Overtones can make the difference between a piercing fundamental or rich, smooth sound. From tape saturation to bit reduction, there are a lot of ways you can use distortion to add unique character to your tracks.
Before the age of digital when analog hardware was the alpha, engineers optimised gain staging and impedance to avoid unwanted distortion. In the age of plugins and software, we’ve come to enjoy mixes that feature gritty characteristics that break away from tradition.
Saturation & distortion in the modern-day build on the happy accidents of the analog world. These tools allow us to exasperate additional harmonic qualities to convert a sound from a dull, heard all the time, synth into one or all of an aggressive, warm and lush, tight and impactful lead, pad, or kit.
These tools allow us to truly pack heat that gets bass heads and melody lovers alike on the dance floor and, more importantly, talking about our music.
Your synth, with its fine compression, balanced mixing, and fine depth needs that last little kick to give it more character. all electronic genres use distortion, and we’re going to tell you how you can bring your music up to scratch!
How to Use Distortion to Brighten a Sound
Grab your lush keys, or sound you find to be dull. This method is great for adding warmth to anything!
You may or may not know that every note on an instrument, whether acoustic, electric or digital, has a dominant frequency that’s unique to that note. This is fundamental.
However, to add more warmth to the note, you want to amplify the additional frequencies (overtones) above the fundamental frequency.
And that’s what creative distortion is all about. If you don’t have a tube distortion plugin, the free plugin Tube Amo by Voxengo should do you just fine until you can upgrade.
For quick results, increase the distortion drive to a point where the added harmonics are so pleasing you just can’t do without them. As you increase the drive, you’re adding more and more even frequency harmonics (even multiples of the fundamental) and this is why our ears LOVE IT!
One more pro-tip – create saturation chains! When you’re familiar with what characteristics different saturators emphasize, create a saturator chain that sends each plugin into the next. This will give you a very unique sound with dynamics you can continuously play with to find that sweet spot!
Automate the drive of the first plugin for crisp movement and experiment away!
How to Use Distortion on Drums
Back in time to analog, when a signal would overload a magnetic tape it would create a harmonically rich distortion that sounded fantastic on drums.
We strongly recommend SoftTubes Saturation Knob so that you can try this out. It’s a one-knob plugin that emulates the analog process of rolling off high frequencies and creating pockets of frequency boosts in the lows. It’ll add a somewhat smooth form of compression too by rounding off the transient peaks in your drums, and this all tallies up to a rich sound that will distinguish your drums inside your mix!
If you’re looking for examples of incredibly rich drums, look no further than Frequent’s remix of Cosmic Tuba by Koan Sound.
How to Use Distortion on Bass
Your bass may sound huge on your monitors or in your headphones, but when someone plays it through a phone or portable speaker… well, it’s going to be quite limp.
Therefore, you need a distortion aux! We recommend isolating, via an EQ, the frequencies the aux track is receiving. Isolate between 100 – 400 Hz and place a distortion plugin (either a tube, saturator or harmonic exciter) on the aux.
Turn up the drive until you get a bass that’s rich in harmonics and has a new level of depth and clarity. This technique boosts the bass just above sub-level and emphasizes your mid-bass without distorting the real low or high frequencies.
Your mid-bass is the real body of bass that your listener will hear, so bringing it to the front and centre is crucial.
For a sweet example of mid-bass that emphasizes character but isn’t there to dominate (entirely), 23 Hours by COPYCATT is a great starting point.
How to Use Distortion on Vocals
We think the best distortion for vocals is between a tube and a harmonic exciter like the Waves Aural Exciter.
Because vocals are often the most important element to a song, we don’t want to add crazy harmonics like phase distortion or signal truncation would add.
All we want to do, depending on what you’re trying to achieve with the sample, is to emphasize the character of the vocals and give them some weight.
Therefore, adding even order harmonics via tube distortion is going to give your vocals more emphasis in the higher frequency bands. This will make your vocals sound thicker.
Alternatively, harmonic exciters will emphasize the frequencies and harmonics that are already there. This will also give your vocals more body and make them more potent in your mix, whilst also making them sound warmer!
We know it can be a hard mission to find some meaningful vocal samples that you can vibe with. Rest assured we at Mixxed have got plenty of cross-genre vocals for you to play with and add your own processing to!
How to Distort Ambience
We spoke about using aux tracks in our reverb article, but now let’s talk about how to implement distortion into that signal path for more depth!
You can insert distortion before or after your reverb (or delay) aux track. Feel free to experiment with different distortion plugins, but we think even harmonic distortion from tube plugins or saturators will add the most spice!
You may or may not need a lot of drive to get the best spectral effect here. Generate more and more harmonics to create more and more depth, but don’t forget that you may then need to insert a filter or EQ after the distortion to keep your mixdown clean and pristine!
Bonus Tip: Multiband Distortion
Multiband distortion plugins such as FabFilter’s Saturn 2 are VERY useful tools when it comes to mastering.
Do your mids or highs sound a little thin? Could they do with some harmonic bolstering? Well, luckily for you, FabFilter is here to save your day.
Splitting your track into multiple bands, like multiband compression, allows you to drive different frequency bands independently of one another. Saturn 2 adds even tube warmth to the bands which you determine, and even allows you to reduce dynamic range – which allows you to really meat up your sub-bass!