My GO TO…Saturation: Three Pros Share Their Secret Weapons

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It’s time to dish out some dirt! This edition of the GO TO series is all about everything that’s unclean: Saturation, distortion and harmonics that make our drums gnarly, our vocals gritty or maybe just make our mix sound more “analog”.

When it comes to mixing, there are essentially two schools of thought these days: In the box or on the console. Many well-respected mixers, including some with long and celebrated careers on analog consoles have moved exclusively in the box for mixing duties. Of course, for some mixers analog still rules!

We’re going to talk to three different engineer/mixers with storied discographies who bring unique insights into the world of saturation from their work both in and out of “the box”.

So, let’s talk about: Saturation

Mellowmuse SATV

Mellowmuse SATV

I can still remember the very first time I discovered distortion as a means of creating music. I was sitting in my living room circa 1996 with my dad’s old 67’ Telecaster and a shiny new DOD Supra Distortion pedal. I said out loud “so THAT’S how they get that sound!”

Of course, I was only half right. Years later I would discover that so many of those pedals were merely emulating the brilliant sounds that come from turning a tube amp WAY up.

(Pause here for an extended tangent with a friend talking about all the amazingguitarpedals you used to be obsessed with as teenagers).

Today, guitar pedals have taken a back seat to outboard gear and plugins in my control room. I use saturation in various stages across my mix to affect individual tracks and groups, as well as to help my mix as a whole sound and feel as analog as possible.

Without exception, all of my drum tracks for the past four years have been treated with Mellowmuse SATV. SATV gives my drums this remarkable crunch and presence that is unlike any other harmonic based plugin I’ve ever heard.

SATV is one of a select few saturation-based plugins that contributes to every mix I do. It’s fantastic on just about any instrument you can imagine. SATV is armed with four emulations: Transformer, Transistor, Tube and Tape. You can read more about SATV in my review for Sonicscoop. As of this writing, Mellowmuse has begun releasing their vintage series plugins including SATV and CS1V for AAX 64 bit.

My other key piece of saturation is console emulation. My current go to is Slate Digital’s Virtual Console Collection or “VCC”. The VCC provides the overall glue to my mixes through a combination of harmonic “drive” and various console emulation flavors that can be used on a track-by-track basis to provide enhanced harmonic saturation and clarity.

Plugin developers have surely caught on to just how crucial harmonic saturation is to creating an analog feel for in-the-box mixing. A number of compressors in my arsenal such as Slate’s Virtual Bus Compressors and Softube’s TLA 100A all have saturation processing on board.

In fact, my entire mix bus in Pro Tools is variations of different types of harmonic saturation processing! Typically, my mix bus consists of Slate’s Virtual Buss Compressor into The Virtual Tape Machine into Izotope’s Ozone 5 which I use for the EQ, Stereo Imaging and Harmonic Exciter modules (set to tube).

I spoke with veteran engineers David Bendeth, Ryan Hewitt and Neil Dorfsman to get their thoughts on all things saturation.

GO TO Pro #1: David Bendeth

David Bendeth at the helm of his SSL.

David Bendeth at the helm of his SSL.

David Bendeth is a London-born producer, engineer, mixer and musician whose primary facility “House of Loud” is based around an SSL 4000 console in Elmwood Park, New Jersey. David’s impressive discography includes Paramore, Riot, Vertical Horizon, Bruce Hornsby, Papa Roach and Elvis Presley. Of the latter, je’s overseen the production, engineering and mixing of the “30 #1 Hits” album which has sold 14 million copies worldwide to date.

What’s your go to Saturation right now? Tell us what plugin in or hardware you find yourself reaching for a lot.

“Right now, I am loving the Gates comp and the ADR Gemini Easyrider comp. Tape is always the best solution for this effect though.

What do I really reach for? Easy, the SSL console. The truth is that the SSL 4K G breaks up really nicely with the master buss comp. There is a saturation point you encounter much like a Les Paul and a Marshall 100 watt amp. It is a sweet spot and when you get there, the room shakes. Mixing on this console and ganging the tracks creates the ultimate saturation.”

Why are you gravitating to it? Tell us what you like about it, and what you’re using it for (vocals, guitars, drums, etc…)

Bendeth's Gates compressor is as heavy duty as it looks.

Bendeth’s Gates compressor is as heavy duty as it looks.

“The Gates I always use for the lead vocals. It gives it a nice edge and breaks up with the warmth still engaged due to all those tubes. I like the Gemini ADR comp because it’s a cheap piece of gear that sounds amazing when smashed hard, love it on background vocals or a stereo synth or piano. The SSL because nothing can touch the harmonic distortion that comes out with all the headroom.”

What’s a cool tip/technique you can share about using it? How can SonicScoop readers use this unit (or something like it) in their next project?

“Sometimes when you put these comps on a back Buss and bring them back on two rails, you can really push them hard and back off the original signal, making the most out of the effect.”

You can find out more about David at Thanks David!

Hear a Saturation Master in action: David Bendeth mixed the brutal “Shadow Moses” single by Bring Me the Horizon (read more about this mix in depth in the SonicScoop Mix Analysis).

GO TO Pro #2: Ryan Hewitt

Ryan Hewitt’s career in audio began at the young age of twelve. Ryan worked on the Remote Recording Services trucks owned by his father, engineer Dave Hewitt for over fifteen years learning the trade of engineering for live recordings.

Ryan eventually moved to LA working at Cello Studios before breaking out on his own as a freelance engineer and mixer for a diverse list of artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Avett Brothers, Harry Connick Jr., Sheryl Crow and many more. Recently Ryan has worked with Dan Wilson, Needtobreathe and Angust and Julia Stone.

Go to Saturation:

Hewitt reaches for SoundToys' Decapitator to satch it.

Hewitt reaches for SoundToys’ Decapitator to satch it.

“My go-to saturation at the moment is SoundToys Decapitator.  It’s got a great range of colors, dynamics and harmonics that it can impart to a track.”

Gravitational Pull:

“I use it on vocals to make a singer more aggressive or emotional sounding. I use it on electric guitars to add harmonic content to weak sounds. I like it on acoustics for distortion and tone shaping. On drums, I use Decapitator as a parallel send/return effect and send selected sounds to be distorted, then blended with the dry tracks. I’ve used it on horns to make them sound more old-timey and junky sounding. It’s definitely got a lot of functionality and I use it in every mix that I do.”


“My favorite of these applications recently is on electric guitars. I’ve gotten a lot of really weak guitar sounds to mix recently, and using the Pentode mode of Decapitator has really helped me beef up these tracks and make them stand up to big drum sounds.

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7 Comments on My GO TO…Saturation: Three Pros Share Their Secret Weapons

  1. Heavy Empty
    June 22, 2014 at 7:10 am (4 years ago)

    great article, thanks zach!

  2. Zach McNees
    June 26, 2014 at 5:23 am (4 years ago)

    Thank you kindly!