A growing number of engineers are taking more of an interest in transient design. Its ability to control the dynamic feel of a track without affecting the volume is an amazing feat. To accomplish this, the processing is only done to the transients in the signal. A transient is the initial burst of energy in the attack of a sound. The transients are usually very numerous in certain types of instruments, and by affecting these, we can make major changes to the way they sound. Just plop a transient processor on a drum bus and find out. The attack of specific drum instruments can also be altered individually before subgrouping; and this is where the power is at. By adding sustain, the snare will ring more. By taking it down, the kick becomes shorter. This type of processing is unique to these transient shapers and is useful on many other things like guitars or piano.
While these are the only tools that affect the duration of transients, they are not the only tools which can shape them. For years, now, engineers have realized the power of tape saturation. By pushing a signal a tiny bit into the hot zone, a tape machine gets clipped just like any other audio tool. The difference is, that tape actually sounds good this way. The result is a signal which is a bit louder in the lower and lower mid range but has its middle and upper frequencies ironed out flat by the clipping and saturation of the transient detail. This can make a harsh sounding track sound polished or compressed in a very flattering way. Saturation is indeed a powerful tool and many believe it’s necessary to bring a real life sound to the digital domain. What saturation does is introduce harmonic distortion into the mix which is usually directly caused by and related to the act of clipping the signal and folding it back on itself. There are many types of saturation being used today but generally, the common ones are tape, tube and transistor. Different orders of harmonic distortion are introduced by each type and experimentation may lead to the one which gives life to a track. When sound was recorded through old analog gear, this information was left as a side effect of processing. Now that everything is going digital, it’s all about clarity! Some, like me, would say too clear. The transient attack of a digital signal is very sharp and better on some sounds than others. Knowing what tracks to saturate and which ones to leave clear is a matter of personal taste; if done at all.