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Tips for Mixing with Saturation Plugins

Hi, it’s Warren Huart here. Hope you’re doing marvelously well.

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Okay, today I want to talk about saturation. Now, as you know, I work in different ways. I either mix on a laptop, or I mix in a hybrid manner using the lovely console that’s behind me, and blend the two, and depending on the song, I might work primarily on a laptop, or I might work in a hybrid manner.

So today, let’s talk a little bit about using saturation plugins. Now, they can be tape simulations, they can be tube simulations, they can be a bit of both, or they can just be distortions, etcetera. I’ve used Decapitator quite a lot on stuff, and it seems to be a go-to thing, but I’ve recently discovered, you know, with the aid of Patchwork, the ability to use some VST free plugins.

So what we’re going to do here is we’re going to open up a session by a band called “Abner Who?” The song is called, “Prom Dress,” and it’s a pretty straight forward Rock and Roll song. It’s drums, bass, a couple of guitars, vocals and backgrounds.

I’m going to mess around and try some different approaches. The great thing about tape and recording on tape the way that — you know, I grew up recording, was you could slam the tape pretty hard, and it would reduce some of those really excessive transients.

Obviously, we use compression, etcetera, but one of the problems with digital I find is that we get these really, really attacky transients that we didn’t used to have to deal with on tape. So some of the saturation plugins we’re going to look at here, and a lot of these, by the way, are plugins that I’m opening up for the first time. So we’re going to demo them and try them.

Let’s just kind of see what we can do to reduce some of the transients and make the signal feel fat and loud, without it also feeling really sort of, you know, transient heavy, where it’s just like, [imitates drums] on the drums.

Alright, let’s try some stuff out. Throw on the headphones, and we’re going to go over to the session here.

Okay, so here we’ve got our drums. Let’s have a listen. Let’s solo it.


Cool. So we’re getting some excessive peaks. Well, not excessive, we’re getting some peaks on the snare there. So let’s try — let’s try going to our snare buss here.

What should we look at? Let’s look at the Klanghelm. The IVGI. This looks really tasty.

Alright, so we’re soloing our snare here. Let’s have a listen.


I like this adjustable low to high frequency. That’s really good.

So what we’ve done there is we’ve got the response, so it’s more in the low frequency end, and we’re distorting that, and I like that. That’s really helping the snare.


This is tucking in the transient nicely. It’s kind of trashing out a little bit. Let’s try the same thing. Let’s try a different plugin now on the kick. Let’s see what we’ve got.

You see how the saturation is like, just pulling in some of those transients, but keeping the volume, keeping in fatter in some ways, because we distorted the lows there, and it actually got a little bit more presence and a little bit less high frequency attack.

Now, we’ve got some EQ, some very slight EQ, just some top end boost, which I love the McDSP stuff. It’s very natural sounding for me. But let’s try — Hmm, what else do we have?

You know what, let’s go to our Softube. We’ve used this before. I like this, and I like the fact that you can overdrive the lows as well. So this key — let’s start from the neutral and see how that feels.


Wow. It’s pretty tasty. That’s pretty cool. It’s definitely making the drums just a little bit more glued together and trashy.

Alright, so now that we have the drums kind of slamming, we haven’t even done anything on the drum sub itself, just the kick and snare buss going to the drum sub. We’ll do some fun things on the bass.

Now, I have put a SansAmp on here, so what I did is I duplicated the bass mic, and then I put a SansAmp on. So here’s the bass mic.


What I’ve done is I’ve got the low lows rolled off of the bass mic, and actually, the DI is supplying all the bottom end.

[bass DI]

So the mic is giving us the personality, so I duplicate the mic, as you can see here, added some distortion to it, and kept that same EQ. There you go.

[bass amp]

Put all three together…


Without. With.

[bass, with and without distorted amp]

So it’s just adding a little grit to it.

Now, you could do that, obviously, I’m using a SansAmp, which is unique to Pro Tools, but let’s try — I think something that’s got that much distortion could probably be the Audio Assault. That’s pretty aggressive.

So let’s see if we can mimic that with the Audio Assault. Go to Audio Assault. Oh, Bass Grinder 3. Nice! Alright, let’s try this out. So I’m going to turn off my SansAmp.

[bass, no SansAmp]

Bypassing it.

[bass, with Audio Assault]

Without it in. With it in.

Obviously, we don’t need that low depth, because we’ve already got it in there, but already, that’s great.


See, I’m using the SansAmp a little bit more subtly. So let’s do that.


So that’s great. I mean, that’s a free plugin, so if you don’t have Pro Tools and can’t use SansAmp, here’s a great alternative.

[drums and bass]

With the bass grinder.

[drums and bass]

I’m using it a lot less subtly than I was using the SansAmp, but it’s cool. Both of those are great. Always been a SansAmp fan, it’s a quick fix. That’s a good plugin.

Okay, so let’s try some guitars.

Now, I’ve got my guitars bussed, so here is my main guitar as it comes in.


That’s a cool guitar sound. Cool. Over here… Okay, so there’s a Shattered Glass audio. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to go to our Patchwork on our guitar sub. Let’s bring in our Shattered Glass. Let’s try that. Or Shattered Glass. I’ll go with Shattered Glass. SGA 1566.

Now, that’s interesting. Now, 1566 is actually the name of an outtake mic pre that I have. I wonder if that’s a coincidence or for real? Okay.


Alright, so I just cranked the input there and the gain. It’s kind of cool. Let’s start it again.


That’s pretty awesome. I mean, obviously, the gain came up massively when I started driving the input and the gain there. Let’s put the input down and just use the gain.



That’s pretty tasty. You can see what the saturation is doing there, and in general, there’s kick and snare being driven a little harder, the bass being driven slightly harder, you know, with the SansAmp on it. This Shattered Glass here. This is great. It’s kind of really gluing everything together and make it sound just the right kind of trashy.

Okay, so let’s have some fun with the vocals. Last, but no means least. Now, I’ve got a lot of bussing going on. I do have a Decapitator on the lead vocal. It’s set pretty subtly. The drive is at 3. So let’s get a little crazier with something else.

So let’s try Tape Head. Massey Tape Head. This has been around for awhile and it’s a great plugin. Here it is.


That’s pretty insane.


Well, there’s a lot of drive going on now. We’ve really gone for it. We’ll give you the final mix version and you can go and listen to it, which I think will be a little bit more tamer, but I love the way these things are gluing together now.

Alright, so we’re going to do one more here, just because it’s a personal favorite of mine, and I’ve always liked these guy’s stuff. Let’s just try the Analog Channel, the McDSP. McDSP were one of the first guys, frankly, to do proper analog simulation. At least in my mind.

So I’m going to go to Analog Channel 2 and I’m just going to put it on my drum sub and have a listen.


Now, I always set everything on gain reduction. Set the fastest release time. The bias we can control. Can darken. Or the opposite. Can adjust tape speed.

Cool. It’s bringing out that kick there.

Now, I like what this is doing a lot. I mean, the bias control on the top there, I mean, really brought out the top end. Obviously brought it down a lot, because it was quite excessive. The bump there is really good for bringing out the kick.

I will say, listening to it now, I feel like I’m hearing too much drive, so I’m going to bring down all my drives. Bringing it down on my snare here. I’m going to go back to my kick here, the Sat Knob.



[drums, before and after Analog Channel]

Really, really getting those transients and controlling them really nicely. That’s pretty insane how good that is.

If you look at our level here, our kind of RMS level, there’s no peaks.


Just big, fat tone. Loads of spanking. A little bit too much.


We’re just touching on all of the things we could do there. We need to rebalance the vocals on this mix and everything, but you can hear what it’s doing there. It’s really allowing the drums to have a ton of energy, and just kind of like, suck up into this, because I want, as you can tell, this band is kind of a 70’s rock band. It’s trashy. There’s some really cool ideas and stuff in there, but I didn’t want it to sound too digital and too kind of contrived, so it’s nice that we’re sort of gluing everything together.

Okay, so there’s some real subtleties going on there, which I wasn’t doing. I feel like the Analog Channel there in particular that you could hear on the drums was really starting to suck in those transients. What a lot of mastering engineers face, for instance, is they see like, these little fishtails. These super high transients, and they just end up limiting the whole track, and you end up with this big blob. So what’s nice with the Analog Channel is it’s sucking in, you know, those transients quite excessively there. I’m using it quite heavily. I went down to 7.5 ips which is the slowest kind of tape speed, which gives us this real low bump.

As you can see, you can kind of control the bump on that. You can also control the bias, so you boost the top. I do some excessive stuff there. I would essentially try all of these techniques, but just in smaller amounts across your mix, but they’re really good in gluing the thing together, because what happened, I think a lot in early digital, at least early kind of like DAWs is everything is starting to get very separated and perfect, which is cool in some ways, but it lost that glue the tape gave us.

Especially with rock and roll. With rock bands, you just kind of want all of that energy kind of together pushing forward.

So a big fan of the Analog Channel. The Softube I think is fantastic. SansAmp that comes free. The Head Crusher, there’s a lot of great plugins there. We’re just scratching the surface and we’ll get into more and more, but you can really tell that saturation is your friend when it comes to the mix. You don’t have to go as crazy as I did, but using small amounts in different ways across the mix can really help glue it together. It can also help simulate a lot of what A, tape was doing, and B, what consoles were doing.

Especially like Neves and APIs and a CADAC like I have, tended to just add a little bit more grit, there’s transformers in the way, there’s discrete electronics, and they add a lot of weight and a lot of additional second and third harmonic distortion, which really makes things feel good.

We’re just touching on all of the different techniques there, but please leave your comments below. Love to know what other plugins are out there. There’s plenty more that we haven’t looked at yet, and thank you ever so much for watching, and let’s have a great discussion about this!


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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