Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right Distortion & Overdrive?
Overdrive and distortion are two of the most common sound effects used by guitarists. With more than 300 products in this category here at Bax Music, we understand how difficult it can be to make the right choice. This buyers guide has been written to help you decide which product would be most suitable for you. Firstly, we'll explain the difference between overdrive and distortion, then we'll provide a few practical examples, and lastly we'll take a look at what you can expect from products in different price categories.
Overdrive and distortion
The terms overdrive and distortion originally come from sounds produced by tube amplifiers. A guitar's signal passes through a preamp and a power amp on its way to the speaker, where it is turned into consistent sound waves. If the signal becomes too strong, then the sound waves begin to break up. When this happens a little, you get overdrive, which is also known as soft clipping. When it becomes more extreme, you get distortion, which is also known as hard clipping.
Naturally, you can choose to get your overdrive and distortion effects directly from a tube amplifier. There are a few practical disadvantages when relying on this method alone, however. The first problem is that you are entirely reliant on the clean headroom of your amp. Simply put, this is the volume below which the sound will begin to distort. If you have an amplifier with lots of headroom therefore, you'll have to turn it up pretty loud before you'll get any sort of overdrive or distortion. The reverse is also true, of course. An amp with minimal headroom will begin to distort before it gets very loud at all. Ideally then, you'd need different amplifiers for different situations; one for use at home, one for the studio and different ones depending on the size of venues you play at. Alternatively, you could use an attenuator to regulate the power of your amp, but using an overdrive or distortion pedal is an easier solution.
It has to said that there is a bit of grey area concerning where overdrive ends and distortion begins. However, when it comes to pedals, the difference is somewhat clearer. The sound you get from an overdrive pedal is more reliant on your settings and the rest of the gear you use, whereas a distortion pedal will always give you a heavily distorted sound. This means that an overdrive pedal can be used in one of two ways. Firstly, it can be used to distort sound via internal clipping, and secondly, it can push the overdriven sound of your tube amp into distortion.
Picture courtesy of Roland US
1. If you want to go from a clean sound or light overdrive to heavy distortion, without having to change the channel on your amplifier, then a distortion pedal would be the easiest and best solution.
2. If you want to get overdrive effects exclusively from your tube amp, but it has lots of headroom, then a booster pedal is a great option. This boosts the signal coming from your guitar or bass so that the amplifier distorts more quickly than it otherwise would. Depending on your setup, booster pedals are also used to increase the volume and definition of your sound.
3. For tube amps with 6L6 or 6V6 power tubes that produce a sparkling high and tight bass, a soft-clipping overdrive pedal like the classic Ibanez Tube Screamer would be perfect. These traditional types of overdrive pedals are known for boosting the mids to give the overdriven sound more warmth, without the trebles becoming too dominant. A Fender amplifier with a Tube Screamer is a classic combination.
4. For tube amplifiers that already have a woolly type of sound with lots of mid range, a traditional Tube Screamer pedal can make the sound too cluttered. More modern types of pedals often have an extra bass boost and more extensive tone controls and would be a better choice in this case.
5. If you have a transistor amplifier, then your amp has no tubes that can be boosted by an overdrive pedal. When it comes to using an overdrive pedal with a transistor amp, the combination of the pedal and the amplifier determines its success. Unfortunately, there's no sure fire way to figure out which pedal will work with which amp best, apart from trying them out together to see it they give you the results you're looking for or not. These days, there are a lot of digital overdrive and distortion pedals from different manufacturers on the market. Better multi-effects pedals are capable of producing convincing digital distortion too. It's also possible to buy a stomp boxes that are equipped with their own tubes. These produce sounds with the sort of warmth and dynamics that are difficult to achieve with analogue or digital technology alone.
One of the best ways to figure out which pedal will give you the sound you're looking for, is to go and try a few different ones out in a shop. It will help if you can replicate a similar setup to the one you'll be using too.
To finish off, we're going to take a look at products in different price classes and the sort of differences you can expect as a result. With prices ranging from under £20 to well over £300, you can appreciate just how extensive the range of overdrive and distortion pedals is.
It's possible to buy overdrive and distortion pedals that cost less than £25. Danelectro have both an overdrive and a distortion pedal in this price range, while Behringer have a number of products with more features to choose from. These budget pedals do have a couple of disadvantages, however. Firstly, they are not True Bypass, which means that they will continue to effect the sound quality of the signal even when they're not in use. Secondly, the housing is made of plastic, which means that they probably won't last as long and are not ideally suited to rougher situations like use on stage. They are however, a cost-effective way to become familiar with overdrive and distortion effects.
In this price range, the choice becomes a lot greater. In addition to the well-priced micro pedals by ENO and some models by X-vive, we find the first models by well-known names like Electro Harmonix with their Nano series overdrive and distortion pedals, and a few overdrive pedals by True Tone. Pedals in this price range tend to be True Bypass and have a more robust housing, making them a much better choice for live use.
From £50 upwards, we find the micro pedals by Mooer, as well as classic models and pedals from plenty of heavyweight names. Pedals like the Boss DS-1 and the SD-1 are even found on the pedal boards of professional musicians like Steve Vai. Other popular pedals by Boss can be found in this price class too, including the Mega Distortion and Metal Zone models. The first stomp boxes featuring tubes can also be found within this price range.
T-Rex Moller2, one the overdrive pedals from the £100 - £200 price class
In the £100 - £200 price class, you'll find big names including MXR, Maxon, T-Rex and Mad Professor. All the pedals here have metal housing and in the case of the buffered pedals by Boss, a True Bypass switch. True Tone (previously known as Visual Sound) has a selection of pedals with or without buffering. Buffered pedals have a built-in Pure Tone Buffer which is something you can also buy separately. While a lot of pedals in the lower-priced categories are based on other classic models, pedals in this price class tend to have their own sound and character.
Pedals in this price range are for real connoisseurs. As well as the original Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer, we find the hand-wired pedals by the Finnish Mad Professor company. In hand-wired pedals, the input contacts are hand-soldered instead of being done by machine. Because the inputs are one of the components that suffer most during live use, they are often used by (semi) professional musicians. Even so, if you were to look at the average guitarist's pedal board, it is unlikely that you will find it full of pedals from this price category. Most guitarists begin their search for the ultimate sound with a pedal that is an affordable version of a classic model. Those who have already defined their sound may be tempted to purchase one of these exclusive models.
To summarise, even the cheapest pedal is suitable for use at home, but probably won't be robust enough for intensive live use. At above £25, you'll already be able to find a pedal with better quality, and from £50 upwards, you'll be able to find a well-known classic model. If you're willing to pay more than £100, you'll have a huge selection of great pedals to choose from and if you want the absolute best, you'll have to shell out more than £200. Good luck finding the right pedal for you.