I recently worked on a lot of dialogue that was digitally distorted probably because the microphone was damaged. Can anyone think of a time or place where digital distortion is used beneficially? It seems like it is a nasty toxin that must be avoided and kept in a cage somewhere or it will jump out and bite your ears off but I'm sure it has a place in the audio-food chain, and if it doesn't, maybe it can.

Also, I suppose this might also include using a bitcrush plug-in, but I'd like to tackle that in a seperate question. What strategies have you employed when layering sounds, creating atmosphere, or other general uses for bit-crush/alias sounds from plugins? What psychoacoustic/psychological effect do you go for when you use it and what are the general effects on the psyche of hearing bit-crush/alias sounds even subtly? What are you two hundred rupies?

8 Answers 8


I have used digital distortion of different kinds a few times. I like the texture of it, but it doesn't suit every film. For instance if you're doing a classic Jane Austen Victorian movie, you probably wouldn't go there, but if you're doing a sci-fi movie, it could very well be an acceptable part of the sound design. But of course it would be both bold and fun to do it in the Victorian movie... :)

I have always loved noise in general, especially ever since my sound teacher at film school hated it, so I have tried to find good use for it whenever possible. There are many flavours of noise, from soft crackle (radio static, record scratches, optical film noise) over distortion (valves, guitar fx) techical noise (pink, white) to digital noise (jitter, bit crushers, buffer override, faulty media), and sometimes you need just a little bit of noise to bring the sound to life.

In my first feature film as supervising sound editor / sound designer / re-recording mixer, we had a scene, where it had to sound like the film itself was breaking apart. The picture was jumping all over the place, with lots of jump cuts and repeated footage, and since we were working in Dolby Digital, I thought digital errors were at its place. I used some automated bit crushing on the atmospheres, slowly decreasing the bit depth and sample rate down to around 4 bit / 1000 Hz or worse. I used buffer override on the dialogue, overlaying different errors about 10 times, as well as playing back the dialogue from a disc man while shaking it like mad to provoke errors. It was pretty extreme and loud in the end, and everybody loved it (except the so-called quality control guys, who couldn't understand it). It wasn't a science fiction film, but a pretty arty film with lots of texture to everything.

On another project, a low budget science fiction short film in black and white, I used a bit crusher in the mastering chain, bringing the sample rate down to 22 kHz and 12 bit, making everything sound like it came out of an old Akai 900 sampler. This was also pretty succesful, the director loved it, so we went with it. On 35 mm, in Dolby SR, it sounded magical!

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    Your third paragraph makes me very happy. IMO, we need to keep pushing the envelope like this. I'm a very big Fan of DestroyFX "Buffer Override" as well. You know, Fcuk it... they can conform for us every once in a while too. Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 11:24
  • Haha! That would've confused the QC engineers! Although when i was one, if i found something like that, i'd bring my boss in and say "i think this is intentional" and he'd say "yeah, i agree, pass it". QC engineers need to lighten up. Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 14:03
  • I can imagine something like that happening in a Quentin Tarantino film.
    – Utopia
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 20:13
  • Ahh, good old "creative intent." I used to love seeing that phrase on QC reports because it usually meant something clever and unconventional was being done with the sound...
    – Tyler
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 23:33

I used distortion in a film when a helicopter pilot was going down to crash and yelling cries for help - it added an extra dynamic to the soundtrack - a sense of urgency and danger. It worked because the shot was from outside the helicopter so I luckily could play the scene as if you're listening to a radio feed of the pilot's headset. I think I used the cosmonaut plug-in on it but I can't remember. It did sound digitally crushed, though.


It's definitely a tricky effect to use. It generally has to be appropriate to the sound needed. You also have to be very careful and decisive with it since it can completely overtake a sound. I personally see it more as a Sound Design tool than a Mixing Tool.

The most common examples of using Distortion and Bitcrushing would be for tech/computer/robotic sounds. Think Terminator, The Matrix and Etc.

Other examples off the top of my head would be when designing sounds for animals, creatures and aliens. In those situations they will likely be used more sparingly.

Another more extensive use would be to futz something along the lines of a radio/television transmission or signal that needs to cut in and out and have a bit of signal degradation, static or crunch.

Unlike mastering music, I can't think of any beneficial/proper mixing uses (I'm likely to be corrected on this by more seasoned film/tv mixers) because once someone adds distortion to say a Bear element of a T-Rex roar to give it some more bite (which from what I remember, they were using a bit of distortion and tape saturation during Jurassic Park), then I personally consider that to be sound design that's simply being done at the mixing stage.

Also, good quality, flexible Digital Distortion is hard to come by because it usually sounds cliche and typical. My personal favorites would be Audio Damage "Kombinat", Ohm Force "Ohmicide" and iZotope "Trash" (in that order). For Bitcrushing I'll usually use Soundhack "Decimate" or this freeware one I found called "MultiBandBitCrusher" that's been removed from circulation but I have a few backups on different drives and another on my FTP since I love it so much. Oh, D16 Group make some decent Distortion and Bitcrushing plug-ins as well.

If I'm going outboard then I usually go straight for Guitar FX Pedals, Tube Head's with a Hotplate and a nice cab. Typically Analog pedals, but there are some decent one's out there as well.


Tomorrow's sound designers will stick bit-crushers on tech just like today's ones stick Vinyl, Speakerphone, and tape saturators on various things to date their sound and/or make it authentic. Can't wait ;) And then glitch is an aesthetic on its own, and it's already in some less mainstream titles...

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    Or, as my bandmate and I decided a while ago, bitcrushing is to 2008-10 as gated reverb on snare drums is to 1987-1990. ;-) Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 23:27

I just finished listening to the Tron sound panel from Soundworks and they used varying degrees of distortion on the dialogue of the program characters depending on their position in the computer program hierarchy - more human, less distortion/more computer, more distortion.

  • +1 for Tron. Watched it a couple of days ago. Distortion used all over the place :) Seemed like Daft Punk were a fan when they did the soundtrack too. Lots of bit-crusher-esque use! Nice.
    – Andy Lewis
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 13:06
  • @Andy Lewis In the Soundworks sound panel I watched, they show how they distorted a Wilhelm Scream in the light bike scene when one of them gets taken out!
    – Utopia
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 17:39

Death Magnetic?

  • now that is funny!
    – Rene
    Commented Feb 23, 2011 at 15:48
  • Ha! Thanks, Rene. I thought it might get flagged or deleted.
    – MtL
    Commented Feb 25, 2011 at 21:58

I've used a bit of digital distortion in sci-fi (combined with the sound of a bad mic connection on a 744T and other heavily-processed elements) for the sound of a character's battle suit taking explosive damage. The tricky part was getting it to sound like something was seriously wrong with the suit without making it sound like the user's playback equipment was dying. It ended up being so low in the mix it was nearly subliminal, but still communicated a toxic "yikes, something's very wrong here" feel.

  • thats interesting, you say "toxic," that's exactly how i described digital distortion to a director recently
    – Chris
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 23:25
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    Yeah, it has a character that's viciously contrary to the flow of a normal scene's sound (even if the scene happens to be really violent or something). Like a needle scratching across a record, it causes the audience to jolt internally: "what the hell was that?" Feels like a rip in the fabric of the audio universe.
    – Tyler
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 23:42

I almost ALWAYS add some sort of bit-crushed element to my explosions. For more realism, I pull it back so it just adds a bit of meat, but it's still there.

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