How To: Distortion Secrets

Get creative with delay effects by using classic gear configuration techniques
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Get creative with delay effects by using classic gear configuration techniques

Distortion sounds great on more than just electric guitar tracks. It’s also your key to huge-sounding trap drums, burpy bass, and rich lead vocals. Best of all, you don’t necessarily need to use a distortion plug-in to add awesome grit, girth, volume, and luster to your tracks.


We all know to keep levels from clipping when recording. But when mixing, it’s sometimes a different story. For crisper and bigger-sounding kick and snare tracks, set their clipping LEDs ablaze! Boost each track’s fader until its level is a couple dB or so over full-scale. When you do this, two things happen. First, the shape of the kick and snare’s waveform peaks approaches that of a square wave—adding transient high frequencies. Second, the tracks’ average levels are boosted in your mix without increasing their relative peaks, giving you louder drums while preserving your mix’s headroom. Win-win. Just be aware that this technique works best on drum tracks that have very prominent transient peaks to begin with. Soft or very bass-heavy drums that have high average levels will likely suffer sustained, disagreeable distortion when clipped.

Fig. 1. A duplicate copy of an electric bass guitar track is clipped, filtered, and blended with the original, unprocessed track to create a huge composite sound.BASH THE BASS

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Clipping the electric bass guitar track also creates a huge sound, but getting musical results requires more work than clipping drums. I’ll use Digital Performer to illustrate the proper setup (see Figure 1).

First, duplicate the bass track; we’re going to maul that duplicate while leaving the original track unprocessed. Instantiate MOTU’s proprietary Trim plug-in—a simple gain and phase adjuster—on a pre-fader insert on the duplicate bass track, and boost the plug-in’s gain control so that the signal is virtually always clipping. The resulting distortion will make the track sound like it’s playing through a broken tinfoil speaker, but we’re going to fix that: Instantiate an equalizer plug-in—I like FabFilter Pro-Q for its analog- like sound—immediately following Trim, and dial in a steep lowpass filter (LPF) with a 1 to 2kHz corner frequency. The final step is to route both the original (unprocessed) and duplicate (clipped and filtered) bass tracks to the same output (or to an aux track to EQ the composite sound) and adjust their faders for the best-sounding blend. You essentially use the two faders the same way you would adjust the dry and wet controls in a distortion plug-in. You’ll probably want to set the duplicate bass track’s fader a lot lower than that for the unprocessed track. The final result should sound badass!

Fig. 2. The Waves L1 Ultramaximizer plug-in can be used to add euphonic distortion to a bass guitar track while simultaneously reining in fluctuating levels.CATCH A QUICK WAVE

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Savvy engineers also love using the Waves L1 Ultra-maximizer plug-in to distort the bass track (see Figure 2). There’s no need to copy the bass track in this application; L1 is instantiated on a pre-fader insert on the original track. Set the plug-in’s ceiling control to whatever level you’ll ultimately want the bass to be at in your mix. Then slowly lower L1’s threshold control until you hit the sweet spot: the point at which the bass guitar sounds growly but not too squashed. The bass guitar won’t just have a more aggressive tone, it will also sit better in your mix.


Technically speaking, harmonic exciters are also distortion generators. To get the most out of these types of plug-ins, it’s important to realize that exciters add harmonics at least an octave higher than the input signal. Understanding this point is key to effective use of multiband exciters in particular.

If, for example, your ears are telling you a vocal track could use some added sparkle in the upper-midrange band, don’t boost the exciter’s wet signal in that band. All you’ll accomplish is adding sheen to the highs (an octave or so higher). Instead, boost the exciter’s input in the lower-midrange band.


Unless you’re mixing very aggressive music, such as industrial or metal, add distortion to only a few tracks. Remember, the best mixes provide contrast; shoveling dirt onto everything will make your mix lose definition, depth, and punch. Single out a few tracks for abuse, and then fire away!

Michael Cooper is a recording, mix, mastering, and post-production engineer and a contributing editor for Mix magazine. You can hear some of his mixes at