Everyone who has ever listened to a rock and roll or pop song knows for sure that distorted guitars are great. Almost everyone that has ever used a DAW or even a console, kinda knows that when meters hit red, chances are that, something is wrong. Well, nothing of the above is necessarily true, and today, we’re gonna look at sound distortion: the good, the bad, and the ugly, so, let’s check it out!
What is Distortion?
I’m gonna try to give you a simple explanation about this, imagine a sine wave, now, imagine we make its amplitude bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until there’s no more room for more amplitude, but we keep cranking it, so, our sine wave starts to lose its sine shape, and if we keep boosting, it will start to look like a square wave.
We know for a fact that sine waves have no harmonic content, just fundamental tone, but, we also know square waves have lots and lots of harmonic content, both odd and even, so, when the sine waves start losing their shape, harmonic content start appearing. This happens with every single waveform that you can imagine.
When you drive the input more than what the output can handle, you are in fact, distorting the sound, or, to say it in another way, you are exciting some of its harmonics, making them more noticeable, or you are creating new harmonic content. This can be good, bad, nice, ugly, warm, harsh, or whatever adjective you wanna use.
For many years, guitar players have used distortion as something good, from amps to pedals, from tubes to transistors, and even digital algorithms, they have tried everything. Tastes change, and for example, in the 90s, many guitar players used to have some sort of digital distortion pedal in their rigs, today, that sounds kinda cheesy, while 60s and early 70s tube amps are probably the most sought after these days.
Of course, not only guitarists take advantage of the distortion process. Every single piece of studio equipment distorts in some way. There’s no major studio in the world that hasn’t got at least one Neve 1073 kind preamp. Why? Because its distortion is highly musical, its transistors and transformers excite some harmonics that just make anything sound nicer and warmer.
Some vintage compressors like the LA-2A, or the Fairchild 660, are often used not to compress, but, to take advantage of how they distort. Units like the Avalon VT-747 or the Culture Vulture Thermionic, are modern classics in studios, and often used in the master bus, just to run everything to their tubes and get some warm distortion. In the last few years, lots of tape machine emulations appeared in the plugin world, and one of the benefits of tape machines is that they excite the 3rd harmonic, which makes the sound really warm.
Even distortion pedals (or software emulation) are used on daily basis in almost every studio, and not just for guitars. Snare drums sound great through a ProCo Rat. Synths like the Tb-303 are often used with the Ibanez Tube-scream pedal.
Speaking of synths, many new analog mono-synths have some kind of feedback distortion circuit, where the output is fed back to the filter to make it distort. Some other units might even distort with the mixer volume, just before feeding the filter. For example, the affordable Arturia MicroBrute, when you dial the output volume of any waveform past the 12 o’clock position, will distort the filter!
On the other hand, most digital synths (software or hardware) have a bit-crusher, which is a digital distortion method that crushes sample rate and bit depth, very much used in modern genres like Dubstep.
As with everything, less is more. If you distort any signal a lot, it loses transients and might lose every bit of emotion it had. For example, if you distort a vocal track a lot, you will probably not understand a word of it. Some distortions, like feedback type, might get out of control and become totally unpredictable (not in a good way). Lastly, when you excite harmonics too much, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between a kick drum and a flute, so, yes, it loses its tonal qualities too.
Probably, the ugliest, most unpleasant distortion comes from the digital world. You can check this in a pretty simple way, just open any mix session in your DAW, and push track faders up, until the master fader meter hits red. Yeah, not very musical, right? You can of course turn your master fader down, until the meter doesn’t hit red, but you will get exactly the same results… why?
The problem here is that what is distorting is the summing engine inside your DAW, so, the only way to avoid this distortion is to pull your track faders down, and never have any buss fader lower than the faders of the track feeding it. This, of course, applies to analog consoles too, but, remember, analog distortion is warmer and sometimes is what you’re looking for.
Another ugly distortion is the one you get on your A/D converter when the incoming signal is too hot. This ain’t musical, and you should try to avoid it.
Tube distortion is great for basses, kick drums, rock vocals, guitars, electric pianos, Hammond organs, and master busses. Tape distortion is very nice for guitars, percussion, drum kits, vocals, keyboards, and master busses. Guitar pedals are great for snare drums, horns, keyboards, synths, and of course guitars. Transistor-based distortions might sound great just on anything, especially those from high-end preamps or analog consoles.
Just make sure you use them with caution, and if you are on a tight budget, well, there are lots of plugin emulation options around. You just need to try them! Check the Destructor plugin by Blue Cat Audio available in our store!