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Once again, it’s time to play “stompbox reloaded”


by Craig Anderton


[Note: For a related topic, see the article Stompbox Compressors in the...Studio?]


Distortion on guitar is the sound of rock and roll. Although some guitarists get distortion simply by turning up their amps, many use distortion stompboxes to get their “sound,” and even overdrive amps with stompboxes to increase distortion.


There are various types of distortion, because different distortion elements give different sounds. For example, germanium diodes clip at a lower voltage than silicon diodes, while red LEDs—the basis of the Quadrafuzz multi-band distortion I invented in the 80s—clip at a fairly high voltage, but also change frequency response based on how hard you drive them. (Boston guitarist Tom Scholz is also a fan of red LEDs for distortion.) Another option is to use CMOS or FET-based distortion elements, which can sound very much like tubes—and of course, some distortion boxes use real, physical tubes. Most stompboxes have at least controls for gain, output level, and some kind of tone control.


Famous distortion boxes include the Arbiter Fuzz Face, Pro Co RAT, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi (Fig. 1), and Ibanez Tube Screamer. Variations include Roger Mayer’s Octavia (which produced a distorted tone an octave above), and octave dividers like the Mu-Tron Octave Divider, which was designed with Dan Armstrong and includes his “Green Ringer” circuit.



Fig. 1: Electro-Harmonix’s Big Muff Pi was introduced over forty years ago, and is still in production. It’s been used by top players like Santana, Jack White, Jimi Hendrix, The Edge, and Dave Gilmour (you’ve heard the Big Muff Pi in the solo for “Comfortably Numb”).




Drums. You probably don’t want to use too much gain, but guitar stompboxes can really “toughen up” analog drums—add a little distortion to TR-808 sounds, and you’ll be amazed how that polite drum sound turns into a monster. Parallel processing combines the full, natural sound of the drum with the distortion, but another option is to use guitar distortion as a send effect, which is particularly good if your drums have multiple outputs. Even a little bit of distortion can add a great edge to drums, including loops of acoustic drums and percussion.


Bass. Distortion on bass usually gives a thin sound because of all the harmonics that distortion generates. As with many other effects for bass, it’s generally best to patch the distortion in parallel with your bass signal. With a hardware synthesizer or bass, split the output; feed one output directly into an interface or amp input, and the other output through distortion into a second interface or amp input. With a virtual synthesizer or recorded track, many DAWs have the option to use spare interface ins and outs, along with an additional bus, to treat hardware stompboxes like plug-ins.


Bass seems to sound best with relatively low gain distortion settings, as this gives more of a deep “growl” that cuts well through a song, and adds an aggressive effect. Too much distortion starts to compete with the guitar sound, so it becomes difficult to tell the two apart.


Vocals. Nine Inch Nails and hardcore/industrial groups add distortion to vocals for a dirty, disturbing effect. Guitar stompboxes are excellent for this because the “voicing” for guitar also works well with vocals.


Keyboards. Classic B3 organ sounds often took advantage of overdriving a rotating speaker’s preamp to create distortion; adding stompbox distortion to synthesizer B3 sounds can give extra “dirt” that adds character. Keep the gain fairly low, as you don’t want a “fizzy” sound. Like bass and drums, a parallel connection usually gives the best results.




Fortunately, many modern amp simulator plug-ins have excellent distortion effects—it’s much easier to emulate the characteristics of a stompbox than the more complex characteristics of a preamp, amp, and cabinet. But, distortion was the product of experimenting, so experiment! For example, Cakewalk Sonar Producer’s ProChannel includes a Saturation module (Fig. 2)—and it’s not the only host to include a distortion processor.



Fig. 2: Cakewalk Sonar can insert a Saturation module and a Tube distortion module in their ProChannel channel strip.

Although these are generally intended to provide relatively subtle, tube saturation effects, you can turn up their input controls  to maximum and feed it with as high-level a signal as possible to really “crunch” the sound—that’s rock and roll.




 Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.


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