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  • Alberto Icaza

Distortion is my best friend

When Soundtoys put out Decapitator, I remember being blown away at how present and dense anything that passed through it became. It gave it weight and a lot of character.


I learned to engineer from Machine and Will Putney, who had a beautiful collection of Analog preamps that provided a lot of color on the way in but when I tried to replicate that character with cheaper preamps, I was getting somewhat flat sounds. I was missing something. So my best friend Decapitator was there to pick up the slack and give those tracks some sonic love. Turns out what I was missing was harmonic distortion. That's the magic that happens when you use electricity in analog gear and its also the secret behind tape. Engineers look back to using tape with nostalgia because of the way it helped tracks sit in a recording.


Let's do an experiment, I'm running an oscillator at 100 hz and then adding decapitator as an insert. Im going to move the Tone knob (this moves the harmonics response).



Test Oscillator


Adding Decapitator


Tone knob set to: Bright


Tone knob set to Dark




In the digital age a way to enhance tracks is using Distortion to create separation, give tracks density, make them more "in your face" or even change the character of a certain effect. Every sonic box has their own resonance at what they put harmonic distortion to the source. Here are some examples:







Now lets talk about how to use that to make your mixes better!

This is how I use distortion in my mixes.



1- Bass and Kick Separation

A nifty trick I use to separate bass from Kick drums is adding Distortion to the bass so I can lower it in the track and high pass some low frequencies without losing the perceived volume of it. It just sits in a higher frequency range than it was before. This trick also helps to bring up the attack of the kick drum, making it more present but not necessarily fake sounding.




2- Reverb

Adding a different feel to a reverb by using distortion after the reverb. I can change the tone if I want it to be brighter, Darker, denser or even sound more exciting.


3- Bringing a vocal to the front

This is a great way of pushing your vocal to the front of the mix and make it feel bigger. I love Soundtoy's radiator and Decapitator for this. If you listen to Elle King's- Xs and Oh's, all the vocals have been run through an Altec 1567A which is what the Radiator is modeled after. Listen how exciting and distorted that vocal sounds!


4-Lead guitars

I like to give them a bit of distortion to give the lead guitars an edge to sit on top of rhythm guitars. It just helps separate them when the tones are too similar. I like to cut down the leads with EQ so they dont get in the way of the rhythm section and then add distortion to make sure they cut through.


5- Synths need character

When working with digital instruments a lot of times i feel like they are missing some edge to them. Distortion is a great way to give them character and make them feel like they were recorded. There's something to be said about the artifacts that the original units had that just give the instrument so much character.


Thats it for now! Hope this helps you in your mixes.


-A



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Voting Member since 2016

Billboard Charting Engineer

© 2019 by Alberto de Icaza.