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In The Studio: Audio Effects Explained (Includes Audio Samples)
Starting with a variety of modulation effects and moving along to a whole lot more...
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Distortion Pedals

Overdrive distortion. While the general purpose is to emulate classic “warm-tube” sounds, distortion pedals can be distinguished from overdrive pedals in that the intent is to provide players with instant access to the sound of a high-gain Marshall amplifier such as the JCM800 pushed past the point of tonal breakup and into the range of tonal distortion known to electric guitarists as “saturated gain.”

Some guitarists will use these pedals along with an already distorted amp or along with a milder overdrive effect to produce radically high-gain sounds. Although most distortion devices use solid-state circuitry, some “tube distortion” pedals are designed with preamplifier vacuum tubes. In some cases, tube distortion pedals use power tubes or a preamp tube used as a power tube driving a built-in “dummy load.”

The Boss DS-1 Distortion is a pedal with this design. This is what that sounds like: Listen

Overdrive/Crunch. Some distortion effects provide an “overdrive” effect. Either by using a vacuum tube, or by using simulated tube modeling techniques, the top of the wave form is compressed, giving a smoother distorted signal than regular distortion effects. When an overdrive effect is used at a high setting, the sound’s waveform can become clipped, which imparts a gritty or “dirty” tone, which sounds like a tube amplifier “driven” to its limit.

Used in conjunction with an amplifier, especially a tube amplifier, driven to the point of mild tonal breakup short of what would be generally considered distortion or overdrive, or along with another, stronger overdrive or distortion pedal, these can produce extremely thick distortion.

Today there is a huge variety of overdrive pedals, including the Boss OD-3 Overdrive: Listen

Fuzz. This was originally intended to recreate the classic 1960s tone of an overdriven tube amp combined with torn speaker cones. Old-school guitar players would use a screwdriver to poke several holes through the the guitar amp speaker to achieve a similar sound.

Since the original designs, more extreme fuzz pedals have been designed and produced, incorporating octave-up effects, oscillation, gating, and greater amounts of distortion.

The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff is a classic fuzz pedal: Listen

Hi-Gain. High gain in normal electric guitar playing simply references a thick sound produced by heavily overdriven amplifier tubes, a distortion pedal, or some combination of both – the essential component is the typically loud, thick, harmonically rich, and sustaining quality of the tone.

However, the hi-gain sound of modern pedals is somewhat distinct from, although descended from, this sound. The distortion often produces sounds not possible any other way. Many extreme distortions are either hi-gain or the descendants of such.

An example of a hi-gain pedal is the Line 6 Uber Metal: Listen

Power-Tube. A unique kind of saturation when tube amps output stages are overdriven, unfortunately, this kind of really powerful distortion only happens at high volumes.

A Power-Tube pedal contains a power tube and optional dummy load, or a preamp tube used as a power tube. This allows the device to produce power-tube distortion independently of volume.

An example of a tube-based distortion pedal is the Ibanez Tube King: Listen

Other Ways To Distort

Tape Saturation. One way is with magnetic tape. Magnetic tape has a natural compression and saturation when you send it a really hot signal. Even today, many artists of all genres prefer analog tape’s “musical,” “natural” and especially “warm” sound. Due to harmonic distortion, bass can thicken up, creating the illusion of a fuller-sounding mix.

In addition, high end can be slightly compressed, which is more natural to the human ear. It is common for artists to record to digital and re-record the tracks to analog reels for this effect of “natural” sound. While recording to analog tape is likely out of the home studio budget, there are tape saturation plugins that you can use while mixing that simulate the effect quite well.

Here’s a bass guitar with a bit of tape saturation from the Ferox VST plug-in: Listen

Digital Wave Shaping. The word clipping in recording is usually a bad thing. And generally it is, unless we’re trying to distort something on purpose. In the digital world we can use powerful wave shaping tools to drastically distort and manipulate a sound.

Rather than subject you to the technical explanation of how it works, just listen to Nine Inch Nails, they use this a lot. It’s perfect for really harsh, aggressive, unnatural and broken sounds.

Here’s some examples of Ohmforce Ohmicide on a drum loop: Listen

Why Is This Important?

Knowing those sounds can help you be a better musician, engineer and producer. It will help you make decisions on what gear to purchase and what is appropriate for a song.

What Else?

Besides guitar, what else is distortion good for? Well, pretty much anything, as long as it’s appropriate for the song.

—Slight distortion can make something sound more exciting, too much can sometimes make it really tiny sounding.

—When recording electric guitars, you can get a way bigger sound by using less gain and recording the same part multiple times, double or quad-tracking.

—Distortion can sound really cool on drums, but you may have to heavily gate the drums, the sustain can get out of control.

*Note: All audio samples except the last two were copied from various internet sources, mostly manufacturer websites.

Jon Tidey is a Producer/Engineer who runs his own studio, EPIC Sounds, and enjoys writing about audio on his blog To comment or ask questions about this article go here.


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