Saturday, July 4, 2020

Everything you need to know about effects part 4/4: Distortions!

CLICK HERE FOR PART 1/4: Fx routing, in studio and live!

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2/4: Reverb and Modulations 1

CLICK HERE FOR PART 3/4: Reverb and Modulations 2

Once we have gone through all the most common application of modulation effects, it's time to pass to what is considerable the most important type of effect that we can apply to a tone, an effect which has taken an instrument, the electric guitar, and made it the most important, influential and beloved one of the 20th century: the distortion, in all of its forms.

The overdriven guitar tone is born by mistake: bands were using tube amps in the '50s and '60s, and back then there wasn't even a real PA to amplify them, so guitarists, especially those that were playing in big arenas, had to crank them at the maximum volume.
The signal passing through the tube circuits ended up saturating them, and the result was a distorted tone, with lots of additional harmonics and some compression that the guitarists found out to be exciting, to make the tone edgier and even easier to play: the tube overdrive sound was born.
The audio enhancement provided by tubes is still today often used in studios, to add a track, especially if digital, the liveliness typical of the vintage hardware.

Not too long after the discovery of the tube overdriven sound, guitarists (especially the pioneer Jimi Hendrix) started to ask themselves "where do we go from here? How can I make my tone ever more extreme?", and producers started working tirelessly to replicate the distorted sound of a tube amp full volume in a stompbox, and came up with an infinity of solutions, which can be divided in 3 macro groups: fuzz, overdrive and distortion.

The first models to hit the market (end of the '50s/early '60s) was the fuzz: it is a type of pedal that takes the original sound and distorts it, but in a very unique and specific way, by taking the sinusoidal wave and turning it into a squared one.
The result is a gritty tone with lots of sustain, impossible to obtain with a regular amp, and it was the staple of riffs that made the history of rock, such as Rolling Stones' (I can't get no) Satisfaction and most of the Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd solos, just to name a few.

An overdrive is a pedal that recreates (sometimes also by using a tube) the saturation of a tube amp full volume without the need of pushing it (thus without ruining the tubes): the effect is a slight distortion, more attack, less low mids, lots of extra harmonics and some extra compression; this is a great pedal to boost our amp and even out its frequencies, and it's often a solution used when recording.

Another effect that can be considered a more extreme evolution of the overdrive is the distortion.
The distortion is a pedal aimed not to boost an overdrive channel of an amplifier but to replace it, going directly into the clean one, since it's capable of producing high levels of gain, or bypassing the preamp altogether and going direcly into the power amp.
Distortions have seen their moment of maximum popularity in the '80s, with many guitar heroes (such as Steve Vai) and classic heavy metal bands (like Judas Priest) using them regularly, and still today they are very popular in certain genres such as grunge or alternative rock.

Finally, a sound can be further degraded or modified creatively in an infinite amount of other ways, and there are today pedals to do practically everything, but there are still a couple of effects that are worth to be mentioned here: the harmonic exciters, which takes certain harmonics of our tone and emphasizes them, which is a cool way for example to add brightness to a sound without messing too much with the eq (click here for an article about harmonic exciters with free VST plugins) and the bit crusher, which on the other hand takes a sound (usually vocals, or drums, or a bass) and degrades it by reducing the bit depth, creating the feeling that the sound comes through some vintage gear.

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