Intentionally distorting audio has come into fashion for audio engineers as the digital age took over. Trying to make music not so “hi-fi” in order to give us the familiar sounds we have heard for decades. While engineers had been trying to get away from distortion of old analog recording methods they did not know that they had the “thing” that we would search for years later. What I hear now is mixers using distortion in new and creative ways to make musical decisions. I believe that “distortion” will be classified as a 2010-2020 musical fad like the gated snares of the 80’s. We have so many distortion tools available it is only natural that we over use them.
I have 4 basic reasons to use distortion
- To make something cut through a mix.
- An alternative to eq and/or compression
- To make a source sound more “full”
- To make something sound cool
1. Making something cut through a mix – For example in a country/rock mix vocals are everything. The instruments still need to sound big. For example turning drums down to a “country level’ and making them seem urgent and powerful can be tough. Distortion can be part of the answer.
2. An alternative to eq and/or compression – Sometimes making something “brighter” is not a good solution. Distortion can add the feeling of brightness without the negative impact of losing the sense of low end. Distortion on the low end of something can make it feel even bigger. It can also help to even out the dynamics of sounds.
3. To make a source sound more “full” – After hearing what an API 512c can do to a distorted guitar when pushed I was blown away. You can make a single distorted note imply that you are playing a power chord. Although not a perfect description I know of no other way to describe this. I have yet to hear anything else do this. Using distortion to add a thickness to sources is really fun.
4. To make something sound cool – Distorting a drum buss or vocals for effect can be really cool.
I have 3 Basic sources of Distortion
- Recording a distorted source
- Using Hardware
- Using software
1. Recording a distorted source – I believe in committing to sound sources. When ever possible I will record with the distorted sound I am going for. For example I will almost always record keyboards through guitar amps to get the cool thing a tube amp does to a sound. Typically recording a distorted source is far easier to fit into a mix easily. I don’t have a great explanation for this but this has been my experience. I may mic a vocalist with a clean mic while also having another mic going into a guitar amp that is distorted that I will mic as well. The blend can be awesome or awful:)
2. Using Hardware – When I mix drums I often send Kick, snare and toms close mics to a parallel compression buss. I will also send the same tracks to a “distortion buss”. I use two “500 series fuzzy finger” modules for this. They add a germainium type distortion. Using a little of this can make drums sound powerful. I have a similar set up for bass guitar although I intentionally use a different distortion.
3. Software – Software has come leaps and bounds in the distortion category. One would argue that you can get better, more obvious, digital distortion then you can in the analog world. When I really want distortion to be heard Digital is almost always the way to go. You can go really far with it in a cool way. There are some many different distortion sounds ITB. Some of my favorites are Waves Kramer tape, vitamin, and their NLS console emulation. I also like Plugin alliance vocal character, and brainworks distortion plug in. There are many others out there that I haven’t tried because I feel I can do everything I need to do with these few plugins.
In general I find that analog distortions are easier to make subtle. Likely its because I lack to self control to use digital distortion tools in a subtle way. Distortion has become a regular part of my mixing work flow. Kick attack, Snare, drum buss, Bass guitar, Guitars, Keyboards and vocals are some of my favorites to use distortion on. Adding a little distortion to acoustic guitars and keyboards can be wonderful. Also try it on your delays and reverbs as well as modulation effects. Some surprising things can happen:)