Distortion: The Good and The Bad

As soon as the first electric guitars and guitar amplifiers popped up in the 1950s, distorted sound went from being a nuisance to being an enrichment. What’s more, without distortion, styles like rock, punk and metal probably never would’ve existed, and in styles like EDM and hip-hop, using the effect has practically turned into an art form in its own right. That said, distortion isn’t always desirable. Read on for the hows and whys.

What’s Distortion?

Within the realm of sound, distortion is the effect you get when audio equipment (in hardware or software form) is turned up so loud that the audio signal starts clipping. In most cases, the result is what’s known as harmonic distortion, which occurs when analogue gear is overdriven, so pushed to the limit. For a better understanding of harmonics (aka overtones), let’s take a 100 Hz sine-wave and feed it to a tube guitar amplifier that’s dialled in to deliver a high output. The reason we’re going with a sine wave here is because sine waves are essentially simple sounds without any harmonics, which simplifies things for the sake of explanation. As you can see in the image below, this creates a second tone at 200 Hz, which is exactly twice the frequency of the original note. In music, this is known as an octave. Now imagine running the way more complex, overtone-rich sound of an electric guitar through the same amp. What you’d get is an infinitely richer result when compared to a basic sine wave.

Image 1:

Distortion van geluid - Even

Harmonic Distortion

Vacuum tubes, audio tape, transistors and transformers all have their own distortion characteristics. This stems from the fact that each has a different harmonics ratio when sent into overdrive. In other words, a tube amp shapes a different distortion effect than a transistor amp. In general, vacuum tubes and transformers are said to produce ‘even’ harmonic distortion. So, iterating on the example above, any bit of kit equipped with vacuum tubes or transformers would take a 100 Hz base tone and produce 200 Hz, 400 Hz, 600 Hz, etc overtones. For some reason, even harmonic distortion lands on overtones that are already present in any given music which is why it generally sounds soft and warm. Tape-based and transistor-driven gear, on the other hand, produces uneven harmonics. Here, a 100 Hz base tone gets you overtones at 300 Hz, 500 Hz, 700 Hz, etc (see image 2). Uneven or odd harmonics sound more aggressive and are great for bringing out the distinct sound of a specific instrument or mix.

Image 2:

Distortion van geluid - Oneven

Digital Distortion

The distortion effect you get when pushing digital gear into overdrive is rarely ever useful for music. Unlike the distortion produced by analogue gear, the effect isn’t based on any original sound which means it can’t be called harmonic distortion. As soon as any digital bit of kit reaches its limit, any signal peaks are instantaneously cut off, resulting in crackling and grinding sound.

Clean, Distortion-Free Sound

While red-lining VU metres can be a lot of fun, some instruments, styles or productions demand an ultra-clean sound. Adding distortion to classical pieces, for example, would be a grave mistake. When looking for a clean sound, it’s essential to use gear that’s been specifically designed to colour the sound as little as possible, like transformerless condenser microphones. You’ll also want to keep close tabs on the volume levels during both the recording and mixing phase.

Distortion Samples

1. Drums – Clean

2. Drums – Digital Distortion

3. Drums – Tape Distortion

4. Drums – Tube Distortion

5. Synth Kick – Tape Distortion

6. Synth Kick – Tube Distortion

7. Vocals – Clean

8. Vocals – Digital Distortion

9. Vocals – Tape Distortion

10. Vocals – Tube Distortion

What are your favourite distortion tools and ways to put distortion to good use? Drop a comment below!

See Also

» Buzz, Hum and How to Get Rid of it
» 5 Ways to Make Your Mix Sound Louder
» What is an Equaliser and What Is It Used For?
» Sample Rate and Bit Depth: How Do They Affect Audio Quality?
» Compression: What is it and How Do You Use it?
» Guitar Effects: Distortion, Fuzz or Overdrive?
» What’s the Best Overdrive or Distortion Pedal for Me?
» Amp Valves: What Are They & What Do They Do?

» Tube Guitar Amplifiers
» Overdrive & Distortion Pedals
» Studio & Recording Gear

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