How to use distortion creatively?

In this blog post, we explore how breaking the rules can yield exciting new tonal possibilities and why you should never underestimate the creative use of distortion and cabinet effects on your signal chain. We also cover the clever technique of parallel processing within this concept.



As sonic expressionists, it is important to remember to embrace experimenting with unorthodox effects combinations and settings. The road to discovering your own personalized sound becomes fascinating the more you work with tonal coloration and how sounds react to processing. 


Breaking Down Distortion


We love distortion. With its unruly dynamic textures and harmonic coloration, distortion is a gain effect used in amplified music achieved by overloading the input. The result is a compressed sound that people often describe as warm and dirty, qualities most recordings do well within these digital times. Distortion, overdrive, and fuzz can be produced by a variety of methods from classic analog hardware to the latest software. Basically, it is the modification of the waveform of a signal, and the introduction of new frequencies. The effects alter the instrument sound by clipping the signal (pushing it past its maximum, which shears off the peaks and troughs of the signal waves), adding sustain and harmonic and inharmonic overtones, and leading to a compressed sound depending on the type and intensity of distortion used. These effects are used with guitars, basses, and keyboards, and more rarely as a special effect with vocals. 


The Magic of Parallel Processing 


One method to consider while applying distortion and other processes is Parallel Processing. This means mixing a percentage of the dry signal with the wet signal to combine the qualities of both. This is particularly useful where maintaining transients and some of the original clarity of the dry tone. Commonly, distortion is added to fatten and warm things up to a pleasing fullness. With the right tools, you can even isolate frequency regions to be processed separately. Sending only the bass frequencies or high can yield terrific and unexpected changes. Again experimentation is the key. 

An example pedalboard using parallel processing with distortion.


Beefy Beats 


While distortion is often created intentionally as a musical effect, it can also be applied to drums to beef up the signal and lend a fattened character to the motoric side of the arrangement. From hip hop to techno and now even contemporary pop, many of your favorite fat beats owe their flavor to distortion. It's worth noting that some of the earliest samplers and sampling drum machines had a punchiness that computers lacked, it comes down to their own internal circuits and their own kind of distortion. Some of these styles are even used as distortion templates on popular DAW settings. 


Getting Clever With Amp Modeling 


A more specific type of distortion related effect is amplifier modeling. It is the process of emulating a physical amplifier such as a guitar amplifier. Amplifier modeling often seeks to recreate the sound of one or more specific models of vacuum tube amplifiers and sometimes also solid state amplifiers. These can also include Leslie and reverb effects that can be used to enhance the overall character and texture of a signal. These can work brilliantly on drums, so don't overlook them just because they were originally designed for guitars. 

Learning the fundamentals of signal processing can be exciting and surprising when you start bending the rules. Discovering how to shape sound and improve the tonal qualities of your recordings and performances is an ongoing process of trial and error, though things become more understandable and interesting the more you experiment. Familiarity with a desired outcome will become evident the more time you invest in intimately understanding what your gear can do and when it's best to push its limits with creativity. Remember to keep an open mind and have fun!