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How to Saturate Vocals

When you saturate vocals it’s a good idea to first identify important frequency ranges, like your vocal’s fundamentals, and the mid frequencies that will receive the majority of harmonics. You can observe the harmonics that form by running a low-frequency sine wave through your saturator of choice.

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Identify Important Hz. Ranges

Before we begin to saturate our vocal, it’s useful to identify important frequency ranges within the vocal’s signal. The vocal’s fundamentals will arguably be the most important range - since they’re often the loudest, they’ll trigger the saturation and be the foundation from which harmonics form.

The majority of harmonics that form from saturation will be in the low-mids to mids - be if we observe closely, we can pinpoint this range.

Understanding these ranges will be important for the rest of this video - but first, let’s listen to the vocal without any saturation, and isolate these regions.

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Complex Saturation with Single Band Saturator

Now that we have a better understanding of our vocal’s important frequency ranges, let’s start saturating. If we have a single band saturator, tailoring it to the vocal can be a challenge, but if we place an EQ before the saturator, we can emphasize our important ranges.

This is called an emphasis technique, and it’ll cause the saturator to work harder on those frequencies, giving us more control over the timbre.If our EQ offers it, we can make these bands dynamic, causing a dynamic emphasis technique.

Let’s take a listen to the effect.

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Converting Single-Band Saturator into MB

If the last technique didn’t offer enough control, and you don’t own a multi-band saturator, we can use parallel tracks to help with this. Let’s create 3 sends, on each one I’ll first insert a linear phase EQ and then isolate the lows, mids, and highs respectively.

The crossovers will be set to the important ranges we found in chapter 1. Then we’ll insert our saturator on each track, and saturate it to varying degrees. To blend in the effect, we can adjust the send’s channel faders until we get a good balance.

Let’s take a listen to this technique being used.

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Choosing Saturation Types Carefully

Let’s use the FabFilter Saturn 2 and run a sine wave into it - if we analyze the response after saturation we’ll notice that each saturation type creates various harmonic formations which will change the sound of our vocal. Knowing our vocal’s important ranges, let’s create bands that match these.

Then we can listen very carefully as we select different saturation types. Depending on the complexity of the plugin you use, different saturation types will also change the frequency response, and either emphasize or suppress transients.

Let’s listen to 2 different settings and notice how the vocal’s sound changes.

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Modulating Saturation for Specific Effects Pt. 1

Using this same plugin, we can introduce modulation to emphasize specific ranges or achieve a unique sound - for example, let’s imagine we want a crisp hip-hop vocal. Let’s create an envelope follower, change it to transient mode, and then attach it to the drive dial of the high frequencies.

Now whenever a transient is sung, this range will be emphasized. This is just one way of many that we can combine modulation and saturation to create specific effects.

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Modulating Saturation for Specific Effects Pt. 2

Another useful way to modulate MB saturation would be to create a band that isolates 2kHz to 5kHz. Using an envelope follower as we did in the last chapter, let’s attach it to the drive dial, and to the overall level of the band, increasing both whenever the vocal is present.

This way the vocal will cut through a dense mix, but in a dynamic way that can be controlled by altering the ADSR of the envelope follower. Let’s take a listen.

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Unique Reverberated Saturation

One new technique I’ve been trying recently is isolating the saturation, and then reverberating it. To do this I’ll use a parallel track and saturate that as we did in chapter 3, and then I’ll insert a reverb plugin with room emulation or a shorter, denser sound.

This will accomplish a couple of things - first, it’ll make the saturation sound unique, and second, its short reflections will act somewhat like frequency modulation, creating a denser and blended sound.

Let’s take a listen.

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Maximizing Vocal Saturation

After we've saturated the vocal, it helps to bring its quietest details forward - to do this use you can use an upward compressor or a maximizer. I’ll use Melda Audio’s free compressor plugin, and increase the value of the signal below the threshold - this will amplify low-level content.

As a result, details of the saturation that were being masked by louder signals will be made more apparent - making the saturation more complex and full. Let’s listen to this effect on isolated or parallel saturation so that we can better understand what it’s doing.

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In-Key Emphasis Technique

Let’s revisit a concept that we used in chapter 2 - the emphasis technique, but use it in a more specific or intentional way. What I’ll do is figure out the key of the song, and then amplify in-key notes using the equalizer, before saturating the vocal.

This way, in-key elements of the vocal are more likely to be saturated, causing more musical and in-tune saturation. If you try this, it’s best to use saturation with even-ordered harmonics to ensure all harmonics will be in key as well.

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De-essing Prior to Saturation

If you’re saturating the entire frequency range, or maybe performing high frequency modulated saturation to create a crisp sound like in chapter 5, it’s important to de-ess first. The de-esser will control the dynamics of these high frequencies, ensuring the sibilance isn’t inconsistent or too aggressive.

The longer the release on this de-esser, the smoother the sound, so adjust this as desired and if it’s available with the de-esser you’re using. Let’s listen to high-frequency saturation with a de-esser inserted before it.

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Where to Insert Saturation on a Vocal

When saturating your vocal, it’s important not to place the saturator after temporal processing, like delay or reverb - otherwise, it’ll have trouble saturating the fundamental or at least measuring the fundamental properly. That said, saturating after temporal processing does have a cool and unique effect.

Let’s try this out by using a delay on the vocal and saturating the delay taps to create an interesting sound.

I’ll do this as a parallel track so we can hear the effect isolated to only the delay taps.

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