Join Brian Lee White for an in-depth discussion in this video Building distortion and saturation, part of Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering.
I always like to have a distortion or saturation plug-in handy come mix time. Not only does it allow me to achieve a specific aesthetic within my mix, in the age of all digital recording, it's almost a necessity to have something a little gritty in your mix toolkit. Now, what you get with Pro Tools, in regards to saturation and distortion, are a few cool plug-ins. If we take a look here under the Harmonic category, you see I have a AIR Distortion, and this is just going to be your basic distortion drive.
It's going to introduce some nonlinearities and some saturation. It's going to drive the harmonic series. I find that it does get a bit gritty. You do have Hard, Soft, in this Wrap mode here and you can blend a mix, wet or dry. It can be very useful for kind of just shredding stuff up, really nasty. You also have some amp simulation, and I find I am using this quite a bit to mixing, and not just on guitars. If we take a look at the bass track, specifically in this mix, actually what I have done here with the bass guitar is the bass was recorded with a DI, so just direct into this system.
And what I felt was missing on the bass was a bit of that amp or grittiness, that rowdiness that you would get out of recording a cabinet, and I really wanted to bring that to certain sections of the songs. So what I did is I just duplicated the track; I could just say Track > Duplicate. And on that Duplicate, I built kind of a distortion chain that I could then blend in. Let's take a listen. (music playing) And it sounds a little bit farty in isolation, but what I find is when I mix it with the rest of the elements in the distorted guitars, it really helps drive that chorus. And what I like to do is automate the bass distortion here, up and down through different section to the song.
So, actually what I did is I automated it out in Verse1 and I brought it in the first chorus. So if we take a listen to the pre-chorus. (music playing) So it's just giving me a little more attitude in that section. And what I am using is the SansAmp.
The SansAmp is a plug-in model of the original PSA-1 hardware unit, and it sounds really great. It's meant to be a guitar amp simulator, but I find it more useful for just messing stuff up, messing drums up. I add it to bass, I add it to vocals. I like to play with a lot of these presets in here, because they are actually pretty good. I will usually go through and find a preset that I like, maybe in-your-face bass, and then what I like to do is I like to hone that with an EQ. So anytime I'm adding saturation effects, I like to kind of hone them with an equalizer to kind of put them in the space where I want them to be.
I think a lot of people pull up presets or pull up specific plug-ins and kind of just take them at face value, but if you add an EQ and you start crafting and you really start focusing on what you want to get out of adding that plug-in, you can take that extra step to really fit it and make it special in your mix; make it yours. Now, I also use the SansAmp on the vocal track, and this is a cool trick that I like to do with vocals. A lot of people would think that distortion on vocals is really something you only do in a very heavy industrial song.
However, I find that I use it in pop songs all the time, and not in an overt way, but in a very subtle way, where I am blending it in. Let's take a listen to this LV Crunch track, and that's just a duplicate of the lead vocal. It's not a unique performance. (music playing) So I have got my de-esser, my compressor, and then we get into our saturation. So I have got the SansAmp. And I am using this vocal thru amp preset that I have modified a little bit. I kind of tone down some of the lows, maybe added a little bit more crunch and drive. But the secret here is I'm really manipulating it with this EQ.
Take a listen. (music playing) That's really muddy. That's going to take away intelligibility from my lead vocal, confuse the lyrics. So I'm aggressively pulling out the low mids. I'm totally cutting out all the lows. I am kind of giving myself a little point here, around 1.75, and that's going to give it a little bit of honkiness, a little bit of attitude. And I am making sure to cut out all of my highs here because I don't want to create any kind of shrill exaggeration of the sibilance, or the top end.
And I topped it all off at a little bit of ModDelay, and is just a kind of a left-right spreader thing that's giving it that cool stereo effect. (music playing) And this isn't necessary, but I find that it kind of spreads the distortion to the left and the right so that the vocal itself can stay in the center. I can create this really kind of cool ghosting effect on that vocal. Let's listen to the vocals together. (music playing) And you can see I am actually automating that track up into the chorus.
So, anytime I want to make the vocal more aggressive, I will take this parallel chain that I have added saturation to, and drive that a little bit more. There are quite a few options inside of Pro Tools. In addition to the PSA-1, you probably want to check out the Eleven Free plug-in. That's another Amp simulator. Again, the AIR Distortion, the AIR Lo-Fi is really great, as is the original Lo-Fi. I will use this one all the time, just the distortion and the saturation sliders here.
This plug-in is well over ten years old, but I still use it in almost every mix I do, because it drives the harmonic series really, really well. One of the reasons that engineers like saturation of analog consoles is that they would take ultra-low low frequencies, and by adding a little saturation, you would drive some of the upper harmonics, which would make the bass and the kick drum sound a little bit warmer and more present on smaller speakers. Now, you don't get this by default in a DAW. The mixing is 100% linear, so the summing is super-clean, so actually need to add these nonlinearities in the harmonic distortion back into the signal, if I want that there.
Ultimately, in a session like Take Me Down, because it was recorded with all real instruments, real guitars, real amps, a real organ with a real Leslie, a real drum kit, I'm not using a ton of saturation besides the bass and that vocal trick. I find that that's just enough to get the attitude that I'm looking for in this tune. But for sessions built primarily of virtual instruments or loops and samples, familiarizing yourself with some saturation plug-ins is a must.
- What is mixing? Exploring the past, present, and future
- Mixing "in the box"
- Setting up monitors and ensuring proper acoustics in the studio
- Staying organized with labels, memory locations, and window configurations
- Working with the Pro Tools Mixer
- Building healthy and profitable mixing habits when putting together a final mix
- Using volume and pan to balance the mix
- Employing corrective versus creative EQ strategies to create clarity and contrast
- Knowing when and when not to process the audio of a track
- Working with compressors and dynamics processors
- Using saturation effects to capture an analog-type sound
- Adding reverb and delay to create depth in a mix
- Working with limiting and multiband compression during the mastering process
- Dealing with plug-in delay and latency in a mix
- Using the bundled plug-ins in Pro Tools to add clarity, punch, and width to a mix
- Recording and editing automation to add drama and excitement
- Using clip based gain to control headroom and gain staging