What is distortion in music?
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In the picture below Person A has just played a clean un-distorted chord on their guitar. You can tell it is un-distorted as there is still some ‘headroom’. This is space between the peak amplitude of the soundwave and the line which shows the maximum output amplitude.
But when Person A cranks the amp volume up too loud the amplitude begins to exceed the maximum output amplitude for the amp and the soundwave begins to get ‘clipped’. This turns the nice smooth sine shaped wave into a square-shaped wave. Causing a distorted sound to be heard by Person B.
The process of distorting the soundwave also causes more harmonics of the note to be produced. Giving a sound that appears richer and fuller than just a clean guitar.
Soft clipping vs hard clipping
Distortion is technically a form of compression
You may or may not be familiar with with the concept of compression in music. Don’t worry I won’t go into too much detail here (for that you can head to this article I wrote). In short, compression works by reducing the dynamic range of a sound. This evens out the amplitudes. So instead of having a mixture of really loud and really quiet sounds, you have more consistent levels throughout.
Distortion does this by chopping off the tops of the waves. Therefore, making all notes you play over a certain level compressed to the same volume.
What is the difference between overdrive and distortion?
Overdrive refers to a specific type of distortion.
The term overdrive explains the function quite well. It is the process of ‘driving’ the amplifier ‘over’ what it can handle. So overdrive is basically a clean signal taken and amplified to a point where the soundwaves get clipped and you get the overdrive sound.
Overdrive tends to alter the tone of the sound less than distortion, producing fewer harmonics.
How to record a distorted guitar?
There are a few different techniques and options for recording distorted guitars in the home studio.
- You can either do it the ‘traditional’ way. Playing through an amplifier with either a built-in distortion effect or using a distortion pedal. Then using a microphone or microphones to record the sound.
- You can do as above but instead of using a microphone use the line-out setting on the amplifier
- You can plug your guitar directly into your audio interface or via a DI box and add distortion effects in your DAW.
I’ll explain how you do each of these in more detail below:
Recording distorted guitar using an amplifier and microphone(s)
Using an amplifier and microphone or microphones to record your distorted guitar is still the best way to capture that live sound. By allowing the sound waves to interact with the air before being picked up and processed by the microphone brings the sound to life.
It is important to get the recording sounding as good as you possibly can. Don’t rely on the mixing process too much to get the tone you desire. If you record with too much distortion then there isn’t an easy way to turn the distortion down when mixing. Guitars tend to sound more distorted on a recording so always air on the side of caution. You can always add some more distortion effects in your DAW but you can never get rid of the distortion.
So before you come to record make sure you are familiar with your amplifier or pedals that will be generating that distorted tone.
The signal chain
In the home studio, we want to keep the signal chain as simple as possible. Not only will this keep our costs down but it means less chance of any confusion or of things going wrong.
If you are lucky enough to have a guitar amp in the home studio then your signal chain is likely to be as follows.
- Firstly the guitar is plugged into any pedals you want to use. Although don’t overdo it as this could add unwanted noise to the chain.
- From the pedals, you will then connect to your amplifier.
- The amplifier will either have built-in speakers if using a ‘combo’ or it will have to be plugged into a speaker cabinet if not.
- You then have your microphone or microphones setup as I will explain below to capture your sound.
- The microphones are then plugged into your audio interface, if you are keeping things simple. Or you can use a basic mixer if you are using multiple microphones and want to mix them.
- Finally, your interface or mixer is plugged into your computer or laptop. Where the sound is captured in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
Best microphone to record distorted guitars
I like to keep it fairly simple when recording distorted guitars and simply use a single dynamic instrument microphone. The microphone I use is one you will see in studios all over the world and is very affordable. This is the Shure SM57.
Dynamic microphones are the most basic microphone in terms of design. Able to withstand very loud sounds for sustained periods of time.
This is of course very handy when recording distorted guitars. Dynamic cardioid microphones like the SM57 are great in the home studio. Where you are unlikely to have considerable acoustic treatment. The microphone tends not to pick up sounds from it’s rear. So you don’t end up recording all the sounds bounding off all your studio surfaces.
Other types of microphone such as dynamic microphones (which are more traditionally used for vocals) are more delicate. They are capable of picking up a greater range of sound frequencies. But are trickier to use when playing at high volumes.
Microphone position for recording distorted guitar – using a single microphone
The position of the microphone is something you will have to experiment with. Moving the microphone just a few inches towards or away from the amplifier will change the sound. This is due to the interaction of the sound waves with the air and the room.
Typically the brightest or most trebly sounds come from pointing the microphone directly at the center of the speaker cone within your amp. Moving the microphone an inch or two to the left or right of the center will pick up more of the bass frequencies that you will likely desire.
When setting up the microphone position. Neutralize the eq settings on the amplifier (i.e have the bass, mid and treble nobs set to the middle). You can adjust these after, but for now, we are just interested in getting the best microphone position. Likewise, add enough distortion to create a saturated sound but don’t go crazy at this point.
Start with the microphone in the middle of one your amp’s speakers, about an inch or two back from the grill and record some distorted guitar. Move the position slightly to the side, try some different angles etc. All these changes will affect the sound in different ways.
Changing the angle so the microphone is not pointing directly at the speaker will give you more of a ‘roomy’ sound. Spend some time doing this and listen back. Once you have decided which you like the best then that can be your final microphone position.
Microphone position for recording distorted guitar – using multiple microphones
If you are lucky enough to have a combo amp or speaker cabinet with multiple speakers. Then using multiple microphones can be a way to craft your guitar tone.
Place microphone one in front of one of your amp speakers. Then get a second microphone and position in front of another one of the speakers. For distorted guitar, it is probably best that both of these microphones are dynamic microphones but they don’t both have to be Shure SM57’s. In fact, I recommend getting a different brand to give you a different tone to mix with.
I then like to run the two microphones into a cheap mixer so I can blend the two channels until I get the sound I want. Remember we don’t want to be having to change too much in the DAW. I say ‘cheap’ mixer here because you are recording distorted guitars. Don’t worry about running the microphones through an expensive pre-amp (which you may feel you need if you read enough forums).
Firstly, we are home recorders on a budget and an expensive pre-amp should not be high on the wish list. But secondly, because we are recording distorted guitars you aren’t looking for a clean perfect sound. A dirty, ‘cheaper’ sound may even be what you desire.
Plug both microphones into the mixer. I use a Behringer 802. Listen as you play and adjust the microphone positions until you get a sound you like. Keep an eye on the levels as you don’t want them creeping into the red, but equally, you want the pre-amps turned up enough to get a strong sound.
As always when using two microphones be on the listen out for phasing. This is an issue caused when you have more than one microphone, not identical distances from the sound source. If you imagine one microphone is further back from the speaker, it will take the sound wave every so slightly longer to be picked up. This causes the recorded sound waves to be out of sync with one another and they begin to cancel each other out.
Recording distorted guitars with an amp but no microphone
You can alter your signal chain to remove the microphone. Many people ask about this method because firstly it saves them having to buy a microphone. But also in the home studio playing at high volumes through and amp speakers can be an issue.
The method I’m describing is using the ‘line-out’ or ‘headphone out’ socket from the amplifier to connect directly to the audio interface or mixer.
I have never been able to get a good recording using this method. It always seems to sound lifeless and dull. So you can work all day to get your tone sounding perfect. But you will find it just won’t translate into the record.
Give it a go but don’t expect spectacular results. For the low cost of a dynamic microphone (under $100) it is worth the investment in my opinion.
Recording distorted guitars without an amp
The amp and microphone method is the traditional go-to method for recording distorted guitars. But in the home studio, it does come with risks and at a cost.
It can be tricky to get an awesome sounding guitar recording. Perhaps due to the room acoustics or the quality of the equipment you have at your disposal. Then of course if you don’t already own an amp or dynamic microphone, there is that extra cost to factor in too.
But in the modern day home studio. We are able you will be able to get some very professional sounding distorted guitar tracks without even using an amplifier.
DI box or straight to an audio interface?
You can simply plug your computer straight into your audio interface if your audio interface has built-in pre-amps. This usually works fine, but I recommend if you chose this method that you use a DI box.
You may already own a DI box for recording bass. DI stands for ‘Direct Injection’ and it takes an unbalanced signal from the guitar and converts it into a balanced signal.
The advantage of using a DI box is that you will get a consistent signal when changing between pickup settings on your guitar. It will also eliminate any noise interference that may creep into the signal chain.
Amp Modellers and Virtual Amps
The modern home studio musicians can now create a realistic sounding guitar recording by modelling the performance of an amp without actually needing one. This has only become the case quite recently with the improvement of algorithms.
You can now plug your guitar in via a DI box or into the interface as mentioned above and use software to mimic the sound of a distorted amplifier. This has now got to the point where you can download software versions of classic amplifiers (that we would never afford!) and add virtual pedals etc.
This method has several advantages. First of all, you can get your hands on hundreds of different sounds for a fraction of the price and without filling your studio with amps. On top of this many of the modellers will let you tweak settings such as the ‘room’, something we don’t have the luxury of with a real amp and microphone.
There will always be something more exciting and authentic about recording the traditional way. But as technology advances, using software is increasingly hard to ignore for home recorders on a budget. You also eliminate all the headaches that go with getting microphone positions/ acoustics/ levels right.
On top modelling an amp, you can also model the speaker sizes which in turn will alter the sound. Maybe you want one guitar track coming through a 4 x 12 speaker set but another track through a smaller 2 x 12. The possibilities are pretty endless.
How to mix distorted guitars
As I said already, you really want to take your time and get those distorted guitars sounding as perfect as possible, so you can keep mixing to a minimum. Remember to ease of the distortion. Consider layering up multiple tracks, particularly for rhythm parts (it’s trickier to do with lead parts).
There is no exact science behind this. Every distorted guitar will sound different. It all depends on what you want your finished track to sound like. So use your ears and imagination and see what you can create.
Despite this, I do tend to use some simple mixing tricks when recording distorted guitars which may help you get an even better sound.
I don’t tend to use much compression on my distorted guitar tracks. As I mentioned earlier distortion is technically a form of compression.
When I do use compression I use a multiband compressor. For more detail on this and compression, in general, check out this old article I did. In short, a multiband compressor allows you to compress different frequency ranges of your track by different amounts. Rather than having to compress the track across the entire frequency spectrum. A multiband compressor will usually be divided into 3 or 4 sections. Allowing you to alter the low range, mid-range, and high ranges separately.
On your distorted guitar, you may want to bring out some ‘grit’ or ‘bite’ in the sound. This can be done by compressing some of the low-end to bring out the mid-range frequencies.
Another time when compression may come in handy for distorted guitars is for lead parts. When a guitarist is playing a complex solo or lead riff they are unlikely to hit every note consistently. Volumes of certain notes will inevitably be louder and some such as hammer-ons or pull-offs may be much softer. For this, I just use a single compressor with a fairly fast attack time and a threshold set to a level that gives about -6dB gain reduction.
Don’t just throw compression on your distorted guitar parts for the sake of it. Only do it if it really improves the sound and the mix overall. Don’t kill the life of the song, use with caution.
How to EQ distorted guitars
The key to EQ is to use your ears and don’t try and look for any quick shortcuts or cheat-sheets. Although if you want more info on EQ, check out this old article.
How you use EQ will vary depending on how you recorded your distorted guitars and how you want them to sound in the end. You also need to make sure they sit well in the mix with the other instruments. There is no point getting a great sounding track if it is fighting in the mix to be heard against other instruments. Listen and EQ in context.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Try a high-pass filter to reduce low-end and muddy sounding tracks
There is a chance that when you start adding more and more instruments to your track. Some will start to get lost in the mix. The bass guitar is one in particular which just seems to disappear a lot of the time. Particularly when you have a lot of other guitars playing. The temptation may be to crank up the bass levels. But that will only help so much and you will still find it fighting for room in the mix.
So it is often essential to add either a high-pass filter or shelving EQ to get rid of some of the low-end frequencies of your distorted guitar tracks.
A high-pass filter is a filter that allows high frequencies to pass (hence the name) but cuts out low-end frequencies. This will also make them sound brighter and less ‘muddy’.
Use EQ sweeping to get rid of nasty sounds within the tracks
- Within your DAW add a parametric EQ plugin to the distorted guitar track. There are usually stock plugins that will work just fine for this process.
- Take a point and increase the Q value to cover a fairly small range.
- Increase the gain of this point significantly. This will completely over exaggerate those frequencies but will help us pinpoint any strange or horrible sounds we don’t want.
- Slowly sweep through the frequencies until you hear something you don’t like, maybe a weird resonance sound.
- Once you find one of these points. Decrease the gain so it is a negative value, i.e you are reducing the nasty sounding frequencies from the track.
So there you have it, a starting point and some tips for recording distorted guitars in your home studio.
The main thing I would like you to take away is to keep things simple at least when starting out. If you want to use an amplifier and microphone setup then start with a single microphone and get that sounding good first. Don’t put 4 microphones in front of the amp and act confused about why it sounds crappy. Keeping it simple also applies to numbers of tracks and number of effects too.
Remember to ease off the distortion slightly from what you may be used to playing in a live setting. And don’t just use loads of EQ and compression if you don’t need to.