Effects 101: Distortion

In our last blogpost, we talked about the differences and applications for chorus, flangers, and phasers. If you missed it you can read it here. This week, we turn our focus to distortion, understanding what it is and how we can apply it to our productions.

What is distortion?

Anything that changes a waveform in a non-linear way can be described as distortion. That means an EQ changing a waveform is also considered a form of distortion. The concept here is that the distortion process introduces new harmonics that are related to the original signal in some way. However, we mostly associate distortion with effects such as fuzz, exciters, tape saturation and unwanted digital clipping. Let’s dig deeper into these specific distortion effects and how they can be useful to us.



The fuzz distortion effect was made famous by bands like The Rolling Stones and guitar legend, Jimi Hendrix. It was an effect used to mimic reed-based instruments such as the saxophone. Take a listen to opening guitar riff of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and you’ll hear the fuzz distortion effect in practice. The effect tends to nasal out your sound but can be useful when you want something to cut through the mix. The best fuzz pedals / plug ins are known for their ‘playability’. That means, the way the effect responds and effects your signal can be greatly controlled by the dynamics of your instrument. Fuzz effects are not just for guitars but try using it as an effect on your bass synths or leads or as a prior effect to an overdrive or something.



Exciters are frequency specific distortion units. As the name suggests, they ‘excite’ certain frequencies by creating upper harmonics that are not present in the original signal, making the signal appear to sound brighter with more detail. Exciters are particularly useful for sounds that are lacking in certain frequencies. For example, if you have a bass guitar track that needs some more low end, you can use a bass exciter to bring up more sub-bass. Another use for exciters is at a mix-buss level when instead of using an EQ, you can use an exciter to gently bring up the high end and detail of your mix.



Saturation is the process of driving a piece of circuitry almost to the point of distortion. Back in the day, tape saturation was commonly used as it added subtle harmonics and warmth to your sound. However, there are quite a few tape emulation plug ins out there that do the same thing, although not as good, but close enough to the real thing. Some mix engineers like to use tape saturation plug ins on every track while mixing to emulate the mix coming off a tape machine itself while others use it to just give instruments some life. I highly recommend using tape saturation plugins on non-acoustic instruments to add some color so that your mix and production would not sound sterile.

April 4, 2016

Reuben Raman Product Marketing Manager at Splice