Amongst all the applicable effects in electronic music, distortion is the one that will give the most character to your sound. Simply put, distortion is changing the form of the sound signal through processing. Besides giving unique properties to the sound you’re processing, distortion is an extremely popular tool in electronic music. Distortion comes in different forms (clipping, overdrive, bitcrusher) and various plugins offer a wide array of specific and unique options to implement. A considerable amount of electronic music tracks (if not all of them) include distortion. Therefore, it is important for you to consider its existence and understand how to better apply it to your own tracks. Without further ado, let’s dive into the most essential information you need about distortion.

1. What is distortion and how does it work?

In physical terms, distortion occurs when there is a larger output than input. Similarly to water going though a funnel, the audio signal will be pushed to the smaller area at a faster rate and this is what the human hear as distortion; a signal that is clipped and squished down. Another way to put it is to describe it as a compressed and chopped of signal. The initial audio signal travels from the input through a processor, and a reduced, distorted signal is obtained at the end of the chain, the digital output.
In this article, we essentially focus on distortion plugins and not guitar or keyboard pedals. For producers, the choice is between analogue distortion which replicate valves, produce a warm sound (this type of distortion is also possible with overdriving guitar amplifiers) and digital distortion which is essentially bit reduction. Digital distortion allows the producer to give the impression that the number bits of an audio channel have been reduced significantly and thus producing a digital glitch style of distortion.

2. What is the purpose of distortion?

Does your track sound dull? Are you struggling to make certain elements pop out? Or is the overall energy that your track conveys so-so ? In all of these cases distortion can improve the original sound. Enhancing can occur by making the sound louder, crispier, grittier, more aggressive and in general to fatten up a sound. Moreover, distortion is also great to make certain elements stand out in your mix. These can be vocals, samples or even bass.
Without even paying attention to it, and without even wanting to implement distortion, your sound can be distorted. This happens when all the levels of your tracks are not rightly balanced in terms of volume and can contribute to the overall clipping of your song.

In alternative electronic music, lo-fi hi hop or ambient music, distortion provides an “alternative” feel, that makes the characteristics of your sound unique. If your purpose is to make a sound dark or extremely abrasive or discordant, this might be one way to achieve the desired effect.

3. What are the different types of software distortion?

Clipping:

Usually, clipping is referred to as the way to verify if signal levels are balanced in a mix, and if there are not transient-heavy sources. However, clipping is also a particular way to distort a sound. Digital clipping equals to hard clipping distortion, as a dedicated soft/hard clipper can reduce transient peaks when used astutely.

Overdrive:

Simply put, overdrive distortion plugins are designed to overload the input of the amplifier they’re connected to, adding aggression to a sound.

Guitar amp & cabinet:

These distortion plugin essentially emulate guitar amps and cabinets. Your sound will be harsher, fizzier and with a heavy frequency response.

Distortion:

Yes, confusingly there’s a type of distortion called distortion ! Think of daft punk’s iconic rolling & scratchin’ scratching sound, where this pedal-type of distortion is used. Most associated with heavy guitar music like punk and metal, distortion may incorporate multiple EQ, filtering and clipping stages, arranged and tuned to give extreme results while retaining articulation.

Bitcrushing:

Bit-depth reduction gives us the crunchy sound of old-school sampling and vintage home computers. It adds grit and edge, which can help sounds cut through busy mixes. It also adds white noise, which if used too much can make it sound really digital. A good example of this type of distortion is Daft Punk’s short circuit track (see below).

Sample Rate Reduction (also called Decimate in some plugins):

This type of distortion decreases the temporal ‘resolution’ of the digital signal. Sound characteristics we can attribute to it are metallic, and atonal properties. By changing the sample rate, you can make the sound more or less distorted.

4. Distortion plugins

DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) will include plugins that can help you achieve distortion, but most of the time they are not the best plug-ins you can get. While there is a no shortage of third-party distortion plugins, here are some of the best distortion plugins according to us. Some are free, but most of the quality distortion plugins are paid. Each plugin will have different types of settings and ways to process sound.

5. How to use distortion and common mistakes?

Distortion is all about subtlety. Using too much of it (unless it is on purpose) will make your sound unbalanced and rather unpleasant to be heard. Unless, you want to emphasize on a distorted sound and are create alternative electronic music, you shouldn’t exaggerate the use of distortion.
Video: “Secrets to Saturation & Distortion in Electronic Music”
If used appropriately, any type of distortion can add that additional touch and coloration to your sound which gives it more character. A lot of producers use distortion just as a way to make a sound more noticeable, and louder in the mix.

6. The Effective Implementation of Distortion: Track Analysis

Let’s have a look at how successful electronic music artists implement distortion in their tracks. As you will see the type of distortion can vary, as well as the musical element to which it is applied.
Daft Punk | Short Circuit (2:13) | Bitcrusher 
Kaytranada | Leave Me Alone (0:45) | Clipper
Sam Smith | Lay Me Down | Flume Remix*
Kavinsky | Protovision
*Vocal through some type of guitar amplifier/ which gets amplified as other elements (bass, lead) also benefit from some distortion (From 0:00 throughout)
Conclusion
Distortion is a unique and useful effect in electronic music. Sometimes a sound is too classical, and adds that little extra something which gives it character. The different types of distortion mentioned in this article can all uniquely contribute to make your sound more interesting for the listener.

Distortion Resources & Further Reading

Izotope.com

Snoman, R (2012), “Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques” (Chapter 10)

Soundonsound.com 

Musicradar.com

wallofsound.ca 

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