Saturation, Distortion, and Everything In Between

 In TSM Studio Blog
  • Despite being loosely interchangeable, saturation and distortion do differ in sonic quality. Although both have their respective applications suited to unique harmonic modifications, today’s post is centered around informing you on their differences to inspire experimentation amongst the two. By the end of this brief article, you’ll have expanded your toolkit to include two of the most sought-after harmonic effects that can enhance your productions when used properly (or improperly).
  • Distortion is the product of altering a signal’s waveform to add frequency components, that when generated in harmonic relation to the original sound, are referred to as harmonics. Distortion is a term often used to describe an extremely dramatic change to the waveform. Distortion can be applied to electric bass, guitars, synthesizers, kick drums, and nearly anything else you can think of to achieve a more radical tone across various frequency bands that ranges from smooth fuzz to high-end bite.
  • Saturation can be described as a “shade of grey” in relation to distortion and its related terms (ie: overdrive, fuzz, bitcrusher, etc.). Saturation typically adds frequency components while also altering a waveform’s dynamic content, acting as its primary differentiator from distortion. Saturation really shines when used to boost low end, round off transients, and smoothen a signal out by rolling off high frequencies.
  • Somewhere in the middle between saturation and distortion lays the effect typically referred to as “overdrive”. The origin of this term came from an attempt at describing the harmonically-rich effect of overdriving an analog circuit and creating warm, crunchy artifacts. This effect is especially useful when overdriving a guitar amp to capture a guitar tone with more grit.
  • Fuzz is an aggressive, often destructive sounding form of distortion that is achieved by heavily altering a waveform’s dynamic range and transforming its shape into a well-defined square wave. The extreme clipping that occurs can transform nearly any sound into something more artificial and is commonly considered the extreme end of distortion. Fuzz effects sound killer on lead guitar, electric bass, synthesizers, vocals, and any other ferocious element that needs to cut through a mix with intensity. 
  • Bitcrushing is defined as the act of reducing a sample’s bit rate in order to reduce dynamic range, degrading the overall quality of the audio. Its application generally results in added quantization noise, which is the audible result of differences between the quantized value and the actual value of the original input, signal. Bitcrusher effects are most commonly used on synthesizers and snare drums within the electronic music realm, however as with every other effect described above, they can be applied to taste in a variety of contexts in order to push the boundaries of music.
  • If the differences between saturation and distortion sounds unclear, it’s because although there are quantifications that can be implemented to create a “black and white” argument as to what’s considered distortion or saturation, the verbiage varies between shades of grey. Apply these principles in contexts that may not be the norm and you’ll quickly find practical uses for them.