Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Distortion and noise

Ok, so here lies most of my knowledge regarding music production. I cant say that I'm amazing with EQs, compressors, delays, or reverbs, but I know distortion. In this post I'll go over various techniques and methods I've developed over the past few years for really interesting and unique distortion.

Pre-Production & Recording

First of all, lets start with guitar. This is such a versatile instrument for distortion, but probably one of the more common ones. Even so, theres so much you can do here.

Depending on what I'm going for, I'll either run my guitar through my pedal board (and possibly an amp/amp sim), or right into my apollo twin without any effects beforehand. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have a guyatone distortion chorus pedal, which I usually then run into a boss DS1. I find this is a great combo for messy, in-your-face, overwhelming distortion. If I'm really going for chaos I'll use a phaser in-between the two distortion pedals, and possibly a PS6 pitch shifter before the whole chain (with the mix on low, either up or down an octave). When put through my behringer tube amp pedal this chain can sound monstrous. I can't remember exactly but I'm fairly certain this is the combo I used for my tune 'The sun'.

Moving away from traditional guitar distortion, Ive been recently running my guitar through just a tube preamp for a fuzzy and electric sound. I love the uad v76 preamp for this. This results in a much more direct and controlled sound, great for ballsy rock n roll. Downsides of this is that it can be a bit dry, so I like to pair it with some subtle early reflections (and of course, a tape simulator)

Its worth noting that I'm doing this with a les paul style guitar, which I find works amazingly with all kinds of distortion. Whenever I've messed around with a fender, I always find that the distortion is way to harsh and bright, whereas the bass of the les paul helps fatten up this mayhem. With the tube preamp distortion, this is easily noticeable. The low end of the guitar is the first to distort and crushes the high end, and because the preamp is adding so much harsh and fizzy high end already, it sounds full and balanced. I'll generally use the rhythm pickup to achieve this, although if I'm going for a bright lead sound I might use the treble pickup.

Aside from these effects/signal chains, there are a few other things I like to do. Mainly, as I am generally not recording with a real amp, I will route my final signal out to my shitty little practice amp and crank it up loud to get feedback with my guitar. Its a really cool sound and, especially for lead guitar, gets me in the zone, resulting in a really dynamic and much more lively performance.

While I used guitar for these examples, you can easily apply this to whatever instruments your dealing with. I've used these processes before on vocals, keys, synths, and just random noise to create fucked crazy sounds. Experimentation is key, there are no hard and fast rules.


Past the recording stage, there are many cool methods of further emphasizing an already distorted sound, or distorting a clean sound to create something new.

One specific effect which I live off (and not just with distortion) is the waves abbey road ADT plugin, which allows me to create one or two extra voices/takes for any given sound. Really handy for vocals where you have a great take and don't want to sing another take perfectly in time with the first, but also with distortion. On The sun, I used this on the main distorted guitar sound. Initially it was just a mono recording, which felt much to forward and direct, so the ADT plugin spread it out and allowed it to take up the sides of the stereo spectrum, rather than the middle. It also complimented the overwhelming wall-of-sound effect I was going for with the initial recording. This effect softens sounds, while keeping the intent intact.

Another fun technique I use a lot is having a room distortion send. Ill send the dry signal to a aux channel, with a room reverb on it. I quite like the waves abbey road chambers, but I've also had great success with valhalla room. You just want the reverb short, long tails will muddy up the sound really easily, and you dont want to cut out the bass, as that will allow the distortion to really come through (similar to the les paul rhythm pickup stuff i was talking about earlier) After this I'll use a over the top distortion, my favorite being uad raw (a really nice emulation of the rat distortion pedal). The sound this combo creates is magnificent. Its boomy and totally overwhelming. Just blending it in a little with an already distorted sound can work wonders (again, see 'The sun'), and if you use it an inserts on a clean sound it can totally transform the source. This sounds fantastic on vocals, once or twice I've taken a backing vocal take, autotuned it to hell, then done this process and I get this totally alien really agressive backing to the main vocal take.

Again, experiment with these wacky creative effects, its the best way to find really cool sounds. Time based effects before distortion and/or heavy limiting can result in amazing textures, and ungodly artefacting. Pitch shifting is also fun. I love the kilohearts pitch shifter, a really simple granular pitch shifter (which adds subtle time delays due to the nature of granulasation) that pairs great with any type of distortion.


While it is always fun to make all these fucked distorted sounds, you'll eventually have to mix them and make them fit into a cohesive piece of music, so I just wanted to go over a few ways of helping this happen. Some of this is pretty basic mixing workflows and processing, but it still applies to noisy and rude sounds like these.

First is just to be really brutal with your eq. Sure, a sound can be awesome in isolation; taking up the whole frequency spectrum and overwhelming everything else. But you do need space for other instruments, so using an eq to carve out space for the other elements is quite important. And you'd be surprised at how much you can take away from a distorted (or any) instrument and not really notice the change. If you have vocals, around 1-3k depending on the vocalist is a good area to dip out to allow for more legibility, and as nice as it can sound, you dont always need to keep the bass frequencies in a distorted sound. It generally gets really muddy, and what I like to do to control this area a bit more is use a high pass with a really gentle slope. Too sharp a slope and the cut becomes really obvious, so really soft and gentle slopes sound really musical and are much harder to notice. For gentleness I really like waves' REQ.

However, if eq isn't cutting it, and there are annoying frequencies which obscure other sounds or are just too shrill, this next method could really help. In a few cases I have used more distortion to help mask other distortion/unpleasantness. I find amp sim plugins work the best for this, as they really change/shape the sound in question, but I've also had luck with some more subtle distortion & saturation. If your high end is causing issues, cutting some of it out, and then distorting again can work wonders, as you dont feel like youve lost high end, but its much more controlled and listenable.

Finally, the waves ADT/stereoizer way of 'softening' distorted sounds works really well, but if you want something a bit more subtle, some early reflections can work amazingly. I'm partial to the UAD precision reflection engine, it results in amazingly versatile early reflections, allowing you to really push sounds back if needed. But if you dont have uad, then any reverb which allows you to just use early reflections can work great. I've had good results with valhalla room, and tons of the algorithmic waves reverbs. You just need to learn how to use them and manipulate them to get the sounds your wanting.

Final thoughts

Anyway, thats all that I have for now. I'm planning on collating other more niche effects and processes and writing them up at some point. I hope some of yall found this interesting, distortion is an amazingly fun effect, incredibly versatile. I find it sometime gets a bad reputation because ew dirty sounds are gross we need clean clinical sounds for our modern music, but theres so much you can do with distortion without it being this wall of noise, you just need to learn to control and tame your effects. And i suppose that also applies to pretty much all effects in music, practice makes perfect. Learn what you have before buying something new.

Peace & love,


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