Words by DJ Swivel

Distortion: The Truth About Music’s Most Complicated Effect

If you’ve ever been in the midst of music producers and engineers discussing their work and processes, you’re most likely going to hear them talk about one effect or the other and how they deploy these effects for optimal results. You’ll hear them exchange views on reverbs, compressors, EQs, and a few others. But when it comes to distortion, the reactions are often mixed. Is it good? Is it bad? Well, the truth is, it’s complicated. In this article, I’ll be focusing entirely on distortion, looking at what it is and how it can add value to your music production sessions.

What is Distortion?

If we look at the word distortion, it’s derived from, the word distort. A divisive word in audio circles and comes with plenty of negative connotation. New producers will be a bit confused as to why it should be a desirable thing. Isn’t distortion the enemy? Engineering 101 says, one of the things we should all watch out for and prevent is signal clipping because it can cause – yes, distortions to your audio signal. However, there is a tasteful and musical way this same process can be employed to good effect?

So, let’s start with this question. What is distortion?

Being a self-taught music producer, I like keeping things as simple as possible. Audio distortion is basically a situation where an audio signal begins to cross the amplitude or volume threshold that the device or DAW (Digital Audio Workstation ex. Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton) is capable of handling. This can be because of the level at which the input or output signal is being pushed. When this happens, the conventional term is to say that such a sound is clipping or distorted. So, in digital audio terms, think your 0db level. No audio can pass 0db, if it does, that digital information is lost, resulting in clipping. A little clipping you might not hear. But push it a bit too far and you start to hear audible distortions in your audio signal.

But wait, don’t guitarists, especially in the rock genre, employ distortion to their guitar tones to create that high energy sound? YES! Often, we call this saturation, overdrive, or fuzz, but simply put, these are all forms of distortion. So, the use of this effect is actually more common in the music production process than it may immediately appear to be.

Now let’s look at what really happens when we say an audio signal is distorted.

How it Works

When you hear a guitar note, a kick drum, a snare hit or any other musical sound, what you are hearing is a combination of frequencies. Though it may sound like one because of the prominence of the fundamental frequency, there are other associated frequencies known as harmonics. See the image below.

Notice in this image that the level of the fundamental frequency is higher than the H1 (first harmonic), H2 (second harmonic) H3 and the rest. The levels of these harmonics get progressively lower as we move down the spectrum.

The tone of an instrument will change as the relationship between this fundamental frequency and its harmonics change. A change in this relationship can also be termed a distortion of that instrument’s natural sound.

Here’s what happens…

As you begin to push the level of a sound to whatever threshold you are constrained to work within, there will come a time when its fundamental frequency will hit that threshold. Remember that as you push the levels, you are also pushing up the levels of the harmonics.

When the fundamental frequency hits the threshold, it begins to get squashed or clipped. Again, see the image below for a pictorial explanation.

Top: Clean 808 with no distortion applied
Bottom: The same 808 with modest distortion applied

The top part of the image shows the fundamental wave still within the maximum audio threshold. You can see one wave cycle just hitting the yellow line above, which represents this maximum audio threshold. Again, think 0db in your DAW.

In the lower half of the image, you notice that the top of the waveform (the fundamental frequency) has lost its peak and is now becoming flat. This is because I kept pushing the level past the threshold so everything above this threshold is simply cut off (clipped, from where we derive the expression “clipping”).

With the clipping of the fundamental frequency, the harmonics become more prominent because with each level increase, we were also increasing their levels.

Top: 808 with modest distortion applied, same as pictured above
Bottom: The same 808 with more gain/distortion applied

The more I push this level, the more square-like the waveform becomes as more parts of it are clipped off. The actual sound of the fundamental frequency being heard will also progressively reduce in direct proportion to the increase in the audible levels of the upper harmonic frequencies.

In the images below, you will see how the relationship between the fundamental frequency and the harmonics changes as the level is increased.

+10dB level increase
+20dB level increase
+34dB level increase

You will notice in the above images that with the level increase, the differences in the vertical distances between the fundamental frequency and the harmonics get closer. This is because the fundamental frequency can get no louder (actually begins to get lower as its top gets clipped) while the harmonics get louder.

This is the DISTORTION that takes place and why we call the effect distortion.

Distortion – The good and the bad

Let’s now quickly look at the advantages and advantages that can come with using this effect.

Advantages

It can add new sonic characteristics to a sound, helping it achieve a level of tonal change. It can be used to build energy or excitement, and make a sound come more to the front of a mix. This is because of the added sonic characteristics that can be created with the slightly enhanced harmonics and saturated fundamental frequency. It can also be used purely as an artistic or ornamental effect, creating a unique tone or mood in a track.

It comes in handy for preventing the masking of certain aspects of a sound in the context of a mix. The added edge that the distortion brings can make a sound more unique, enabling it find a space for itself amidst the frequency wars that can be quite common in a mix, especially in the mid and upper midrange frequencies (500Hz – 5kHz).

For some kinds of music like rock, it can be used to give the lead vocals some presence without necessarily requiring more actual level increase. There’s a kind of edgy brightness it brings to a lead vocal.

Disadvantages

With distortion, there’s almost always going to be the loss of a sounds natural dynamic range, sacrificed on the altar of the now more enhanced harmonics and crushed fundamental frequency. This can really reveal itself on very dynamic sounds like drums, percussion, or vocals. Anything with exaggerated peaks and valleys in signal volume. The point is, it’s very easy to abuse distortion and so it requires a lot of practice and experience to get it sounding right in your mixes.

Helpful Tips for Applying Distortion

Given the loss of dynamic integrity that usually results from the crushing of the fundamental frequency and the raised levels of the harmonics, as well as how easily it can be abused, a lot of folks either stay away from this effect or just bring out the worst in it. The benefits described above are obviously things that can add some color and enhance any production. But how can one apply it without overdoing it or severely crushing the dynamics of a sound, and exposing the often negative traits of distortion? I’ll share two quick tips that can help you get better results with your use of this effect.

Parallel Effect Processing

One of the most common techniques that experienced producers use to get the best from their use of the distortion effect and any other effect for that matter is the use of parallel processing. In this technique, the effect is often run through a bus or aux track. The sound to be processed is sent to the effect (aux) track, creating a 2nd track with which you can layer and balance with the original clean audio signal. Alternatively, with more modern distortion effects, they can in fact be placed directly on the track as an insert, and you can achieve parallel processing with the ‘mix’ knob, which will create a blend of the dry audio signal and the effected or distorted audio signal. In either case, this allows you to balance a combination of the processed and unprocessed sound, which will then be heard as one. When utilizing parallel processing, you can go ahead and heavily distort this as much as you wish and even apply some EQing to tweak any frequencies. Having control over the blend will allow you to do this tastefully. When the processed and unprocessed signals are combined in the right balance, the unprocessed sound will supply the natural dynamic range while the processed sound will add the distorted effect. 

But there is also a simpler and more flexible way to achieve this and maintain your relative dynamics and loudness.

The BDE Plugin

Distortion killing the dynamics of my audio was always an issue for me, and prior to understanding the how and why distortion works the way it does, I always thought to myself, “Why hasn’t someone built a distortion that DOESN’T crush the dynamics of an audio signal?”. So, in developing my first distortion plugin, BDE, I decided to solve this problem.

BDE by DJ Swivel

BDE (Big Distortion Engine) has a unique feature known as “Dynamic Preservation”, a name which should be self-explanatory. By the very nature of how distortion works, at least conventionally, the natural dynamic range of a sound begins to get lost as distortion kicks in. The more the distortion, the more dynamic range is lost.

With BDE, the dynamic range can be preserved and controlled using the Range and Speed sliders, while still adding that bite and enhanced harmonics that gives a distorted sound its desirable flavor.

Rather than running your distortion effect as a parallel effect as described above, you would place BDE directly on an insert of your audio track, and utilizing Range will give you up to 96dB of dynamic range preservation. This means, if you want to distort something as quiet as a reverb tail without raising the volume, now you can. But you still have the flexibility of adding some crushing of dynamics, which in many cases is desired. The point is, you have control. And the Speed slider, is almost like a release function you might see on a compressor. It determines the length of time the plugin is preserving the dynamics of your original audio signal. In the case of drum loops, you can play with the Speed slider to achieve a very natural pumping effect which can be incredibly creative, making BDE the most musical distortion plugin on the market.

Aside from these incredible features, another issue young producers face with distortion, is they often don’t set their input and output levels correctly, meaning as you apply the effect often you’ll just hear a volume raise, rather than an increase in the audible effect. With BDE, we’ve implemented an Auto Detect function (magnifying glass), which when clicked and signal is played back, will analyze your audio and automatically adjust and set the optimal input and output level at which distortion can begin, without changing the audible volume within your mix. With a simple interface and straight forward controls, you can quickly get to the desired sound with more flexibility than any other distortion on the market. Don’t believe me? Get your 14 day free trial now simply by creating an account on djswivel.com. 

Wrapping Up

Just as with most tools we use in music production, the key to getting the best from any effect or plugin, in this case distortion, is about understanding how it works, understanding what your goal for a sound or mix is, and of course finding the right tool to meet those needs and make it work for you.

While some plugins like BDE make it appear a lot easier than you may previously be used to, distortion isn’t something to be feared. It’s a vital tool within any producer or engineers creative arsenal. My general philosophy is it’s always a good idea to spend time trying stuff out and tinkering. Sometimes those “mistakes” or what I call happy accidents we stumble upon during the creative process are the most memorable moments in a song. So the more time you spend trying out different settings and experimenting, the higher your chances of finding that special thing, and of course you’ll get much better at using these tools.

With the information we’ve looked at in this article, you should now have a better understand of what distortion is, how it works, and how you can make it work for you, and if you’d like to try out our distortion BDE, you can get your free trial here.

Cheers,

DJ Swivel

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