Distortion, saturation, and harmonic exciters all seem to do similar things, but what's the difference between all of these tools...

And when would you want to use one versus another?

Saturation is a combination of compression and subtle distortion which comes from the circuitry of analog equipment. Audio exciters add synthesized harmonics/harmonic distortion, typically in the high-frequency range. Finally, distortion involves altering the shape of a waveform which changes the tonality.


Okay, that's a mouthful. I unpack what all of this means for you when it comes to mixing in the rest of the article. 

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Difference Between Distortion, Saturation, and Excitement

Distortion, saturation, and excitement are all effects that can be used to add character and color to a mix. They are often used to add warmth, depth, and energy to a mix, but they are not the same thing.

What Is Distortion?

Distortion is a form of audio processing in which the signal is intentionally altered, usually by amplifying it beyond its normal maximum level, resulting in a characteristic "fuzzy" or "gritty" sound. This effect can be achieved through various means such as analog or digital clipping.

Put another way, distortion is when the sound gets a bit "fuzzy" or "gritty", like when you turn up an amp too loud.

Distortion is like giving your sound a wild and crazy haircut, it makes it stand out but sometimes it can look a bit unkempt.

What Is Saturation?

Saturation is a form of harmonic distortion that emulates the character of analog tape, tube recording equipment, or other analog gear. It can add warmth, depth and fullness to a sound. 

Saturation effect can be achieved through various means such as tape emulation, tube emulation, or other saturation plugins.

Explained another way, saturation is when the sound gets a bit "warmer" or "fuller", like when you record to tape. 

Saturation is like giving your sound a warm hug, it makes it feel cozy and comfortable. 

What Is Excitement?

Excitement (also called a harmonic exciter) is an effect that adds additional frequencies (harmonics) to a sound, usually to the higher ranges (3kHz and up). This imparts a richer, crispier character to a sound.

Excitement is very similar to saturation, but imparts a more "energetic" or "lively" character to a sound, rather than a "warmer" or "fuller" character like saturation would. 

Excitement is like giving your sound a Red Bull, it gives it a boost of energy and makes it more lively.

So, in short, Distortion is the punk rocker of audio effects, Saturation is the grandpa sweater of audio effects and Excitement is the party animal of audio effects!

How To Use Distortion When Mixing

When it comes to mixing a song, adding some distortion can be a great way to give the sound more character and depth.

In general, I'd say that you should use distortion as more of an effect, or a way to change a sound, as it's a lot more extreme and noticeable than saturation or excitement.  

Therefore, it's best to apply distortion to individual tracks rather than buses. 

There are a bunch of different ways you can do this, like using a plugin or effect that simulates a guitar amp, or something else that gives a sound that gritty, vintage feel.

Now, the key is to not overdo it.

Too much distortion can make the mix sound muddy and hard to listen to. So, it's all about finding the right balance. You can play around with the settings and the EQ of the distorted sound to get it just right.

Just remember to always listen to it in the context of the full mix, to make sure it fits with everything else. Have fun experimenting!

Best Distortion Plugins

There are many great distortion plugins available. In fact, your DAW probably already has one or two that you can use to get started. 

But if you are looking for something more flexible, here are three that are considered to be among the best distortion plugins:

1. FabFilter Saturn

best distortion plugin

FabFilter's Saturn is an absolute BEAST of a distortion and saturation plugin.

This plugin offers a wide range of distortion options, from subtle warmth to full-on destruction. It has a great interface and many parameters to tweak, making it easy to achieve the desired sound.

I especially like it's ability to perform multiband distortion/saturation, means you can choose to only distort a certain range of frequencies.

2. Soundtoys Decapitator

best distortion plugin

Soundtoys Decapitator plugin emulates the sound of vintage hardware processors and is known for its warmth and character. It has a simple interface and a great saturation control that can add warmth to a mix without overdriving it.

So if you're looking for a more analog flavor of distortion, then Decapitator is a great option.

This plugin is a favorite of many pro producers, and French revolutionaries from the late 18th century. 

3. Output Thermal

best distortion plugins

If you're looking for something different, then look no further than Output's Thermal. This is a truly unique distortion plugin that allows you apply creative distortion to your projects. 

Thermal makes it easy to experiment and dial in new distortion sounds. A user-friendly experience is key to controlling the deeply powerful, multi-stage engine.

This plugin allows you to choose from 19 different analog and digitally modeled distortion algorithms. Add harmonics and grit, shape amplitude, and add frequency modulation.

How To Use Saturation When Mixing

saturation plugins

There are many different ways to use saturation when mixing. You can use it in a subtle way to add some additional warmth and richness to your tracks. 

Or you can be more aggressive and basically add light distortion. 

Additionally, you can even recreate the character of an entire analog recording studio, right inside of your computer, when using the right plugins in the right order. 

If you want to learn how to do this, check out my article here. 

When using saturation in mixing a song, there are a few key things to keep in mind to get the best results:

Start with subtlety: 

Saturation is a subtle effect, so it's best to start with a small amount and gradually increase it until you achieve the desired sound.

Experiment with different types of saturation: 

There are many different types of saturation, each with its own unique character. Experiment with tape saturation, tube saturation, and even digital saturation to find the one that works best for your mix.

Use saturation on individual tracks: 

Try using saturation on individual tracks such as drums, bass, and vocals to add warmth and depth to specific elements of the mix.

Use saturation on the mix bus: 

Applying saturation on the mix bus can add a cohesive and cohesive sound to the entire mix. This can help to glue everything together and give the mix a more analog feel.

Be mindful of the stereo field: 

Saturation can have an effect on the stereo field, so be mindful of how it is affecting the stereo image of your mix.

Experiment with different plugin emulations: 

There are many different saturation plugins available, each with their own sound and character. Experiment with different emulations to find the one that works best for your mix.

Use it wisely: 

Be careful not to overdo it with saturation, as it can easily make your mix sound muddy and indistinct. Use it in moderation and be mindful of how it is affecting the overall balance of your mix.

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Best Saturation Plugins

Below you can find 3 of the most highly regarded saturation plugins on the market. 

1. IK Multimedia SaturatorX 

IK multimedia Saturator X

SaturatorX is the ultimate saturation plugin because it has it all. Tube saturation, tape saturation, and transformer coloration all in one. 

It has 10 different modes of analog saturation that you can apply to your tracks, from gentle tape saturation to the aggressive character of solid state circuitry. 

2. Baby Audio TAIP

taip baby audio tape emulation plugin

There are tons of tape machine emulation plugins on the market, and most of them do a great job of modeling analog tape (or so I'm told by those who actually used analog tape back in the day). 

So rather than featuring one of those, I wanted to share with you Baby Audio's TAIP, which as the name implies, is an A.I. driven tape machine plugin. 

It has a simplified interface with makes it more intuitive for the modern producer who doesn't understand what IPS is (inches per second, btw). 

This is an easy-to-use plugin that sounds great for adding tape emulation.

Also, you can get 10% off TAIP and all Baby Audio plugins when you use my code "OAA" at checkout.

3. Soundtoys Radiator

best saturation plugin

Soundtoys Radiator is a popular saturation plugin that emulates the sound of classic tube-based broadcast consoles. It is known for its warm, rich and vintage sound.

One of the key features of Radiator is its "Harmonic Generation" control, which allows you to dial in the amount of second and third harmonic distortion, which can add warmth and depth to your tracks.

The interface of the plugin is simple and easy to use, making it quick and easy to dial in the perfect sound. The sound quality is very good, and it can add warmth and character to a variety of different types of tracks.

How To Use Excitement When Mixing

scheps parallel particles

Excitement is a create way to add perceived volume and energy to a sound without actually increasing the volume. 

I find harmonic excitement especially useful when EQ just isn't getting the job done. 

For example, you may be trying to beef up your bass, but the bass you're using just doesn't have the frequency content available, and boosting it with EQ is just making it sound muddy. 

Instead, you can use harmonic excitement to add in additional harmonics to make the bass feel bigger.  

Best Excitement Plugins

Here are some of the best harmonic excitement plugins.

1. Scheps Parallel Particles

scheps parallel particles

Parallel Particles allows you to find the sound you want, without having to figure out which of the traditional tools will get you there.

Find a sound is lacking some body, just dial up the "thick" knob. Too dull? Just add some "air".  

It is as much an attitude shaper as a tone shaper, so you can focus on how you want your tracks to feel.

2. Waves Renaissance Bass

best exciter plugins

When you need your bass to be heard even on a laptop or mobile device, Renaissance Bass is your best friend.

R-Bass accurately reproduces low-frequency content on playback systems that cannot physically handle these signals. This is achieved by the creation of harmonics of the fundamental, which fool the brain into perceiving bass frequencies that are not actually there.

3. Waves Vitamin

best exciter plugins

Waves Vitamin is a multiband harmonic enhancer and tone-shaping plugin that can make any track sound powerful and full of spark by mixing an enriched version with the original signal.

Finish More Radio-Worthy Songs, Faster!

Mixing with distortion, saturation, and harmonic excitement is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to producing pro-quality songs. 

If you want a proven step-by-step formula for mixing radio-worthy tracks from start-to-finish...

Create Pro-Mixes, Faster

Click below to download my free song-finishing checklist to help you create radio-ready songs without taking months to complete them.

This checklist will walk you through a proven step-by-step mixing and mastering process so that you don't ever have to guess or wonder what to do next. 

You'll know exactly what to do, and when, so you can quickly mix, master, and finish more tracks. 

I hope you found this post valuable!

If so, feel free to share, and let me know in the comments below…

What other questions do you have about mixing?

Reagan Ramm

Hi! I'm Reagan, and I've been writing, recording, and mixing music since 2011, and got a degree in audio engineering in 2019 from Unity Gain Recording Institute. I also work full-time in Digital Marketing and Entrepreneurship, and am striving to help fellow musicians and producers improve their art and make a living doing the work they love.

- Reagan Ramm


distortion, Mixing, saturation

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