Music production is full of somewhat mysterious workflows and so is to decide whether to saturate before or after compression. While this is highly debatable and depends upon the requirement, this article will serve you to be a guide to make a better decision.
Saturation Before or After Compression?
Obviously, the short answer to this question is that it is not fixed in what order you should place both these effects but here is the list of situations that will help you to make a choice:
- Are you mixing.
- Are you mastering.
- What type of sound you are processing.
- The loudness of the sound you are processing. (This might confuse you)
- Are you after color.
- Are you after dynamic control.
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In this article we’ll go through each one of the situations and look at which situation sounds best with what order of the two effects.
Within those situations I’ll also share my own preference and the results that I have found with my way of working.
So lets start with the first one..
Order of Saturation and Compression While Mixing
Mixing as we know has no protocol to follow.
Mixing is purely subjective business.
Mixing engineers have an opinion that they are paid for selling their taste and not the process.
Its a mixing engineers’ preference that is liked or disliked.
When it comes to saturation and compression. Both the tools are the most necessary elements for any mix engineer.
Read – Bass Saturation
While you are mixing, the best advice that you will get is you should experiment with both the types of arrangements.
This will also depend on the sound and also the whole context of the mix will determine what suits best for the whole mix.
Afterall in the mixing stage, the only thing you should worry about is the whole song and not the particular element.
Since saturation go hand in hand with compression, make sure to read- Mixing with compression
- In this phase you’ll be really getting mixed results so there is no particular order that can be suggested here. Different instruments will sound better with different order of the effects.
Tip: A tip I can share with you here is that always start with the compressor first. I personally do this in my workflow. The reason is I want my sound to be as raw as possible, coloring comes last for me if its about coloring. But that doesn’t mean i don’t use saturation before compression. I of course put it before the compressor sometimes but then it also eliminates the need for compression with some sounds.
Takeaway– Just experiment while mixing. You may discover your unique sound or a better way of mixing that instrument you’re mixing.
Order of Saturation and Compression While Mastering
Well the first rule in mastering is- use as less processing as possible.
And yeah I’d call it a rule for sure.
Mastering should require the least manipulation of the sound.
The reason being, if you are sweating over mastering, chances are your mixing needs dressing.
- Mastering is for final enhancements.. and that too.. just a tad bit.
Now in the context of the question we are trying to get the answer for, and as stated that mastering is for the final enhancements, in this situation saturation should be used as a coloring effect or exciter only and not for a sound design purpose or gaining control.
Saturation should be used to bring out a pinch of that little something extra from the whole track.
It may be a little punch or just to give it a hint of color and excitement.
Although, ideally there is no role for compression while mastering. The experienced engineers will tell you this.
- But even if you need a little compression, saturation will end up after that.
Since while mastering you are dealing with the whole track and not individual sounds like in mixing, here you first want total control over whatever you’re doing. With compression you first control the envelope of the sound and then apply color so that it evenly distributes on the whole track in a disciplined and natural way.
Otherwise the distortion jumps around in an uncivilized manner on an uneven sound.
I personally use saturation after compression and for me it’s a risk free way to get good results with no uncertainty in coloring.
It’s a good idea to know if you need mastering?
Order of Saturation and Compression Depending on The Sound
Saturation does two things- it compresses and it distorts the sound.
Some sounds benefit from it if it’s ahead of the compressor while some sounds get hurt.
It totally depend on the individual sounds.
- One thing that should be kept in mind is that, saturation flattens the sound just like a compressor. But it does that in its own way. It totally depends upon the type of saturation you are using that what it will do with the sound.
Experienced engineers know their effects due to repeated use.
But when it comes to new producers, they should first get used to these magical and mysterious effects.
- On Vocals, using Soundtoys Decapitator and UAD Studer A800 saturation (anyone depending on the taste) prior to the compressor has given me good results. But I also add it after the compressor as well. The first saturation levels and thickens the vocal and make it easy for the compressor to work on them. The second saturation is there for color and this is again subjective.
- On guitars- i like them a little warmer and prefer tape on them. Also I like to have their transients a little rounder and velvety so I prefer saturating ahead of the compressor and also a pinch of second saturator after that too. I prefer Studer and FabFilter Saturn on guitars.
No matter what I do, I’ll still put a final saturation on every track just to kiss them with color. But if I am placing compressor first, then the final saturation is the one and only there.
- On keys, I like gaining control first so I compress them and then color them. To me this sounds the best for them. Still I have saturated them before compressing but that’s rare. The preferred saturation are Decapitator and Saturn and IZotope Neutron’s Exciter module.
- On bass, well it’s both. I have found some places where saturation before sounded better and also some places where it sounded better after compression. Just whatever sounds nice for that sound. I have a favorite for this- Waves R Bass, and sometimes Saturn.
Order of Saturation & Compression on A Loud Source
At first glance this section might be confusing but I just want to give beginners a little insight on the behavior of the saturator in this section.
Well a saturator is a form of compression which has no external control in your hand as a compressor. It behaves on its own. Its input and output has a non linear correlation.
You can understand it as a soft knee compression with a more than 1:1 ratio.
A saturator is not able to represent its output as its input but reduces it.
This behavior is complex depending on its circuitry.
- When the signal is at a normal level, the saturator only colors it a bit. If the signal is increased to a substantial level, its behavior starts getting intense and it suppresses the output as well and starts to distort the sound.
This is a very necessary information when it comes to using it.
Every time you use a saturator, check how its behavior changes when the input changes and decide accordingly.
Order of Saturation & Compression for Color
Being a combination of two effects which are compression and distortion, the saturator is mainly used for coloring purpose which is often called excitement.
The small amount of distortion that it gives to the signal is what its liked for.
This small amount of distortion cannot be kept in the category of distortion yet. It only enhances the characteristic of the source sound in a pleasing way.
Just like in video production, saturation enhances the color of the visuals and make them more vibrant, the saturation in the audio universe does exactly the same.
It only adds up more vibrance to the sound.
- To be honest if you are going strictly for this vibrance or color, then the placing of the saturator will be best after compressor.
- Having gained full control on your sound, coloring will work best after everything else. The initial stages are thought of as the prep work which include correction of the sound.
If an instrument is sounding dull, you can add a saturator after the compressor because if you add it before the compressor, it will make the sound flat and further compressing can take away its natural envelop and the sound may end up not that exciting as it could be the other way.
But still this should not stop you from experimenting.
Just whatever works best depending on the sound.
Order of Saturation and Compression for Dynamics Control
This one is another use of the saturator. For dynamic control of your sound, a saturator will not give you a hundred percent control as a compressor does that’s why there exist the compressors.
The working of the saturator in context of dynamic control is unpredictable to an extent. We know that it will compress the signal but not exactly how. We only can use our ears in this situation and see if we like what it’s doing.
- With that said, when it comes to placing the saturator for dynamic range control, use it before the compressor. In this way, the saturator will make the peaks a little rounder which will make it easy for the compressor to further iron it out.
Particularly the vocals really benefit from this scheme.
They sound more warmer and more disciplined.
I used to do the opposite when I was beginner myself.
But as I experimented with it, I came to know this worked wonders!
The key takeaway here is- experiment more often!
With all the above scenarios, I also asked a few engineers to help throw some light on this mysterious process and here’s what i have..
General Consensus on Saturation Before or After Compression
Although I have used both types of plugin placements and got pretty amazing results in both the cases, I thought that I would make an effort to ask a bunch of producers and engineers out there about what they think works best.
To my surprise I found that all the producers that I could get suggestions from had used both the types of arrangements of the saturator and the compressor.
As a result the general opinion of those producers and engineers also was that they considered the order of these two effects can never be fixed.
It always depends on the result you are going after.
Furthermore, there are producers who find that making a sound richer and fuller and making it beefy before manipulating its envelop works best for them.
On the other hand there are many producers who find this method silly because they consider that there is no sense in coloring or exciting the sound before giving it a definite shape.
Also that there is a dependency on the sound that how the order of these two plugins is going to effect that sound. Some sounds benefit from the compressor first and saturation next while some benefit with the opposite order.
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Lets see what else we’ve got..
Saturation Before or After EQ?
Saturating the audio before the EQ will make it easier to further carve the tone of the audio since Saturation will make the signal rich and beefy in tone and give it more body. The material that has body in the first place, shaping its tonality becomes more applicable.
If you saturate the audio after EQ or EQ before the saturator, you get the opportunity to save some frequencies of the audio to not get excited by cutting them with EQ before going into the saturator.
This may result in a more clean sound depending on the source material.
- For example if you EQ a kick before saturation, you can cut out the frequencies that you don’t want before saturating them hence you will get a more rich kick with less unwanted frequencies.
On the other hand if you do the opposite, the saturated tone of the kick will have more rich frequencies to be shaped further and you can give it a better tone with EQ because the saturator can introduce and enhance those frequencies which were not there or too little in the kick in the first place.
Does Saturation Increase Volume?
The working of a Saturator involves compressing the sound and introducing harmonics into it. The harmonic content in the audio signal is basically distortion. This distortion give the waveform more presence in the frequency spectrum. This enhances the perceived loudness of the audio signal and so it sounds louder in volume.
Some saturation plugins even after increasing the perceived loudness decrease the level a few db.
Also a saturator flattens the audio signal and hence facilitates more headroom for the audio to be lifted up a few dB thus making it louder.
When it comes to music production it’s better to learn the effects and instruments to a good level and know the important rules first.
Getting familiar with every rule or guideline will get you behind the whys of it.
When you know the why, you can easily hack the general procedure and be creative to get established as a distinct flavor in the industry which should be the true goal of every music producer and engineer.