What's the difference between saturation & distortion?



June 8, 2022

Distortion and saturation are two sound editing techniques used in music production. Both are used to enhance sounds with warmth and grit, though they do this in different ways, and to different extents.

Differentiating between saturation and distortion can be confusing, as both terms are often used interchangeably. However, there are key differences between the two.

Understand the main differences between audio saturation and distortion in this guide, and learn how to make your music sparkle and stand out with these two great audio processing tools.   

Saturation vs. distortion: quick answer

The main difference between audio saturation and distortion is the way they process audio signals. Saturation combines compression and harmonic distortion to add warmth to sounds, whereas distortion alters the waveform shape to create an entirely different tonality from the original.

To put it simply, distortion is just an angrier saturation.

There are audible differences between distorted and saturated sounds. Saturated sounds have a degree of warmth and thickness to them. Distorted sounds have a more extreme fuzziness to them that often appear much harsher than saturated sounds.

Saturation vs. distortion: the details

It is fairly common for saturation and distortion to be used as interchangeable terms in the world of music production. You’ll often hear words such as saturation, distortion, overdrive, fuzz, crunch, all used to describe the same kind of sound. And it is understandable, saturated and distorted sounds can appear very similar on the surface, however, there are key differences between these two types of audio processing.

The issue with this is that the terms can begin to become confused, which is not useful for budding music producers or those looking to get into the industry. It’s important to understand the two terms accurately when talking about audio.

Distortion and saturation are similar audio processing techniques, both add frequencies to the sound that fill out its spectrum. Though, the difference lies in how this processing happens. 

Let’s explore some of the key differences between audio saturation and distortion in more detail.


Sounds can be distorted using hardware and digital audio plugin software. Distortion can sound pleasant, or unpleasant depending on the level of distortion in the mix and how it is created.

Distortion occurs when a sound’s waveform is altered from its original state and shape between the input and output of an audio signal. This means that distortion can show up pretty much anywhere where audio processing is taking place, so it’s important to monitor this when working on your mix and making changes.

For example, overloading the input level to its maximum limit in a digital recorder will make the waveform fill the entire audio spectrum, pushed flat to the amplitude limits. The waveforms can’t go any higher beyond these limits, which is why they are flattened out.

This is what’s referred to as hard-clipping, which can result in some pretty unpleasant sounding distortion.

Example of distorted soundwave

This is not the kind of distortion you should be going for. In almost every instance, this will sound bad.

However, more subtle uses of distortion can sound pleasant, lifting a dull and dry sound into something more interesting.

Common forms include harmonic, noise, intermodulation distortion, phase, cancellation and bit-depth distortion. Harmonic distortion is the most commonly used type of distortion in the audio world, as this is often the most ‘musical’ sounding type of distortion.


Audio saturation adds warmth and character to sounds through subtle harmonic distortion. Saturation combines harmonic distortion with audio compression, which limits the amplitude of the soundwave beyond a certain level.

Compression limits the amount of harmonic distortion that can occur, which is why saturation is a softer sounding type of ‘distortion’. 

The key difference between saturation and distortion is that saturation combines harmonic distortion with compression, whereas regular distortion techniques do not use compression. This is the reason it is so much easier to overload a soundwave using distortion than it is using saturation, since saturation tools limit the extent of harmonic saturation using audio compression.

Since distortion is technically involved in saturation, it is understandable why confusion occurs between the two terms. However, distortion is just one part of the picture when it comes to audio saturation.

Another key difference is that saturation only uses one type of distortion: harmonics. Harmonics are multiples of the incoming audio signal, meaning they work together with the original signal and, hence the name, play harmoniously. 

Regular distortion, however, is not limited just to harmonics.  

Sounds can be distorted using noise, intermodulation, phase, cancellation and bit-depth distortion. These non-harmonic types of distortion can sound much less ‘musical’ in comparison to saturated harmonic distortions, since the additionally generated audio signals do not directly harmonise with the original audio signal.

This is another reason why distortion tools can result in harsher sounding noises in comparison to saturation tools. Saturation is generally intended to enhance sounds in ways that work harmoniously, and not too dissimilarly from the original sound. With distortion, on the other hand, there’s much more room to deviate.

Want to start saturating your sounds? Here are 8 of the best free saturation plugins to help you get started.

Saturation and distortion examples

Here are some examples of saturation and distortion in action.

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