is it is actually maintaining some of the transients. The “buh buh buh buh.” It’s actually…


Bypass it. It’s pretty awesome. So what it’s doing is it’s evening out all of the sound again like it did with the snare. It’s making it a little less piano-y. Here’s the original.



Put it on. Now the volume’s gone up. It gives it more personality, it really does. Let’s put it into the mix.


Mute it. Back on.

I mean, it’s miraculous what that saturation is doing! It is bringing things forward. It is allowing it. This particular one, I’m a big fan of the McDSP, because it — like I said, it seems to be quite magical that it’s splitting the difference. I think their default settings have a little bit of high end boost, which allows some of that transient to still be heard, but the whole signal is getting fatter and bigger as well. It’s a really special plugin.

But yeah. We tried a SansAmp, stock with Pro Tools. Decapitator obviously you have to buy. I highly suggest you try this. Bass guitar, it’s great. I mean, it’s a must on bass guitar for me, but here on a piano, you can see the exciting stuff it’s doing.

Number four, let’s go to somewhere really, really obvious. And what would that be? Well, that would be like taking a DI on electric guitar.

[guitar DI]

Okay. So obviously, a slide DI. Here’s the amp recorded version.

[guitar amp]

Now I’m going to kind of do a double whammy on this. I’m going to do two things. First of all, I’m going to take this really beautiful, clean DI, and I’m going to whack a SansAmp on it. Yup. And that’s just really, really ugly, isn’t it? But I’m going to do you a couple little tricks here that I do. So I’m going to take the SansAmp, and I’m going to annihilate it.

[guitar DI]

So we’ll turn the level down, because… Bit of a buzz there. A little fade out before that.

Okay, so.

[guitar DI, with SansAmp]

Together. So it’s cool, yeah? But let’s do this. So now, we’ve destroyed that DI sound. If you’ve got a DI or an amp, or just a DI, you’re going to love this.

So now, I’m just going to go, and I’m going to get a reverb, and I’m going to go mono. Right down the middle. I like this, because I’ve got a stereo delay on the other guitar, and look! Listen to this.

[guitar reverb]

And it’s just great. So what we’ve done there is like, you can find your DIs. You can do obvious things. You can put amp simulators on them, and all of this kind of stuff. You could just be recording a DI, but when you’re in the situation where you have the DI and an amp together, your DI is another source of a way of manipulating the sound. It’s about creating a whole sonic landscape.

I discovered this by doing things like recording real pianos and MIDI pianos, and taking the MIDI piano and smothering it with reverb, 100% effect, and putting it up against the real piano, and it creates this amazing, ghostly effect.


Take it out. Put it in. This is kind of a double whammy. A little bit of a reverb trick there as well, but I love the SansAmp. It’s — on its own, it’s pretty…

[guitar DI with SansAmp]

I think what the SansAmp does for me with DIs on guitars is it gives me the closest thing — well, not necessarily the closest thing, but it gives me a similar idea of like, taking a fuzz pedal and plugging it straight into a console, which is something Jimmy Page would do on a lot of his famous solos. One fuzz box is going into like, Neve or Helios consoles.

So I do that, but in this instance, we’ve made it more interesting still by putting reverb on it. But the reason why I like that sound is because sometimes, when you’re sitting there, and you’ve got all these beautifully handcrafted, wonderful, you know, virtual, simulated or perfectly recorded guitars, the SansAmp from a DI just slots into the mix. It just says, “Hey, I’m completely different.” Listen to my tone.


Because even that on its own…


Not very loud, but listen. So it’s pretty low in the mix, but you can see, if that was the only guitar playing, it’s pretty special. But let’s go back to our idea, put a little bit of verb on it.


So that’s the wonderful thing about having plugins now. If we have a couple of different sources, we can really, really get carried away and have some fun things. You can split signals up, you can treat them in different ways. Like, if you did have only a DI, and you wanted to do what I did there, you could take a clean DI, put some — you know, really disgusting distortion like the SansAmp on it, wash it out with verb so you’ve got a completely different guitar tonality, and then duplicate that DI and the other DI, you could use a beautiful virtual simulator.

You could use Bias or whatever it is that you like to get a more natural sound, and then you can get something like what I’ve done here. Two sounds combined into one.

Pretty tasty. I’ve got so many other tricks to show you. While I’m doing this, I’m thinking, “Oh, there’s a trick I need to show them about that noise,” but we’ll get into that a little later. We’ll get into that in another episode.

So here we’ve got a completely different drum track, and the reason why I went for that is because I want to show you a little trick. So.


Pretty well recorded track. Two sets of rooms. Overheads. Now, I like the energy from this. There’s some low mids I want to cut out, so we’ll open that up. Let’s say I quickly grab an EQ. If you know me well, you’ll know I’ll go to like, 350 and pull some of that out. It’s a little ugly. It’s also a little thumpy on the low end. It’ll compete with the kick.


So it’s cool. Okay, so definitely better. Didn’t take long to make that a lot better. Not too bad. The cymbals get a little carried away, so one last quick trick. This is for room mics where you get unbelievable amounts of splash, and it can be because of number one, the drummer. Some drummers are like, [mimics drummer playing]. They’re like, absolutely caving in on the cymbals, but they’re like, you know, lightly playing their kick and snare, so you can get that situation.

But it can also be the sound of the room. Lots of rooms, frankly, have a lot of glass, or a lot of steel, and all of this kind of stuff, and so the high end goes absolutely nuts. So this is a trick that I learned years ago. Again, using distortion, saturation, and — what I usually do is I reach for the Lo-fi. So for those of you in Pro Tools, but you can do this in any saturation.

[drums, adjusting Lo-fi]

Listen to what it’s doing. So that tiny amount of saturation, listen to the cymbals. Listen to the hi-hat and cymbals. So the saturation is distorting the high end first. Another really, really good plugin to do that to kind of duck cymbals out, for those of you who remember and have followed me for awhile will know, I am a big fan of the MJUC. So we’ll go to dynamics.

Here’s the MJUC. This is another wonderful plugin. This is what I love. Drop this menu down here. This has got drive here.


You can go dark. So that’s cheating. That’s not a saturation device only. It is a compressor with some saturation on it. It’s very subtle amounts of drive, you know, depending on the signal coming in, but I like it a lot. I highly recommend this one.


And you can go nuts with this plugin, because it’s got a mix control over here. That’s good. In this situation, the Lo-fi I think is a little preferable. I think that the MJUC was a little bit more subtle than what I wanted, but you can see what the reality is.

That’s another great thing about saturation, particularly in Pro Tools. If you’re using Pro Tools, you can use the Lo-fi. Now, you can do it with other saturation as well, but the great thing is, you take the high end, and it distorts first, so it sucks up that extra high end, and the extra cymbal bleed, etcetera, when he’s just washing away on the cymbals, but still leaves the energy that we love from our room mics, because…

[room mics]

I mean, that’s a lot of personality in a drum track. Take it off. Back on. Still got the, [imitates snare] on the snare. If anything, it’s got more energy, more smack in the snare, more aggression, and yet, the hi-hat and the cymbal have disappeared. And all I did was open up in default and put .06 on saturation.

Now, if I use distortion, it’ll do the opposite. It’ll actually get thinner sounding. I’ll show you.

[drums, adjusting distortion]

It’s a little too brittle. It’s all about using the saturation. Great.

There you go. So there’s five ways that use saturation. But ultimately, they’re all doing the same thing. They’re controlling transients so you don’t get those huge peaks. They’re bringing energy, because they’re bringing the transients down, but they’re allowing the energy of the track to get more, so you get a bigger, fatter, louder sound without those peaks.

You get something akin to what happened when you always were recording onto tape through analog, you know, tube, and valve for the English people, and tons of transformers. All of those electronics distorted, gave a little extra harmonics, and basically added saturation to the signal.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to go through every single thing on your mix, but as you can see, I cherry pick things like the snare drum. It was a dramatic difference on that snare drum. It sounded more even, it sounded fantastic. On the bass guitar, it added bite and presence to the bass, but as soon as the bass was in the track, you didn’t hear that extra distortion. You just heard more personality.

On the piano, that particular one, the FutzBox seemed to add a bit of air to it, actually had some top end. Kept the transient a little bit alive, but also added some energy and made it so I didn’t have to turn the piano up any louder. There’s so many great things that you can do using saturation.

So I would highly recommend that you get lots of different ones. The ones that come free, some free, some cheap ones that you can download, just because you’re going to use different plugins for different flavors for different things. As you can see, the Lo-fi that comes in Pro Tools is really kind of cool. All of Decapitator is an amazing plugin, SansAmp, which again comes free. You know, these are plugins that give me different results.

The SansAmp is a little bit more artificial, but with that guitar, it was wonderful, because I took that DI, and I could use either the DI to create a different sound against my amps or my amp simulators. Something a bit more artificial like a fuzzbox going into a mic pre, or I can use it with my amp sound, but then mess with it and stick a reverb over it, or delayed effects, or a phaser.

Something that gives me two different things to blend, and gives me a more interesting guitar sound.

So ultimately, there’s so many great things you can do with saturation, and just using little amounts often all over the mix will make your mix bigger and fatter, and just louder in general.

Frankly, just better, because that’s how everything used to be recorded. Everything had all of those transients removed by, frankly just hitting tape. When I pull up some of my old mixes, or if you, shh, don’t tell anybody, download some of those songs that were recorded in the 60’s and 70’s, you don’t see this, you see big blobs of vocal. Huge blobs. And that’s compression, and tape compression, and saturation all going on that’s giving you that effect.

When everybody harps back to those classic records of the 60’s and the 70’s, that’s what they’re talking about. They’re talking about not just great performance, of course there was great performance. They’re talking about the things that were inherent in the gear.

Alright, so I hope that helps. Please, let’s have a massive discussion about saturation. It’s a wonderful tool, and as ever, please subscribe. Hit the notifications bell, and you’ll know when we’re bringing out a new video, and of course, go to and sign up for the email list. You get a whole bunch of free goodies, and you’re going to get multitracks, drum samples, and extra videos. So have a marvelous time recording and mixing. I’ll see you all again very soon!


Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at

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