In this article, I’m listing the 10 best tips about distortion that every producer/engineer should know, even producers that are not that much into mixing.
Knowing these pieces of info allows approaching distortion more knowingly.
What is distortion?
Distortion is a type of processing that deforms the output waveform compared to its input.
The most common feelings you can achieve with distortion are warmth, harshness, and brokenness, based on the distortion type used and how hard it’s been pushed.
Learn more about distortion
The 10 best equalization tips
Now let's go with the tips:
Know about different distortion types
Distortion isn’t achieved only in one way. Each kind of distortion has its sonic properties which can come in handy for both creative and technical purposes.
The distortion types are tape saturation, valve saturation, clipping, overdrive, fuzz, distortion, guitar amp and cabinet, bit crushing, sample rate reduction.
Tweak each possible parameter
Knowing distortion inside out is easier if you deal with it regularly. If that’s not the case, consider getting whatever distortion unit and tweak everything to see how they affect the sound.
Even if you know what each parameter should theoretically do, still crank them to see if they’re affecting the input linearly and by which amount.
Distortion for mixing
Distortion, when used for making sounds cut through the mix more, should be either used lightly as an insert or heavily in parallel.
Distortion for production
As opposed to what has been written in the previous point, you can do whatever you want with distortion during the production stage.
Of course, knowing how to deal with distortion, especially when used at extreme settings, is indeed helpful.
When approaching distortion during the production stage, don’t limit yourself to it only, but see it as a component to achieve a given sound and experiment.
For example, you can use heavy distortion to get a harsh timbre that you can later smooth out with EQ, phasing/flanging, reverb, etc.
Try it on anything
You might be surprised if you could look at how distortion is used across different styles and genres. Feel free to try it on anything, drums, bass, vocals, reverb returns, delay, sfx, pads, whatever.
Every sound has some type of distortion that can make them shine.
It’s not always said that a single type of distortion is enough. Look at distortion like a sound, and some sounds are achieved by merging multiple ones.
You can set different distorters in parallel and level them to get the right balance. Having mixtures of even and odd harmonics is often the recipe for a full sound.
Try distorting layers and notes individually
Similar to the previous point, mixing multiple layers of distortion leads to interesting results indeed.
While it might sound obvious to take a stack of layers and run them through a single distorter altogether, setting a distorter on each layer allows to come up with a bunch of harmonics that sum up together and deliver a richer nuance.
Distortion isn’t necessarily meant to be static. Making it move can further enhance the expressivity of the sound you’re processing, just as you’d do with filters modulated by automation lines or LFOs. Making distortion move is most effective on melodic sounds or on busses during transitions.
Experiment with sidechain
Similar to the previous point, sidechain is another way to make distortion move, but by getting advantage of another source to trigger it. You can set the instrument bus to crush severely every time a given drum or the bass hits so you have an additional rhythmic layer rendered by this unusual application of distortion.
Think outside the box
While this tip stands for any aspect of music production, it’s particularly true for an effect as distortion. Don’t mind slamming a distorter on whatever sound and tweak it in wild ways.
I often resolved stale production sessions by messing up with distortion and destroying sounds and melodies I’ve been working on for quite some time, coming up with weird results that still were somehow cool!
If you’ve found these tips helpful, then you’ll appreciate all the knowledge we’ve packed into Mixing Tips, our flagship PDF with a section dedicated to distortion among a total of 13 chapters!