Difference Between Distortion And Saturation

Difference Between Distortion And Saturation | MusicGearo.com

Due to the similar results, distortion and saturation have, they are often confused. Many times, even a trained person may have difficulty drawing a line between the two.

Hence, often, they get mixed up. Nevertheless, understanding the difference between them and what causes those differences is not a tremendous task if one gets the basics right. Similarly, an in-depth explanation of those two will reveal the difference between distortion and saturation, which may help you in making good mixes by using those effects.

What is Audio Distortion?

Distortion is a form of audio signal processing that is used to alter the sound of electrical musical instruments that have been amplified. It usually results in a gritty tone. It is most commonly used with electric guitars but can be applied in the modern EDM music on drums, basses, synths etc.

Again, some aspects of it are great, while some are not. In the case of guitars, it could range from subtle overdrives to full-on heavy metal fuzzes. And that would be considered as one of the pros of using this effect.

Audio Distortion

If one views it from a completely technical perspective, the effect called distortion occurs when a circuit gets overloaded. When the circuit becomes unable to handle all the excess of data signals, it breaks down.

Now, there is another way to look at this process. It is called a hard-clipping. When the circuit becomes no longer capable of handling the overloading of signals, it flattens any of the parts of the signal that passes the limit of the voltage on a positive or negative axis.

Secondly, some rules dictate the use of distortion in music production. While considering applying any forms of signal degradation effect, one must keep in mind the harmonic content. What is harmonic content? When the waveforms are flattened during the process called distortion, that is where harmonic content comes into play.

The rule of the thumb is that even harmonics sound melodious to the ears while the odd harmonics do not. To briefly about what harmonics are, there are some fundamental principles:

Even harmonics are associated with tube technology, which will be explained later in the article. The logic is easy. They add even multiples of the original signal. For example, if a note, say, middle A is played, which sits at exactly 440Hz, even harmonics would take place at 880Hz, 1760Hz, etc. Similarly, odd harmonics uses odd multiples of the original signal.

Saturation and Distortion Difference
Izotope Ozone Trash 2 & FabFilter Saturn

Now, coming to the concept called Saturation.

What is Audio Saturation?

Saturation is considered the essence of what makes the analogous hardware so pleasant and musical. There are also various kinds of saturation, like tape, tube, and transistor saturation. It adds warmth, character, edge, and cohesion. Could be applied on drums, basslines, vocals, synths & mastering.

But first, what was the beginning behind the saturation? Music producers and engineers have always used the technique of driving sounds through tubes, tapes, circuits, and transistors. During that time, they had to heavily focus on printing the correct level on to the tape.

Later, these experts discovered that by overloading magnetic tape machines, transistor-based pre-amps and tube amps, something called soft clipping could be created. This forms the first distinction between distortion and saturation. Soft-clipping gave many sough-after qualities to the sound design, making it all the more pleasing.

Saturation in Izotope Trash 2

In layman terms, what is saturation? As discussed in the section of distortion, if one records the signal too hot, circuits might break down and what occurs, therefore is, distortion. On the other hand, if these hot signals encounter analogous hardware, what occurs is saturation.

Difference between Distortion and Saturation

To understand this aspect, let us rewind back. As explained earlier, hard clipping occurs when a loud signal passes through a circuit. That represents the parts that cannot be recorded. On the other hand, when the signal passes through the magnetic tape, what results is soft clipping.

Now, instead of flattening the peaks of the piece of audio as done in distortion, what is done is that we apply a form of compression to the loud parts of the audio. In other words, instead of flattening, the peaks are gently squashed.

The second distinction between saturation and distortion is that with tape, the recordings are subjected to chemical compounds rather than man-made electronic devices. This is the reason why saturation is said to operate in a non-linear fashion. On the other hand, during distortion, the components do not change, which is why distortion is said to operate in a linear fashion.

The third distinction is that saturation is considered a more versatile mixing tool as compared to distortion. Because saturation compresses, it would mean that it could be used to add warmth to each individual sounds. It can be used to fatten up the low-end too. Another use of it is on buses as mix glue and adding size to mixes. In fact, technology has also brought to our doorsteps a device called tape saturation plug-in that well replicate the same effect.

Free Distortion & Saturation VST Plugins:

Free Distortion Plugins

Free Saturation Plugins


This article would make us understand the basic distinction that overloads in the circuit is what causes distortion. It creates flat cut-offs to peak the data, and creates harmonics, and also breaks down signal, which is its significant feature. Well, this adds to the pros on its list as it could be used to create aggression in a sound. Conclusively, saturation happens due to soft clipping. The gentle compression adds warmth, presence, and edge to the signal without having to collapse it. It is best used on drum buses and vocal mixes.