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Use Intentional Distortion For Xtreme Power!

7:21 am Home Recording

Distorted waveformWe spend a lot of time in our studios avoiding distortion. Watching the gain structure, making sure we aren’t clipping, using compressors and limiters to put the kibosh on high-level transients. But could there ever be a time when distortion would be good? And how do you get it if you want it?

Of course, we know that distortion can be good. Techno and industrial music use a lot of distorted keyboard-type sounds. We’ve all heard of distortion pedals for guitar. But what about distorted vocals? Or piano? Harmonica? In this age where every sound is sampled and twisted by someone, it shouldn’t seem too strange to add distortion to your music in unexpected ways.

Normally, you want to record a clean signal on the actual track, then add effects to it at mixing time. That way you can change your mind about which effect to use and how much of it to apply. If the track had been recorded with a lot of reverb already on it, there is no way to remove the reverb if you decide you don’t like it while you’re mixing the song.

As it turns out, distortion is actually easier to add while you are recording. Your options for adding distortion at mixing time are fairly limited, requiring an internal or external effects unit with one or more distortion settings (no doubt intended for use on guitar tracks) set up in a send-return loop. This “electronic” distortion, based on a digital algorithm, will sound different (and probably less satisfying) than the warmer “overload” distortion you can get from overdriving one of the input stages during recording.

Lost In Space

I was working on a 5-song concept CD called “Spaceship,” one of whose songs is about being captured and examined by aliens. (Just your typical song subject.) Since the lyrics were from the aliens’ point of view, I figured the vocals should sound threatening in some way.

I ended up turning the level way up right at the mike preamp, then turning subsequent stages down to compensate. You can hear the results on the vocal for the mercifully short “Examine You” (mp3, chords, lyrics). Since the song was already in the “Weird” bin, I also dialed in the most outrageous settings I could find on my studio effects boxes during tracking and mixing.

Depending on your specific gear and how your studio is set up, you may want to overload some input stage other than the first one to get the exact kind of distortion you want. You can turn the channel trim way up, or the channel fader, or the mixer output, or the recorder input pad, and so on down the line. Experimentation is very much in order. Your results may vary.

Of course, a song doesn’t have to be as off-the-wall as “Examine You” to benefit from a slight edge of distortion on the vocals. An absolutely pure, distortion-free vocal has an immediate, ultra-real effect to it, which is great for an intimate song, but your song may need a distancing effect instead. Distorting the vocal makes it seem ever so slightly less human and introduces an element of imbalance or even menace (like from aliens). It might be worth a try!

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Examine You (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: vocals, guitars, drums
Jack Burgess: bass

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