How and When To Use Tape Saturation

Tape saturation can be an excellent tool when used correctly, all though you can use it on pretty much any element of a mix, there is an odd number of instances when it really shines.

Recording a great drum take through top-end gear into your favorite DAW is, of course, the equivalent to a night on the p*ss for any committed engineer, however, even a flawless recording needs a little grit and attitude from time to time.

Using a quality tape saturation plugin can be the answer for adding a little aggression to the sonic character of your sound, without overly affecting the original feel of your piece.

Any tape saturation plug-in I’ve ever had experience with has always worked well as an insert and is simple to learn if you’re willing to put in an hour or two to study them.

Once you’ve developed a basic understanding of saturation you should know when and where to apply it within reason. What you should be looking to achieve is to strike balance between two elements:

  • Saturated sounds
  • Clean sounds

Unless your goal is to make your project sound like it was recorded to tape, then you can go ahead and plaster it all over each track in your mix.

If not, try adding to each element and listen to how the mix blends together. [If it sounds like crap, don’t be afraid to ditch it]

Just like EQ’s, tape saturation plugins don’t sound the same as one another, Testing multiple plugins (if you own more than one) will ensure you get the desired effect you want.

Tape saturation is a tricky beast to tame! Just like you shouldn’t marry someone after five minutes of meeting them, you should never jump in headfirst and get to over-excited when learning what you can do with saturation, Adding too much can result in gain staging, which can be the cause of unwanted distortion at higher levels of your mix. (a few times I’ve gotten carried away and not monitored my levels correctly thinking I’d recorded something to hot)

If you want to start experimenting with tape saturation, add a plugin to elements in your mix gradually within increments, doing this too quickly can confuse the crap out of you, if things start to sound wrong.

I’ve been in a lot of extremely WTF moments working with singers, thinking that they had caused a take to peak too high, later realizing that it was just my fault having a dumb moment using saturation the wrong way.

Typically saturation is predominately used on single elements of a mix, when starting to experiment with it, play elements of your project individually and listen closely to how they blend together, from there you can begin to play in a more aggressive manner, education is key, taking the time to walk before you run will be the defining factor in your success.

Also see: 4 of The Best Tape Saturation Plugins EVER Developed


George Matthews
George Matthews

With 17 Years music production experience, George Matthews is the CEO of Your Local Musician, he also makes music under the name Grimmm and releases Lo-fi music.

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