Distortion, Saturation, and Wave Shaping

Distortion, Saturation, and Wave Shaping

Saturation is a type of distortion that we can emulate in the digital domain through the application of a stateless transfer function (or shaper function, wave shaper) to an incoming audio signal. The notion of saturation typically comes from analog hardware, where for example, the hardware components (i.e. tubes, valves) of various amplifiers would subtly and gradually deform at large voltages. Therefore the types of transfer functions we're interested in for simulating saturation are those which approximate the identity function, y(x) = x, near the origin, and which gradually and nonlinearly taper as they approach the limits of the signal domain, i.e. [-1.0, 1.0] for floating point signals.

The classic choice of such a transfer function for applying saturation in DSP is y(x) = tanh(g * x), which we parameterize through choice of g to amplify or drive the signal x into the nonlinear regions of the tanh curve.

Example 1. Drag the slider to apply different gain to the sine wave. Note how the output shape changes at larger gain values (original sine wave shape shown in gray).
export function playEx01(sliderValue) {
  let vs ={key: 'ex1:mix', value: sliderValue * 4}));
  let gs ={key: 'ex1:gain', value: (1.2 - Math.sqrt(sliderValue))}));
  let dry = el.mul(vs, el.cycle(440));
  let wet = el.tanh(dry);
    el.mul(gs, wet),
    el.mul(gs, wet),
Code listing for Example 1.

Notice in the example above how near the upper limit of g the output sine tone starts to resemble a square wave. A square wave is composed of a fundamental tone plus a series of odd harmonics on top of that fundamental. A nonlinear transfer function which is perfectly symmetric about the origin, such as y(x) = tanh(g * x) will impart odd harmonics on the output signal, hence the square wave resemblance. Introducing asymmetry here, either in the transfer function or in the input signal itself before it visits the saturator, will start to yield even harmonics as well.

The character of a saturator is in large part due to the balance of harmonics produced by the transfer function, so it's worth spending time exploring various functions and means of introducing asymmetry to your input signal. Filtering, whether before or after the saturation step, is also integral to the process of building a nice saturation process. It's important to understand that, because these transfer functions are stateless, their output depends exactly on the input given, so pre-filtering the input signal can have just as significant a role in shaping the overall character as can post-filtering. Let's put these ideas together into a larger, cohesive example.

Example 2. Drag the slider to adjust the distortion amount on the playing sample. To the left, no effect is applied, to the right, the maximal distortion effect is applied.
export function playEx02(sliderValue) {
  let t = el.train(0.25);
  let sl = el.sample({path: '96_Gm_MelodicSynth_01_592.wav:0'}, t);
  let sr = el.sample({path: '96_Gm_MelodicSynth_01_592.wav:1'}, t);
  let dl = el.mul(0.75, sl);
  let dr = el.mul(0.75, sr);
  let wl = el.mul(0.25, el.tanh(el.mul(10, el.lowpass(1800, 0.4, sl))));
  let wr = el.mul(0.25, el.tanh(el.mul(10, el.lowpass(1800, 0.4, sr))));
  let vs ={key: 'ex2:mix', value: sliderValue}));
    el.scope(, wl, dl)),, wl, dl),
Code listing for Example 2.

While saturation refers to a type or a subset of distortion, wave shaping refers to a process or a technique for applying distortion, through the use of a stateless transformation. All of the prior discussion on saturation transfer functions (or shaper functions) can therefore be referred to as wave shaping.

To elaborate further on technique then, we turn our discussion to lookup tables, which open the door to all kinds of highly complex transfer functions. Notice in the last example that we compute a polynomial for each sample of the input signal. For complicated polynomials or expensive trigonometric functions, this can become an expensive processing task. Historically, this detail gave way to the use of lookup tables to precompute the expensive functions for various input values so that, while processing our audio, all we need to do is lookup the correct output value given an input value. In modern DSP, this still holds for improving computational efficiency, but it also allows us to push incredibly complex functions into our distortion algorithms.

We'll wrap up our tutorial here with one final demonstration, using Elementary's el.table to implement a complicated, lookup-table based wave shaping distortion. Because el.table is read with a position value on the range [0, 1], we'll see that we can simply map our input signal from its typical [-1, 1] range onto [0, 1] and fill our lookup table such that the origin is represented in the middle of our data table. Finally, we'll pull in our prior discussion and use some bias and filtering to define the character of our distortion.

Example 3. An aggressive asymmetric distortion which uses a simple tanh saturation curve above the origin, and an intense folding curve below.
export function playEx03(sliderValue) {
  let t = el.train(0.25);
  // Our left and right channel sample playback
  let sl = el.sample({path: '96_Gm_MelodicSynth_01_592.wav:0'}, t);
  let sr = el.sample({path: '96_Gm_MelodicSynth_01_592.wav:1'}, t);
  // Here we construct a piecewise waveshaper function with:
  //   f(x), x >= 0 : tanh(x)
  //   f(x), x <  0 : tanh(sinh(x)) - 0.2 * x * sin(pi * x)
  let table = (new Float32Array(513)).fill(0);
  for (let i = 0; i < 256; ++i) {
    let leftX = (256 - i) / -256;
    let rightX = i / 256;
    table[257 + i] = Math.tanh(rightX);
    table[i] = Math.tanh(Math.sinh(leftX)) - 0.3 * leftX * Math.sin(Math.PI * leftX * 2);
  // Update our virtual file system. Typically you would do this only once ahead of time,
  // but for the sake of our example we'll do it here
    '/waveshaper/asym1': table,
  // Our pre-distortion left and right channels. We drive the dry signals so that they'll
  // hit the nonlinear parts of our curve. We pre-filter with a subtle lowpass, and we sweep
  // a slow DC offset (bias) to push the signal into different regions of the wave shaper.
  let dl = el.add(el.mul(0.1, el.cycle(1)), el.mul(10, el.smooth(0.6, sl)));
  let dr = el.add(el.mul(0.1, el.cycle(1)), el.mul(10, el.smooth(0.6, sr)));
  // Now we map our signal through the waveshaping table to derive our wet signals. We
  // use a DC blocker to remove any lingering DC component, then gain down to a reasonable
  // volume
  let wl = el.mul(0.2, el.dcblock(el.table({path: '/waveshaper/asym1'}, el.mul(0.5, el.add(1, dl)))));
  let wr = el.mul(0.2, el.dcblock(el.table({path: '/waveshaper/asym1'}, el.mul(0.5, el.add(1, dr)))));
  let vs ={key: 'ex3:mix', value: sliderValue}));
    el.scope(, wl, sl)),, wr, sr),
Code listing for Example 3.

At this point, hopefully you've learned enough to jumpstart your own exploration into the broad world of saturation, wave shaping, and distortion. The last detail to leave with, then, is a small caution that wave shaping can have drastic and sometimes undesirable results. If the result of applying the transformation is an output signal with discontinuities or drastically sharp edges, you will likely encounter aliasing, which we often aim to avoid. This is an entire topic on its own, but if you're interested you can read on in Introduction to Oversampling for Alias Reduction (opens in a new tab).

If you have any questions, comments, or want to share your own take on saturation and distortion, join our Discord community! (opens in a new tab)