Forget about your go-to distortion plug-in. Start focusing on using exciters and saturators in EDM.
Distortion is a highly sought after sound in today’s electronic music. There’s nothing like hearing a nice crunchy bassline that can really drive you. A buzzy pluck that carries a nice, slightly, distorted topline can really bring life to your track.
But, how do these major tracks achieve such hard-hitting, yet graceful sounds?
Let’s start with what each of these tools are and what they do.
“An exciter (also called a harmonic exciter or aural exciter) is an audio signal processing technique used to enhance a signal by dynamic equalization, phase manipulation, harmonic synthesis of (usually) high-frequency signals, and through the addition of subtle harmonic distortion.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exciter_(effect)
Unless you’re fairly advanced and have been using exciters for years, that definition is probably pretty confusing. Let me break it down for you in a more subtle way.
You may have a lead that doesn’t carry as much energy as you want. Maybe you’re wanting to brighten it up and add some high-end crunch to it, an exciter is the way to go.
An exciter will take your lead and enhance the top end through a specific distortion effect i.e. Tube or Warm for a more low-end distortion, Triode for a warmer high-end distortion, Analog or Retro for brighter distortion; Tape distortion for a more harsh vintage distortion sound.
When adjusting the amount of exciting done to the lead with your specified effect, the plug-in will create harmonic frequencies in whatever frequency range you specify.
As I’m sure you noticed, I’ve focused more on a lead sound when using an exciter.
The reason for this is an exciter is something that focuses on the higher range of frequencies. More specifically, around 3k htz or higher.
Applying an Exciter
How can we apply exciters to our leads to give us a better edge? Well, first of all, start by taking a listen to your leads and what you’re going for.
If you’ve leveled everything correctly, your leads are panned out the way they should be, but you want some more brightness or a bigger hit to them; then this is when you should start to think about using an exciter.
For example, If you have one pluck that sits in the center of everything that needs a bigger transient hit, or something to just give a little more power, throw an exciter on.
The goal here is to really emphasize where that transient sound is. With some exciters, like iZotope’s Ozone 8 exciter, or even their Neutron 3 exciter, you can use a multiband mode which can really help you focus in on the exact frequency to add your harmonic distortion.
Solo out the 3rd band and then go in to see where exactly that transient is sitting. Once you’ve found that transient, spread the band out just a little bit more.
The reason for this is to help emphasize the surrounding frequencies that might be helping to enhance the transient.
Once you’ve found the transient, use a Triode effect on this band. What Triode is going to help with, is adding the bright harmonic distortion that you’re aiming for to give the punch to the transient. After that, it’s going to smooth it out at the same time by adding a little bit of warmth to the frequencies.
If you want an all-out harsh tone that’s going to really drive the transient hard, an Analog or Retro effect is going to be your best bet.
You’re now on path to better use of saturators and exciters in EDM!
Much like exciters, saturators in EDM will help you achieve crips distortion features that can help to texturize your sounds.
However, unlike exciters, saturators focus entirely on lower range frequencies, about 1000 htz and lower.
Saturation helps to add harmonic distortion to your sound that can transform your sounds and make them louder, punchier and more full.
Applying a Saturator
What can we do with a saturator to help enhance our lower frequency sounds? Just like we talked about with exciters, we need to look at what our overall goal is; where do we want to take this sound?
I almost always apply some sort of saturation to my kick.
Why? Because adding some light saturation to a weak kick can really give it a professional feel. It helps to boost some of those lower mid frequencies that help your kick sparkle and shine. The kick will feel fuller and the higher frequencies will start to punch more, giving the transients more room to work with.
This same technique can be applied when working with a bassline. Whenever I find that a bassline is lacking in character or just doesn’t have that depth that it should, a saturator will almost always bring it up to that level.
Most of the time, a bassline starts by lacking warmth, warmth is extremely important to help tie the higher ranged frequencies together.
This is exactly where you can bring in a Warm saturation effect to help bring up the low-mid frequencies without having to boost any sort of EQ or to even touch a compressor.
Along with a Warm effect, I find that Tube saturation will give you the exact same warming effect while also giving you that touch of crisp distortion.
You’re going to find that it’s the exact effect you’re looking for when working on a bass heavy track.
What’s next? Go into your DAW and start playing around with using exciters and saturators in EDM. You’ll quickly find out what works for you and really enhances your track to the next level.
Don’t have an exciter or saturator? Check out some of the FREE tools below to get you started. I personally use Fabfilter’s Saturn Saturator and Ozone 8’s Exciter plugin.
By the way, I’m still giving away a free Serum soundpack with over 30 free sounds! You’ll find a plethora of bass and lead sounds for you to start toying around with some of these distortion tools. Join an evergrowing community of like-minded producers looking to learn more below to get the soundpack for FREE!