Saturator: Ableton Live’s Secret Sound Design Weapon

Whether you’re looking to subtly enhance dull sounds, add convincing analog grit or extreme distortion, or even drastically mangle your sounds beyond comprehension, Live’s Saturator has you covered.  

Curves Galore

Essentially, Saturator is a Waveshaping effect that processes audio by mathematically transforming incoming waveforms according to a variety of settings. Located in Live’s Audio Effects in the Browser, there are three parameter dials available by default.

Pic 1: Ableton Live's Saturator, default view.

Pic 1: Ableton Live's Saturator, default view.

In the upper left, a Drive dial allows you to adjust the intensity of your selected saturation circuit; for more extreme effects, crank it up – but you might then have to compensate with the Output and Dry/Wet controls at bottom right.

The default circuit selected is Analog Clip, which is perfect for emulating classic mixer gain artifacts. A drop-down menu below the waveshaping display provides access to six other circuits: Soft Sine, Medium Curve, Hard Curve, Sinoid Fold, Digital Clip, and Waveshaper.

Soft Sine and Sinoid Fold are great for subtly inflating any input with added punch, detail, and harmonic enhancement without even boosting the drive – try using these settings on drums, then enable and disable the device to hear the difference and you might soon wonder how you ever survived without it. Soft Sine and Sinoid Fold begin to noticeably diverge at higher Drive settings, where the Sinoid Fold produces some rather artificial sounding transient distortion.

The other circuits are fairly self-explanatory, with Digital Clip providing the modern counterpart to the Analog Clip circuit, while Medium and Hard Curve deliver somewhat more traditional distortion effects. Engaging Saturator’s Soft Clip toggle adds an additional Analog Clip circuit at the output stage of the device. DC removal is on by default, filtering out DC offsets at the input stage. Below the DC toggle is the Color activation, which enables the four filter control dials below.

Add Some Color

With Color enabled, Base governs how Saturator processes low frequencies at higher Drive settings, with lower Base values focusing on lower frequencies and higher Base values pulling the distortion focus upward in the frequency spectrum for nasty, gabber-style hardcore kick drums and more.

Freq, Width, and Depth control high frequency noise shaping to add another layer of filth. Try increasing or decreasing the Depth dial and then sweeping the Freq and Width to get a feel for controlling this additional dimension of saturation.

It might be worth dialing in fairly extreme Color settings and then toggling Color off and on to get a sense for what’s being altered. For super intense low end, drop the Base control down – however, it’s easy to add a lot of gain here, so you might need to reduce the Output gain to compensate.

PIC 2: Hard Curve with Color settings enabled, emphasizing low frequencies with the Base control and adding a bit of noise to the high-end.

PIC 2: Hard Curve with Color settings enabled, emphasizing low frequencies with the Base control and adding a bit of noise to the high-end.

Beast Mode

For sound designers looking for more extreme transformation, select the Waveshaper circuit, then click the reveal toggle next to the device activator at the left of the device title bar to gain access to hands-on manipulation of the Waveshaper settings: below the expanded Waveshaper display, six sliders appear.

Drive should automatically be set to 100%; at 0% the Waveshaper won’t be applied at all. The Curve control adds third-order harmonics at the input stage, resulting in an increasingly complex distortion.

Depth applies a sine wave to the Waveshaper settings, which can help inflate the result not unlike a Sinoid Fold. Period injects more cycles to the sine wave added via the Depth slider, which can generate everything from intense punch at lower values to searing distortion when fully exaggerated.

By flattening the core values of the wave transfer function, Damp can dial back toward an almost muted distortion tone, while Lin works in conjunction with other controls to skew the resulting waveform off-center.

PIC 3: Saturator Waveshaper circuit in action with extreme settings applied but dialed back  on the Dry/Wet to blend it.

PIC 3: Saturator Waveshaper circuit in action with extreme settings applied but dialed back on the Dry/Wet to blend it.

PRO-TIP: Right- or CTRL-click Saturator’s title bar to activate Hi-Quality mode before exporting audio.

In conjunction with the Color settings, Saturator’s Waveshaping can easily mangle sound into realms far beyond the original. While it can be fun to play with, these types of extreme distortion might not be suitable for certain genres – but you can always reduce the Dry/Wet value to harness a bit of Saturator’s intensity without overpowering your mix. Then again, a simple Sinoid Fold or Soft Sine with no Drive or Color might be all you need to enhance a track in your mix. Either way, Saturator’s versatility and power no longer need be overlooked.

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Noah Pred is a Canadian record producer, sound designer, technologist, DJ, and Ableton Certified Trainer living in Berlin, Germany. Releasing dozens of records and touring extensively since the '90s, he currently teaches a wide variety of techniques for stage and studio at the BIMM Institute. For more information, please visit: http://... Read More


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