Musical Distortions

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distort – to pull or twist out of shape, change the form of; 

from the Latin distorquere (‘apart’ + ‘to twist) 

Among the many interesting and unanticipated discoveries made while producing electronic music is hitting upon distortions that cause sounds to behave in unusual ways. The most common type of distortion is overdriving or saturating a signal so that it sounds gritty, textured, damaged, and less pristine that it once was. This, of course, is a timbre that has defined the macho, loudly-amplified guitar sound of rock music since the 1950s. But any sound can be distorted—either aggressively or by more subtle means, so that the timbre is either all but destroyed or evinces just a hint of damage on its edges.

 

I’ve been experimenting with distortions and saturations, both deliberately and accidentally, heavy-handedly and subtly, by processing sounds in my mixes in various ways with various plug-ins. Distortion’s most interesting quality is how it makes audible parts of a sound that were inaudible without the effect. For instance, distortion can sound like a buzzing-humming timbre which in turn can grab nearby pitches and accentuate their (sympathetic) resonance along with the buzz-hum. Sometimes I put distortion on a sound just to hear what sonic invisibles it will foreground. This reminds me of something the producer Jon Hopkins says about how his production process involves digging for sounds within his sounds by boosting its noisy elements to hear what happens: “Boosting the bits that you think are just noise. Boosting the mistakes…I can pick out artifacts that aren’t even supposed to be there. Boost them. And distort them again” (musicradar.com, 2019)  

My general rule of thumb is if a distortion makes a sound more interesting to listen to, I leave it in. Over time, the distortions I’ve added to parts in a track accumulate and at that point the music takes an exponential jump in interestingness—as if it’s becoming a more complex system. When there are 5 or 10 tracks whose sounds are distorted in some way, their cumulative effect can take the music in a direction I hadn’t planned on. For one thing, the music gets louder and fuller (so I re-adjust levels here and there to tame distortion’s exuberance). Also, the music’s texture becomes thicker and more intricate, because now the multiple distortions are overlapping with one another to create composite distortion timbres. These composite timbres are like a new meta-track within my track—a track not there but there, a track full of inherent rhythms not played by any of the other tracks in isolation, a track whose timbral irregularities I can respond to and further shape. The musician (and voice-over expert) Dan Worrall, who narrates tutorials for FabFilter software, describes distortion as saturating a sound by adding irregular nonlinearities to its waveform. In one tutorial, he offers advice for the electronic music producer who wants to enrich the texture of a mix: “You need to add nonlinearities deliberately.”    

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