Distortion Tricks Part I

November 1, 2010

Ah, distortion—the essence of industrial, fill-in-the-blank-core, and many IDM subgenres, to say nothing of rock ’n’ roll. For many dance producers, distortion is like nails on a chalkboard, but for the intrepid, it can be a source of truly interesting textures. This month, we’ll cover three ways to use distortion—and its brainier cousin, waveshaping—to turn a ho-hum instrument into something unique. Next month, we’ll look at a different type of distortion effect: bit-crushing.

Ex1808cga_Curve_nrEx. 1. New Life for Electronic Percussion
Everyone knows the classic TR-808 tom and conga. At the heart of these sounds lies a simple sine wave—a perfect candidate for waveshaping. First, switch Ableton Live’s Saturator device to Waveshaper mode, then tinker with the curve, depth, and linearity parameters. You’ll be greeted with a sharp, synthy texture that’s much more complex than the distorted square wave you may have expected.


Ex2_CongaWS_nrEx. 2. More Conga Fun
One of the reasons congas (either synthetic or real) are ripe candidates for waveshaping is that their tone is free of excessive harmonic content, which can make distortion sound extremely harsh. Here, we use Live’s Saturator again to transform an acoustic conga loop into something that blurs the line between electronic and organic.








Ex3a_SubScream_nrEx. 3. Distortion as a Synthesis Tool
Since all modern DAWs include basic synth and distortion tools, we’ll use Reason (left) to demonstrate a nifty sound design trick. Start by creating a Subtractor with an initialized patch, then switch oscillator 1 to a sine wave and leave oscillator 2 off. From there, add a Scream effect and examine the sound of each of its modes. Fuzz, Distortion, and Overdrive deliver familiar results, but Tape and Tube modes are capable of subtlety. Ableton users can achieve the same effect by using Operator’s default patch in conjunction with the Saturator Waveshaper mode Ex3bOpDist_nr(right).

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