Hi all,

It's a great forum, resource and community here! So here is my first question :

I'm interested in distortion, I like the effect, it makes sounds easily huge and extreme. But I know it's also easily overdone, it can, well, "distort" so much a sound drops out of the mix, or overloads, or sounds like "corrupted" audio.

How do you go about adding distortion in a natural and organic way? What are things to avoid and be careful with? What ways of distortions worked best for you (bit reduction, amp simulation or other ways) or are you trying to avoid it anyway if possible?

Thank you,


5 Answers 5


One way that I've used it in the past is to create a side-chain gate on an Aux.

Feed your original signal through a bus to that channel, and place your distortion of choice after the gate in your plug-in chain. This way you can control when the distortion kicks in against the original's amplitude, and you have additional wet/dry mix control through volume automation on your Aux. You can create a really ugly sounding distortion, but keep it from overpowering the original signal.

If you really want to sell it, you can create a second Aux to process the original signal with a limiter. Set your original audio track to play out only through the bus that feeds these two Auxes (it will not go directly to your master output on its own anymore). This way, both your distortion aux and your limiting aux will be fed by the clip's unprocessed dynamic range. Set the limiter's output ceiling somehwere near the distortion gate's open threshold. I tend to set it just a little bit above. This will cut off your clean audio's peaks in the same area that the distortion kicks in. So, you get behavior similar to actual distortion.

Naturally, you can fine tune and tweak the behavior anywhere necessary with autmoation of any of the parameters.

  • that's a pretty sweet trick!
    – Rene
    Oct 1, 2011 at 16:54
  • Interesting idea - I'll try that out - thank you!
    – Markus
    Oct 3, 2011 at 8:23

I love distortion and use it an a lot of things, but it is, as you said yourself, easy to over-do it.

It's not easy to put in words how I work with it as it would need a common reference of some sort to make sense, but if we compare it with spices, all sorts of creativity are based in the same way but with different casings, you must keep a balance in the stew, so to say. Add a little black pepper, salt, and chili to a nice juicy steak makes it irresistible. Too much salt makes it nauseating. The same goes with effects in sound.

Take for example a gunshot. A gunshot in full dynamics sounds like a hasty "bupp", but that's not the way we hear it. We hear it through our ears and mind heavily limited with a great deal of reverbation on it. So I prefer to use a very heavy but warm tube-distortion on it to keep it alive if I can, otherwise just extremely brick-wall limited.

Cracking stuff and glass-shattering is other sound often gaining a lot on distortion, especially as full dynamic range in a cinema would make your ears go bye-bye in the blink of an eye, but most of all as it makes it sound much more threatening and aggressive! What works best here is a matter of taste and material, but an analogue dist or fuzz mixed with the original compressed sound tends to be nice! Here I see it as spicy wasabi with good sushi, you want some bite off of it, but you don't want it to kill off the real flavour completely!

Distortion is one of those things I put the most time in getting right when I work. Reverb and compression, not to mention flanger, filters and vocoder, are pretty predictable, so I mostly know exactly what I'll get way in advance, but a real distortion meant to reach a specific result other than just being overdriven is not as easy to attain as one might wish, and is heavily depending on the material... To reach desired results, I have a wide collection of different dists, overdrives and fuzzes, ranging from rebuilt analog gears like pre-amps with new tubes, transistor-based amplifiers and TV-sets with deliberately replaced parts with broken or badly fitted ones, to regular guitar-effects, to different plugins, all depending on what I need right there right then. They all sounds different and reacts different to the same material.

One thing though one better mind, is that distortion is very hard on the ears should you hear it on too loud level or for too long, so it's very easy to get ear fatigue from it. Always be careful, and never do anything you can't undo if you do not really have to, the way you perceive a sound today when working on it may probably be something completely different from what you'll hear tomorrow after a good nights sleep...

  • Good to know I'm not the only one struggling with it! :) I take it you are using quite a bit of hardware to create your distortion sounds? Very interesting post!
    – Markus
    Oct 3, 2011 at 8:24

I'm a big fan of layers of distortion. Triple and quadruple-decker with various bits of effects in the middle. Just a little at a time, mind. Different emulators with different tones, all stacked up on top of one another. Mixing and matching types lets you add different kinds of character to your distorsound.

The one flaw of this method is that the high-end gets really, really nasty if you're not careful. The trick for keeping it from feeling like sandpaper on your face is to low-pass or high-shelf each successive layer. The most noticeable element in distortion (digital especially) is in the high end (4kHz and up). If you can learn to control it everything will come out all butter_smooth.

This'll also work for even a single layer. If you're finding it really harsh try pulling out a bit of 6kHz, and kill anything over about 12kHz. For one thing, most people can't listen up that far and just find it annoying.

There's really no wrong way of doing it. The whole point of adding distortion is to make things beautiful in an ugly kind of way, so crank it up and see if you can make the world a little more beautifugly.

  • You mean like, adding just a little of different types of distortion? With the high cut and low cut filters, it's definitely "taming" the distortion in a natural way. Good to know others do this,. too! Thanks!
    – Markus
    Oct 3, 2011 at 8:28

I'd recommend checking out the Soundworks bid on The Social Network. They go into detail on how the club scene was designed with lots of layers of different distortions used.


Well I can talk to you about distortion in music mixing/engineering.

Distortion is the most useful tool of the mixing engineer, if you think about it you can only mix with distortion and EQ.

The first thing distortion does is coloring the sound and producing harmonics, The second thing is it compresses the sound in a more leveled fashion but judged by how much you distort the effect takes under consideration the actual dynamics, so, think about an envelope let's take a snare hit, the actual transient(or attack) gets really distorted and compressed, as the sound progresses and goes to sustain - decay the whole effect becomes more mellow.

Don't be afraid when distorting transients, there's no harm in it, the only thing you can trust in this is your ears.

Also distortion should be used everywhere, there's no bad distortion, even when you think a sound is trashed from it, try EQing to throw the junk/overtones away and mix it in parallel with the original signal to give that insane presence.

You have to keep in mind that any distortion effect is a non-linear effect!

Non linear in simple words mean that it can't be undone with the opposite, so for example if I take an EQ and boost 3K and right after use the same EQ but instead of boosting I use cut for the same exact amount, the sound remains unchanged right?

OK, now if you insert a non linear effect in the middle you never have the same sound again.

To explain myself, someone could say if I you use a compressor you'd also wouldn't have the same sound, well you would have the same sound but compressed, that said, distortion and non-linear effects change the core of the sound!

It's a very common practice (but not many people share it) to use EQ- non linear -EQ.

Let's use another example, let's say I really want to distort/alter a hihat, I go +30 db hi shelf -> distortion -> -30 db hi shelf (or according to taste). I managed to alter my sound in the frequency that I care about and then bring it back in a more normal (frequency-wise) state.

Distortion is super useful when mixing big bass! try this, distort your bass until you hear it going PRRRRRRRRRR, a point where you can actually hear the period of the singal, then just low pass it until you have the same effect but not the hi frequency trash. This creates a wide open and very well compressed bass.

Bass is the most sensitive area when distorting. It's the first thing that's gonna make you turn that knob back, sometimes it's your friend because if you have a nice balanced sound which just needs something extra, the bass is there to tell you when you've overdone it.

But, as we talked about pre-emphasis (or EQ - non linear - EQ) You can try pre emphasizing bass, which is actually what happens in the core of the audio transformer, try it on vocals, or on snare drums. I usually do it by really emphasizing close to 50 Hz and then taking it back.

In all of these FX chains the middle man is the non-linear friend, any type of distortion. Make your EQ and then just turn the knob to taste, it's the most intuitive knob in the studio!

Now, you might think I'm crazy, but these techniques are all over an analog studio, for example, dbx de-noiser is hi freq pre-emphasis -> compression -> Tape(non-linear) ->expansion -> hi freq de-emphasis. dbx has a lot of character, and I find it really cool! Also audio transformers core saturation is bass pre-emphasis - core saturation - de emphasis.and many many other examples.

Last super creative trick you can do, duplicate a track, distort the one, flip the phase to the other one and try to find the canceling spot with the fader (the place where you hear loss of sound and weird effects), playing a bit with this will drive you crazy when you think of the possibilities, this is called phase synthesis or at least I call it that way.

To sum everything up, distortion by itself is a self explanatory effect, when you put distortion in the middle of stuff it's the spice.

There are other very very interesting distortion effects such as crossover distortion or slew rate, but these are a bit deep for now!

The more of a friend you become with distortion the more it's going to sound better, there's that sweet spot, don't even think about it, start turning the knob, stop where you like, turn back if you think you over did it, and apply it to everything, if you have a clean mix, the distorted sound will be so full of frequencies it's just gonna jump out of the mix for fun.

Some last words. Distortion and general hi-end sound destruction is gonna make your sounds unbeatable by other stereos or cellphones or whatever, if you have a super clean sound, it's weak, a bad stereo will destroy it. If you have a hot signal (which doesn't mean the distortion is audible) it's like a signal on steroids, nothing can touch it, it fills the room, it's warm, it's punchy, it's everywhere!

Also ditch the bad distortions and super ditch the digital distortions (unless you want to go super creative), go to a studio with a good console one day, see what a neve does when you turn that line amp and start mixing.

Good luck.

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