Hearing Effects: Distortion Effects, Part 1 | Easy Ear Training
Hearing Effects
Missed the start of the series? Catch up here.

Ahh, it’s time for all things filth! Overdrive, distortion, fuzz, soft clipping, hard clipping, and limitless other descriptions to describe one of the most dramatic sound effects ever!

If dynamics effects are to claim the prize of being the most controversial and misunderstood effects; then the coveted prize for most popular, certainly (and with no competition) goes to anything that has the words ‘overdrive’, ‘distortion’, ‘fuzz’, or any variant in its descriptive moniker! While originally intended for guitar players (you’ll understand once you learn the history of this effect), no other effect has been so widespread throughout all of music production. Everything from vocals to drums, keyboards, and everything in between has been distorted, overdriven or fuzzed up at one time or another.

I’ll move it one step further. Distortion (unless otherwise specified, for simplicity I’ll refer to this topic generally as “distortion” from now on) actually makes up about 85-90% of the effects market. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that occasionally I use a made up expressive term like “cajillion” to make a point about enormous quantity; BUT, concerning distortion, no such exaggeration is needed – as there are thousands (and I mean that literally) of distortion devices being produced right at this moment.

I’ll bet that you, reading this right now, have at least a few distortion effects lying around!

I know that I certainly own… well… let’s just skip that number for now! Put it this way: I will never again make fun of, or criticize my girlfriend’s penchant for owning innumerable pairs of shoes!

However you slice it, distortion is the big card game in town and everyone wants a seat at the table; either as a consumer, or an opportunist manufacturer who boasts about delivering a new spin to all things crunch!

Why distort your signal?

Now on to more pertinent queries. Why on earth would you want to purposely distort a signal? After all, aren’t we taught by Hi-Fi manufacturers that the lower the signal distortion the better? Why the exception here?

Of course the answer is a subjective one; but considering the popularity of everyone’s favorite effect, I would dare say, subjective or not, the people share the same opinion! And that opinion is this:

Distortion makes your sound exciting!

It brings out the sonic flavor! It is a like a good hot sauce in a bowl chili: it amplifies the flavor already present. Culinary metaphors aside, that last sentence has scientific backing! When you distort or overdrive a signal, you amplify the harmonics present in the signal. (Refer back to the Frequency Fundamentals article dealing with harmonics) Actually, the more you distort, the more all of the harmonics start to become more and more prominent. Even the faint ones start to come to the forefront! Now, a clean single-note guitar line turns into a fat, harmonically rich, singing and fully satisfying lead passage. It no longer possesses the tinny, meek and inherently unsustainable sound. It now has girth, the brass fatness of horns, and the sustain of strings. A complete sonic metamorphosis!

Here’s the skinny: Distortion (and remember, we’re bundling in related effects like overdrive, fuzz and so on) came about partly by accident, and partly through necessity. Let’s look at the latter first:

Sustain

Strings, and horns (among other instruments) possess nearly infinite sustain as an inherent part of their nature. Horns have instant sustain on command, according to the lungs of the player. String players have the same, courtesy of the bow.

BUT! Guitar, although also a stringed instrument, is played with a pick, fingers, or both. Inherent sustain is not part of its nature.

A wonderful percussive sound? Yes.
A clean, haunting drone? Also yes.
A miniature orchestra capable of sophisticated works of music by masters in the talented hands of a classical virtuoso? Absolutely!

Infinite sustain like the long held notes of a saxophone, or the never ending cry of bow against string? Sadly, no.

Fret not though, (pun intended) help comes in many, many variations of distortion. Sustain for days!

Power


Joe Pass playing ‘Satin Doll’

In addition to the sustain gained (also pun intended), distorted sounds are simply powerful! This is some thing I doubt I have to preach on.

Certainly, clean sounds have their place. Listen to the precise articulation of a classical master performing Mozart. How about the dark, smooth, yet crystal clear sound of Joe Pass blasting and bopping through chord comps and chord melodies at an insane tempo? How about the wicked country chicken pickin’ of Danny Gatton, or Albert Lee? Examples abound, but these artists’ preferred method of travel is the sparkly clean sound. And make no mistake, MONSTERS these are!



Eddie Van Halen playing ‘Eruption’

Now, how about the other side of the tracks? Let’s discuss Hendrix. Purple Haze without fuzz? HAH! Van Halens’ Eruption without the famous “brown sound”. Yngwie zipping and gliding his harmonic minor runs without the sonic onslaught of his Marshall-generated sound. Talk about violin? How about Eric Johnson, with whom if you close your eyes, you can actually almost hear the virtual rosin of the bow against his strings – Again, courtesy of his highly tweaked distortion! Listen to ex-Scorpions guitarist Uli Jon Roth, and you’d swear he just stepped out of the 18th century, violin in hand. Only in place of a Stradivarius, a Stratocaster; and in place of a bow, a highly distorted amplifier! A combination, in hand with Mr. Roth’s well developed technique, that produced (and continues to produce to this day) some of the finest, beautiful, and most soaring lead lines this side of rock-n-roll! Once again, examples abound, and I’m sure you get the point.

Now, lest you get the impression that I’m turning this into a guitar sound tutorial… well, you’re right, I am! Don’t you know we guitar players rule the world?

Actually, of course I’m kidding around, but there is a reason for the onslaught of guitar talk. Distortion was primarily the result of guitar players. Logic dictates that it should have stayed there. The left hook that no one saw coming, was, like I said before: everyone wants in! Doesn’t matter what musical style, or instrument. Everyone wants to play with distortion, overdrive, or fuzz at some point!

With that in mind, here is a brief walk through of the origin of the world’s most popular and widely used effect:

The Distortion Discovery

This section covers the ‘accident’ part of discovering distortion. It was, in fact, after this sound was born that the guitar players mentioned above saw the necessity of having this sound.

Early days

There is much debate about the origins of the first distorted sounds, but much points to old clubs dating as far back as the early 1930s where guitar players turned up their amplifiers all the way, pushing the output of the amps past the limits of ‘linear’ sound reproduction (i.e. clean sound) and well into distortion of the signal, simply due to the fact that the amps were literally being overloaded: pushed past the point where they were designed to behave nicely! Now, the solid body electric guitar wasn’t around yet in those early days, so it would have been quite an earful to behold: an acoustic-type instrument blaring like a foghorn through a haze of constant feedback. Anyone who’s plugged an acoustic guitar into a distortion device (amp or effect) at loud volume knows what I speak of!

I suspect the reasoning for the “plug in, turn up, and wail” ethos was simple:

  • First, you had noisy, crowded clubs in which the audience (band included) had trouble hearing you. Solution? Have another drink and turn up the volume!
  • The second, (and more to the spirit of adventure) was pure curiosity! What red-blooded axe-slinger would look at the amp with the volume numbers 1-10 (this is before Spinal Tap!) and not have this overwhelming curiosity to see just what exactly happens with that magic knob dimed?

The happy accident had happened!

I would pay a king’s ransom to see the look on audience members’ faces the first time they heard barking distortion, all the while seeing that unmistakable look of sheer satisfaction on the guitar player’s smiling mug!

Marshall on

Fast forward in years. Leo Fender had introduced his successful line of guitars and amps. Gibson had their solid body electrics, and everyone from country players to hard bluesmen was enjoying the raucous sound of electricity. It goes without saying that volume knobs were being turned up everywhere! Then, in 1962 along comes Jim Marshall. History was made, again! Marshall’s amps, although based on an early Fender Bassman 5F6A design (this is VERY well documented), had enough circuit changes and enough tweaks that the end result was arguably the blueprint for the distortion sound!

Marshall JTM45 Amp Head

Marshall JTM45 Amp Head

I know this is not supposed to be a history of old blues and old amps, but you need the basic history of the origins of this sound to see why a whole ever growing industry is devoted to replicating distortion sounds with all of their countless variations!

This is the point where the tide changes.

As mentioned before: to produce distortion, amplifiers had to be turned up and run full blast.

Do I even have to go into the obvious drawbacks of this for the average musician? I didn’t think so. About the only place for a full blown, wound up amp was in a coliseum, standing on a concert stage playing to thousands of fans! Even recording studios were ill-equipped to record the sound that a full-on amp produced! (Isolation chambers for just such a purpose came later.) And how about the musician practicing at home?
A dimed amp was not, and still isn’t the most practical setup.

Side note: Guitar players are undoubtedly aware of all that I have written about here. Consider though, the rest of the musicians and engineers who may not have this background knowledge. Also consider that the hardest part of writing this was finding what to edit and eliminate, as this talk really can fill up a whole website – and perhaps even a few books!

However, I hope that the main information relevant to all is distilled here.

Electronics to the rescue! It was time now to find ways to mimic and reproduce this sound of a loudly overdriven amp in a compact electronic format, which didn’t induce bleeding ears as part of the sonic recipe!

Once again, much debate abounds as to who exactly pioneered the first non-amp, or ‘synthetically generated’ “fuzz” sound.

Some say it was Dave Davies of the Kinks, who (courtesy of his razor blade slashed speakers) recorded their hit “You really got me”. Others say it was Nashville engineer Glen Snotty who recorded Grady Martin’s bass through a recording mixer’s tube channel that was failing, thus producing a distorted sound. There are numerous other examples around the same time, all with convincing arguments as to why they were the first. Ultimately for our purpose here, it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to give the key points in preparation for the next phase of our discussion.

Part 2 is where we’ll talk about the difference between distortion, overdrive, and fuzz effects. We’ll talk about soft clipping and hard clipping, asymmetrical and symmetrical, tube distortion vs. solid state, and preamp distortion vs. power amp distortion simulated in portable effects units.

And as always: ALL of this leads back to frequencies and harmonics!

Homework: Get to know the key amps

First things first: you must get to know the basic “building block” distortion tones produced by some of the main amps that started it all. Amps that are considered a staple in every studio and players arsenal. Even though the amp industry has sprouted just as many branches as the distortion effects industry, we can likewise trace the roots back to a few key pieces.

The audio clips were done by yours truly in my studio. Some of the amps I own and some were recorded using amp simulators/modeling. This, in and of itself is an entirely new bag of chips, as there is some fierce debate there! The amp simulators’ sounds were however dialed in to be as accurate to the originals as possible.

Anyway, our purpose here is for you to get the basic “mojo” of each tone to prepare you for Part 2 where we’ll have all kinds of distortion/overdrive/fuzz sounds (and a couple of surprises!)

For now, listen and try to familiarize yourself with each amp’s basic characteristic. If you like, you can find plenty of history, pictures, and details galore online with some simple searching by amp name, to give these clips some context.

If you have access to a frequency analyzer (see this post for more information), then download each clip and analyze the dominant frequencies present, as well as all secondaries and so forth. Now compare each amp. Write your comparison results down for later evaluation – you’ll be doing the same for the Part 2 clips and it will be instructive to compare the two.

Fender Bassman

Pros: Loud compressed tone. Fat and full, perfect for blues, especially slide!
Cons: Not enough drive for “modern” needs.

Pros: Can still hear all the notes of each chord. Nice loose crunch
Cons: Low notes get flabby; sloppy sound at high settings. Very difficult to control in very intricate music.

Marshall JTM 45

Pros: Mild Crunch. Basically the amp’s comfort zone. Great for old school rock, and blues.
Cons: Same problems as the 2nd Bassman example. (This WAS a variation on that circuit in the first place!)

Pros: Even at max distortion, chords and their extended (in this case suspended) voicings are distinguishable!) Low end is a little more distortion friendly.
Cons: Same problems as the 2nd Bassman, although not nearly as bad due to Marshall’s better low-end control.

Vox AC30 top boost

Pros: Chimey and bright, loud and compressed. Great for anything not needing distortion!
Cons: Can get a little “spiky” on the high end when played clean and loud!

Pros: The spiky tendencies are smoothed out. Nice light crunchy tone that has great chord definition and works well in most pop styles. (Even hard rock and metal benefit from using this type of sound as contrast, or even layered behind the heavy stuff!)
Cons: Not enough distortion for the gain hungry out there.

Marshall late ’60s plexi amp

Pros: The blueprint for distortion. Lots of gain, while retaining clarity. Loosey goosey sound.
Cons: Loosey goosey sound. Not enough tightness and control for aggressive metal styles that turn on a dime.

Marshall early ’70s superlead

Pros: More gain and tighter sound than ‘60s plexi. Well suited to many styles. Great range of distortion.
Cons: Very inconsistent. Some were great some weren’t. Quality control wasn’t as strict… plus, the amps were built with whatever parts were on hand which led to a lot of variances.

Marshall JCM 800

Pros: The quintessential ‘80s hard rock sound. Smooth tight distortion. Plenty of sustain for long lead lines.
Cons: A honky midrange spike in the middle frequencies similar to a “wah” pedal (more on those in the later articles!) stopped in mid sweep, which cannot be dialed out easily.
Extra info: That sound was actually built in purposely in the JCM800 series to duplicate guitarist Michael Schenker’s main tone. He actually used to put “wah-wahs” in front of his amps as an “EQ” of sorts to get that mid spike purposely in order to be able to cut through the mix!

Mesa triple rectifier

Typical metal riff using 4ths and 5ths, but also a couple 9ths and suspended voicings to show that extended voicings are possible if set right.
Pros: THE modern metal tone. Endless sustain. MASSIVE amounts of distortion.
Cons: Can get muddy and inarticulate rather quickly if you don’t dial carefully.

Another metal riff using 5ths and 4ths, but also a couple 9ths and suspended voicings to show that extended voicings are possible if set right.
Pros: THE modern metal tone. Endless sustain. MASSIVE amounts of distortion.
Cons: Can get muddy and inarticulate rather quickly if you don’t dial carefully.

Bonus Question

Last time around I left you with the following two-parter:

What style of music uses no compression; or at best only a tiny bit, just to tame peaks or clipping?

Concerning this “style” of music:

If any dynamic processing is used at all; then what type is used… single band or multi band, and why?

Did you figure it out?

The style of music that eschews compression/dynamics effects in general (with the exception of the tiniest use in the rarest of exceptions) is Classical music. Here, any type of dynamic manipulation is shunned. In Classical music, all the dynamics of the music are desired and required! True, the gap between softest and loudest sounds is vast to say the least… but it is precisely that which gives this music its dramatic effect! Classical musicians and engineers believe that the purity of all those acoustic instruments should be preserved and indeed any mixing/blending/manipulation of the sound should be done by the actual musicians themselves, and not by electronic means.

This leads us into the second part of the answer. Since Classical music is recorded “live” with no overdubs; as in, the orchestra is purposely recorded this way to give the aural illusion that the 70+ instruments are actually one giant instrument; then it becomes clear why the engineers/producers that record classical favor live recording with no synthetic dynamic manipulation. They are very much “purists” in the truest sense of the word! They want everything to sound as close as possible to what nature intended. Incidentally, prior to Les Paul’s innovation of multi-track recording, all music was recorded “live”, in the manner described above. Needless to say, this has created two schools of thought with regards to recording, with two very polarized opinions! The war… er, I mean debate… continues to this day – with no signs of a truce!

And now this week’s mystery bonus question…

There are three primary sections (broad categories of course) that contribute to an amp’s tone… especially the distortion tone. First is the preamp, second is the power amp.

What is the third?

Hint: It works hand-in-hand with the power amp section – and is actually a direct result of it!
(There is BIG debate here that leads us right to the middle of non-amp distortion effects!)

That’s it for this week. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the amp sounds above before we move on to all the wild and wonderful distortion effects next time!

Series Information
This is part 4 of 9 in the Hearing Effects series.

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