Music and distortion are linked together in so many ways that it’s almost unbelievable. Almost every way in which we consume music, some level of distortion is happening. Vinyl, cassettes, speakers, preamps, microphones, and even your own ears all carry with them different kinds of distortion. There’s something about harmonic distortion, the sound of extra harmonics being generated, that people just love. Part of it I believe is that, at loud listening levels, your own ear starts to distort and compress. And loud music is something we really enjoy because of the impact it makes.
Distortion also brings with it a certain character, a ‘signature’ sound that is sometimes attributed to an era where recording was done in the analog realm, with tape, outboard gear, and a big mixing desk. Think words like ‘glue’, ‘warmth’ and an overal ‘organicness’ of the sound. Sound on Sound captures it nicely in their introduction to an article about ‘Analogue Warmth‘:
Get a group of recording engineers together, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to a discussion (probably quickly escalating to an argument) about ‘analogue warmth’ and how things sounded so much better ‘BD’ (Before Digital) — and even engineers and musicians who’ve never worked in earnest with all‑analogue systems (digital having become mainstream as far back as the 1980s) seem keen to bring this perceived ‘warmth’ into their productions.
Because of this, a lot of different ways are being used to try to emulate, or recover that character in digital productions. Knowing how to differentiate between these harmonic inducing devices is the real challenge here.
Analog vs. digital
The big divider between distortion devices these days is analog vs. digital. Personally, I’m always skeptical whenever I hear someone say that one is better than the other. They both have advantages and disadvantages. But when working with digital distortion (plugins etc.) there are some things to keep in mind.
- A lot of the digital devices try to simulate analog gear: some do it well, others not so much. Some plugins don’t try to emulate and do something new entirely.
- Sampling rate is a concern for me when distorting digitally. When overdriving, phenomenas such as intermodulation distortion can make ultrasonic frequencies impact the audible spectrum. So, recording and mixing at higher sample rates can be worth it.
- A lot more types of plugins introduce distortion than you might think (“analog” EQ’s, “analog” compressors, and almost anything that’s modeled after a real life device).
- Because of this, gain staging is very important in when working with these types of plugins. Almost all plugins are calibrated to -18dBFS = 0VU. You wouldn’t go in to your analog rack equalizer at +12dB, why would you do that with a plugin?
- You can distort things digitally in ways that are not possible in the analog world (bit rate reduction, stuff like that).
Similarly, when working with analog distortion, there are other things to keep in mind.
- There is a magic to some distorting analog devices that is very, very hard to capture digitally. This is probably due to a lot of small things working together to create that ‘magic’.
- All analog devices introduce distortion of some kind.
- When mixing with a hybrid setup (digital and analog), you need to be aware of your ADDA (analog to digital and vice versa). Investing in a good clock/sync generator can be worth it if you do this kind of thing a lot. Of course, if you introduce the distortion when recording, this is not an issue.
- Knowing what a device uses to distort (transistors, tubes, transformers), can give a lot of insight into it’s sonic characteristics.
We all know this one
Distortion on the cheap
That being said, what are cheap ways to get some nice distortion going in your production?
Plugins are a good way to get started with the whole distortion game. Some favourites that come to mind are the Soundtoys Decapitator, Soundtoys Radiator, Softube Saturation Knob (free!), and the UAD FATSO. Personally I also really like the Avid Lo-Fi plugin, which is included with Pro Tools. Another cool plugin that is included with Pro Tools is the Sansamp PSA-1, but it is a guitar amp simulator, so it’s a bit of a different beast than the other plugins. Another plugin that has some great options like parallel blending and multiband distortion is the Fabfilter Saturn.
If you’re looking to get into hardware distortion on the cheap, distortion pedals can be a good way to get started. There are so many that I don’t really know where to start. I built a Fuzz Factory clone myself that works well for when I really want to make something distort super aggressively. Keep in mind that when you’re using pedals while mixing, a reamp box such as the DIY-RE Line2amp can be nice because of impedance/level issues.
Going a little bit up the ladder, preamps can also be a nice to way distort. Knowing the difference between different designs is key, because a tube preamp for example will distort differently than a more modern preamp like an API. Also, an output gain/attenuator is mandatory, as you’ll likely clip your digital input otherwise.
The insides of the Thermionic Culture Vulture
Now on to the good stuff. Dedicated hardware like the Thermionic Culture Vulture can do unique stuff for your sound. The Culture Vulture is a tube based device that can use it’s tubes in different configurations and alter the bias to create sounds ranging from smooth drive to super aggressive distortion. The Crane Song HEDD also deserves mentioning, although it’s a lot less aggressive. It is a digital device, but don’t let that fool you: it is very convincing in wat it does, creating analog-like harmonics. It being a digital device, it has some nice extra features that you won’t find on analog devices. Another fairly new analog device is the Analog Heat. I haven’t used it myself yet but have heard good things about it.
There’s also the option of recording to tape if you’re interested in that, although that can have it’s own issues (workflow, calibration problems, the cost of tape, the type of music that’s recorded with it). Tape simulators such as the Empirical Labs FATSO, or the Anamod ATS-1 can be very convincing in their tape simulations, and be much more flexible in their workflow. They also allow you to customize your sound more than with a regular tape recorder. The sound of these devices is often made up of multiple things: high frequency limiting, compression to simulate tape transient dynamics, and even order harmonic distortion that often appears with tape recorders.
Getting to know in which ways you can distort, is only the first step. Knowing how to use them and when, is another subject which I will write about in the near future. If you want to know more about the technical side of distortion, the Sound on Sound article which I wrote about earlier in this article is a great start.