What Is Saturation And Distortion In Music? – All You Need To Know

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 08/26/22 •  6 min read

If you’re new to learning about music and all the different terms that are associated with its production, then you might be wondering exactly what saturation and distortion are.

When referring to audio, saturation is a combination of compression and distortion that results from overtaxing the structural elements of an electrical system.

What Is Saturation And Distortion In Music? - All You Need To Know

When referring to audio, distortion is the modification of a waveform’s shape that results in a tone that differs from that of the original waveform.

For a more detailed look into saturation and distortion, as well as their key differences, read this article to learn everything you need to know.

A More Detailed Look

In the domain of audio, terms are frequently used in conjunction with one another.

In place of one another, terms like saturation, coloration, distortion, harmonic production, overdrive, crunch, and fuzz are often used.

Any profession or field of study experiences this, but the problem is that words start to lose their meaning.

Whether intentionally or not, terms’ meanings get muddled whenever they are employed interchangeably.

As a result, it becomes increasingly challenging for engineers to communicate effectively while speaking about audio.

What Is Saturation?

Although the term “saturation” is often used in relation to music, it actually refers to a very specific process that occurs in electrical components.

Certain aural effects are produced when an electrical component’s output becomes non-linear to the input when it can no longer manage the incoming electrical signal.

Compression

Consider an electrical component, such as a transistor, being used to process an incoming electrical signal.

The electrical signal can be output at the same level as the input as long as it falls within a specific range.

Because it shows as a linear line on a graph when a signal’s output and input are equal, we refer to this relationship as being linear.

It resembles a compressor’s graph in that a linear line serves as a representation of an equal input to output ratio.

This is symbolized mathematically as a 1:1 ratio.

This “1:1” ratio should also be recognizable because compressors display their ratio using the same numerics.

For instance, a typical compressor ratio is 2:1, which means that each 2 dB of input is converted to 1 dB of output.

How Are Compression And Saturation Connected?

Simply put, saturation is a form of compression.

Let’s revisit the electrical component, which consists of a transistor being used to conduct electricity.

What would happen if the incoming signal was too powerful for the transistor’s physical components to handle?

The answer is that this would result in a non-linear relationship between the input and output since the signal could no longer be output at the same rate it was being input.

This ratio is quite close to that of a compressor.

Compression will therefore happen if this transistor is being “overloaded,” if you will.

Dynamic control and/or compression is the initial feature of saturation.

Soft-knee compression, which is what saturation introduces, causes the input to output ratio to progressively increase in aggression.

The transistor’s input-to-output ratio may be 2:1 at lower degrees of overloading, but it may be 4:1 at greater ones.

This may also be seen by glancing at a compressor, since most of them have a setting for “soft-knee,” which is the opposite of “hard-knee.”

The sort of electrical component that is being saturated determines the rate at which a signal is compressed and the shape of this knee.

A transformer’s saturation will differ from a transistor’s, which will differ from a tube’s, and so on.

Given the wide variety of brands, configurations, sizes, and physical characteristics of these electrical components, there are countless possible combinations of saturation.

Distortion And Saturation Together

Distortion And Saturation Together

The same process described above causes a signal to become sufficiently saturated, at which point it not only compresses but also distorts.

This distortion is a change in the waveform’s shape, although it is a little more complicated than that.

Small amplitude spikes start to occur when a signal starts to saturate or when the waveform starts to get distorted.

These amplitude spikes are referred to as harmonics.

Since harmonics are multiples of the original signal, they are closely related to the entering signal and get their name because they coexist peacefully with it.

Any signal that overwhelms an electrical component experiences harmonic distortion, which varies significantly depending on a wide range of factors.

The kind of electrical components employed, the quantity of incoming signal and/or saturation, the frequency and other characteristics of the incoming signal, as well as many other factors, are examples of these variables.

If the incorrect amount of voltage were provided to the hardware by connecting it with the incorrect power cable, that would be an example of a random variable that could have an impact on the harmonics.

This is just one of many random factors that might have an impact on the kind and strength of the harmonics produced by saturation.

What Is Audio Distortion?

In terms of audio, distortion is the modification of a waveform from its initial condition and shape.

Harmonic distortion, noise, intermodulation distortion, phase distortion and cancellation, and bit-depth distortion are examples of common types of distortion that can all vary significantly based on a number of different factors.

Practically every type of audio processing is a sort of distortion since, technically speaking, distortion is the alteration of a waveform from its initial state.

When you apply equalization to a signal, add reverb, or any other processing, you change the waveform’s shape.

Since harmonic distortion is the sound most often associated with distortion, it comes to mind when we think of distortion.

However, keep in mind that distortion exists everywhere and in every type of processing, including the most pristine digital processing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Transistor Saturation?

Mid- to high-order harmonic production, which makes the signal it distorts sound brighter and more defined, is a characteristic of transistor saturation.

Having said that, transistor saturation renders the distorted signal more audible and allows it to pierce through complex instrumentation.

What Is Tube Saturation?

Tube distortion is frequently described as having a strong second-order harmonic, producing an almost double effect of the original signal, despite the fact that different tube types will produce varied sounds.

Compared to other types of saturation, tube saturation has a fuller sound because the harmonics it produces are lower in pitch.

Why Does Tube Saturation Happen?

Tube saturation happens when the diodes in a tube are electronically saturated or overwhelmed; in other words, a positive charge in the gap between the two components prevents any additional electrons from moving from the cathode to the anode of the tube.

How Are Saturation And Distortion Different?

A more extreme effect than saturation is distortion.

While distortion more drastically tears apart a sound’s character, saturation just lends a warm tone to it.

Its nature can be very different, ranging from a soft fuzz to a sound with a lot of high-end bite and a buzzy quality.

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).

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