When you read the word “distortion” or “saturation,” the first thing that comes to mind is something horrible you must avoid at all costs.
Although that’s partially true, distortion and saturation are terrific and creative tools suitable for any genre of music and broadly used to achieve a wide variety of technical and creative results.
Besides the obvious use of this resource in rock guitars, distortion is often used to control peak levels because it gives you a sense of loudness while taking the level significantly down. This phenomenon happens because it keeps the characteristics of the original signal but sucks in the initial transient and makes the energy higher in the whole signal.
An easy way to see this is distorting a snappy snare drum. You can see in the image above that the distorted snare has a lot more information; it seems fatter and fuller, and you can tell it sounds louder just by looks. That is what distortion does to a signal, like an infinite loop of compression.
What is distortion in music?
Distortion is anything that deviates from a perfect sound curve. It was initially a problem to be solved, as it resulted from volume levels going above what hardware gear could handle (0dBA), which generated this crispy noise on top of a recording, also known as saturation.
What are the types of distortion?
As you might imagine, there are many different types of distortion, each with a unique sound and context. However, the most common are:
- Tape saturation
It’s one of the most subtle types of distortion and it’s pretty much on any record you’ve ever heard. This distortion does much more than add crispiness and attitude to a track. It brings warmth (harmonic excitation in the low-mids), makes audio feel larger, brings a sense of openness, and delivers the sought-after analog vibe.
- Valve saturation
Similar to tape saturation, valves also add warmth and an analog vibe. The difference is that the valve tends to be warmer and darker, whereas tape usually brings more harmonic information to high–mid frequencies.
It’s technically clipping when an audio signal goes above the saturation point. It’s typically a problem to avoid and be aware of at all costs. However, clipping sounds harsh, grungy, and edgy, so you might want to use it in controlled amounts.
An all-time classic from rock music, Overdrive is a type of distortion typically used on rock guitars and is a pedal that soft-clips the signal it amplifies. In the early days, this effect was achieved by pushing the input gain of a tube-based amplifier beyond the threshold where clipping occurs.
- Bit crushing and sample rate reduction
These two digital forms of saturation come from purposely lowering the quality of an audio signal by reducing its bit depth and sample rate. This distortion gives you a somewhat “retro“ sound quality to your audio due to the reduction of resolution.
11 Tips on How To Use Distortion In Mixing
I use different types of distortion on just about every mix I get to work on to enhance the tonal balance and make the record feel alive and exciting. So, now that we’ve covered the basics let’s dive into our list of 11 tips for using distortion in mixing and mastering.
Add excitement to sampled instruments (Works every time on synths)
One of the things you can do with distortion is to make a sampled instrument sound more exciting. This trick is an excellent way to go with synthesized keys, pads, arpeggiators, etc.
These artificial sounds often feel incomplete, or as if they lack substance, due to their synthetic nature. Most synthesizers will offer you the option of adding distortion to your sound, but it’ll typically feel like it’s still missing something.
A great way to make them stick out is by adding more harmonic information to the mid frequencies, and for that, one of my favorite methods is using tape saturation. It’ll make them feel more unstable and natural, sound warmer, and the extra harmonics will make it sit better on your mix, especially if you’re using acoustic instruments along with the synthesizers.
Clean synth (solo)
Distorted synth (solo)
In a mix (Clean)
In a mix (Distorted)
As you can tell, after applying tape distortion to the pad, it felt like it opened up, and the mid-range felt richer, whereas the clean version felt darker and thinner. Distortion also fattened the pad, which helped it to blend more manageable with the mix and sit more comfortably while still standing out. For this example, I used the J37 tape saturation plugin.
Make a vocal more expressive
This trick is very similar to the previous one but slightly different. It’s also very commonly used in pop, hip-hop, and rock music to make vocals feel either more aggressive, raspy, or breathy. This trick will also help you emphasize the little details vocalists often deliver during recording performance.
The idea is to add controlled low amounts of saturation (clipping) and distortion (Overdrive) to your vocals to bring forward all of these small details subtly. You can do this with parallel processing or onboard processing.
Vocals in a mix (Clean)
Vocals in a mix (Processed onboard)
Vocals in a mix (Processed parallel)
Using distortion parallel to the signal preserves a lot more of the initial characteristics, which can be good to give a little more depth to a vocal and bring it up front. But, on the other hand, onboard distortion makes it grittier and more aggressive.
Reduce Harshness and DeEss
This trick is relatively connected to the one above because it’s particularly effective with vocals, although it works with other sources with similar problems.
Sometimes you get especially harsh vocal recordings that include lots of uncomfortable sibilances, a nosey tone, or some other typical issue of this kind. One quick way to make your recording sound a bit better is to add some clipping distortion to control most of this high-pitched energy.
Although it might seem counterproductive, clipping distortion is usually good because it “fries,” for lack of a better word, high frequencies and makes them much easier for our ears to hear. In addition, by distorting the signal in this particular way, you’ll also be able to rescue some of the low-mid information, which can also be helpful in some cases for poor vocal recordings.
Harsh vocal (Clean)
Harsh vocal (Distorted)
Make a full mix sound more interesting
Tape distortion is one of the best ways to make your mix sound more exciting. If you mix entirely in the box, this trick will be your favorite from this list because it will significantly change how you think about mixing.
Analog distortion affects the signal differently because it depends on the construction of a specific unit, and they’re all fabricated differently. So, imagine that your analog emulation plugins are different colors, the session is a canvas, and your elements are shapes. You want to paint a picture, so you must combine the shapes and color them appropriately.
The trick uses different colors to paint a perfect picture of the song, so the idea behind this is to combine different colors. So, adding different types of distortion plugins to different elements, whether grouped or individually, will make your mix go to the next level.
This will depend on the context of your mix and will vary according to your workflow. For example, I typically use Abbey Road’s saturation and a Fairchild compressor in my drum bus after EQ, an SSL or Neve preamp on my vocal bus, an LA 2A on my guitar bus, and a mildly distorted Neve preamp on my bass. Finally, I’d glue everything together with an SSL bus compressor and add a J37 tape saturator at the end of my mix bus chain.
Following up with the last suggestion, another good reason you’d want to use any analog distortion is to add character to your signal. But, again, depending on the type of sound you’re aiming for, different distortions are more or less beneficial.
Distortion will also help you enhance the overall mood of your mix because it can make the signal sound in many different ways. Again, there are no rules about it, but these combinations usually work for me and hopefully will work for you too.
Clipping saturation is one of the simplest ways to make anything sound aggressive.
Making something sound open helps the signal to feel alive, and it’s easily attainable with Overdrive and tape saturation. This is good for hip-hop and pop types of vocals and upbeat rock drums.
Making something sound darker helps create suspense and a sense of horror, heaviness, and roughness. This is often good for rock and metal music, although it’s often used in all genres—valve and tube distortions, like the Decapitator or Radiator plugins, are great for this type of character.
Sometimes you want the song to have an attitude of some sort, like an old G-rap song, for example, and overdrive often gives you this feel on your tracks. Also, I suggest you try using guitar pedals on things like drums, bass, or vocals. It adds a great attitude and makes it feel more stylish and professional.
Make things louder
One of the benefits of using saturation is that it makes your mixes louder. Distortion adds loudness because of the increased frequency information in our signal that changes the relationship between Peak and RMS levels, which, in a way, increases the perception of loudness.
This is also a great trick for mastering because you can make your tracks sound louder by adding harmonic distortion to your mastering chain. Also, it is one of those cases when a little goes a long way, but this mastering trick can do a lot of good to your tracks.
However, the safest way of adding distortion is with parallel processing, so you create a send where you first add an EQ with a high cut somewhere around the 200hz mark. Then, you add a saturation plugin and blend it with the dry signal. I usually use tape or tube with this trick because they tend to be very lovely with the mid-range.
With parallel distortion
It works great because you get richer harmonics while keeping a round, deep low-end. By exclusively distorting mid and high frequencies, you’re increasing their intensity and the overall perception of loudness.
Make your drums punchier
You can use distortion to make your drums feel fuller and punchier, and it works fantastic. So use this trick, especially if you’re using MIDI drums, to make them sound more dynamic and sit great on your mix without adding multiple effects.
This trick will do your day if you’re mixing EDM, rock, hip-hop, or upbeat pop music. You can also use it both parallel or directly onboard. I recommend using either valve saturation or a straight-up guitar overdrive if you’re mixing aggressive drums. It tightens up your drums and makes them feel fuller while enhancing their punch.
Drum bus (Clean)
Drum bus (Distorted)
Adding distortion to your drums can also enrich their tone and help them cut through the mix. Your kick drum and snare drums will benefit the most from this trick. While trying this out, if you’re using MIDI drums, I suggest you try a guitar overdrive on your overheads to make them sound more realistic.
Control low-end/make it rounder
The low end is another thing that benefits from distortion, but it can get a little tricky if you don’t pull it off right. The thing with low frequencies is that the slightest unbalance has catastrophic consequences in the entire mix.
Plus, it’s a challenging frequency range to control because typical sound systems can’t reproduce them accurately, and some are so low that it’s impossible to hear them unless you have specialized equipment that allows you to. So, it’s essential to remember that you must be very gentle with the kinds of processing you apply to the low frequencies of your mix.
However, a clean way to do this type of processing is by using sends and parallel processing. Just like we did a couple of tricks ago, it’s best to create an auxiliary track and load an EQ with a high cut, but this time, we’ll keep it around 150hz. The type of saturation I’ve found works best with low frequencies is overdrive because it doesn’t add as much warmth as a valve or tape and keeps the signal from getting muddy. Finally, blend your distorted signal with the original until you hit the sweet spot.
Use distortion as a creative effect
Distortion is a versatile effect that you can use for several situations to enhance the mood of your mix or introduce new textures to catch the listener’s ear. To give you some ideas to fire up your imagination, here are two things you can start doing with distortion today that will instantly help your mixes stand out more:
- Adding distortion to your delays is a straightforward way to create movement and make an engaging effect. Listen closely to how the effect changes the whole vibe and adds a new dimension to the guitar part that makes a nice contrast between the clean sound and the distorted one.
- If you try this out on a reverb, you will make it feel more organic. Take sampled drums, for example. If you’re working on a rock record, you’d need to make them feel groovy and more natural. Listen to the samples and notice how the drums feel fuller, and the reverb sounds natural and more exciting.
Achieve an analog sound
The so-called analog sound is technically the result of several blended distortions, as we discussed in the sixth tip of this list. But if you want to get as close as possible to the classic analog sound, you’ll need to use different valve and tape distortion combinations.
To achieve a proper analog sound, you’ll be looking for the cumulative effect attained by loading a distortion plugin, like a preamp such as Waves Audio’s NLS, to all, or at least most, of the tracks in the mix. That will emulate the console and color your entire signal similarly.
To make it sound even more vintage, you can also load a tape saturator at the end of the mix. This last effect replicates the tape machine which engineers used to print down their mixes back in the day, and along with the cumulative effect from the console, you can get pretty awesome sounds.
Distorted mix with tape distortion
Create a fake drum room
It is not strictly a distortion trick but another way to incorporate distortion and saturation into your mixes. This trick is helpful when you don’t get a room mic or create an exciting room ambiance for your drums.
The trick is simple. You create a stereo audio track to print down your drums. Then, you find whatever saturation plugin you like best, load it up and distort it heavily. After completely crushing the sound, load a reverb plugin and wash it out. Finally, blend it with your drums and enjoy.
This trick is a fantastic way to bring your drums to life and create depth. It’ll also work similarly to parallel compression, making your drums sound fuller, punchier, and much more energy.
Distortion is an effect that can help you achieve extraordinary results with little effort. In addition, it can help you improve your mixing to know which kind of distortion to use when because it opens the gates to new textures to experiment with. These tricks are only a few ways you can use distortion in mixing and mastering, but there are several other things you can do.
The bottom line is that this effect is splendid to keep around, especially if you mix EDM, rock, hip-hop, or pop music because it’ll help your tracks have more personality and attitude, making your sound palette more unique. In addition, distortion will help you keep peaks under control without damaging the natural dynamics.
Finally, all distortion types and plugins sound significantly different, so we encourage you to have as many as you feel you need and try them out on your stuff to see what works better for your workflow.
I have a B.Sc. Degree in Audio Engineering and +5 years of work experience. I specialize in Audio Post-Producing and Sound Design to help brands and online businesses stick out delivering top-notch audio quality for advertisement, podcast, films, and music.