Let's talk distortion

Everything about distortion from how you use it…how you mix disortion…how you use it to design sounds…what plugins you use or conversely gear you use…anything from tips to techinques…

Personally I use the stock wave shaper distortion plug and eq it before and after application…sometimes I add reverb then distortion to create feedback or distort a patch after the application of filter modulation…

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The waveshaper is really good once you know how the transfer function graph works. I use it when I’m using the stock Image Line plugins in FL Studio because those plugins tend to be a bit dry for my taste (in which Diva is the ultimate softsynth) and waveshaper is really good at dialing in a precise, controlled amount of distortion to just liven things up a bit.

I also usually use something at the start of my FX chain to just add color and spice up the sound a bit. By doing it before you do the EQ and everything else, it can really feel like a part of the sound. I have a couple favorites there, but the biggest one is Decapitator. Then if I do anything for effect (like overtly obvious distortion), that can either be dialled in at the start of the chain by just cranking that first distortion way up, or by adding it later in the chain. I usually just don’t do it on drums. Too much CPU to do each channel individually and the benefits are so mimimal on short, percussive sounds IMO. I strap a nice analog emulation of a compressor over my drum bus and call that good, with less nice analog emulations of compressors on the individual drum channels as needed to control any really bad peaking.

I’ve said this before elsewhere, but I also make extensive use of distortion in mastering to give disparate tracks similar color and to help me make more subtle moves than I can do in EQ. At very low input levels, the triode mode in Ozone actually “absorbs” transients and really high frequencies, so you can use it as a combination of compressor and shelving EQ if you use it just right.

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Distortion for mastering interesting…

For certain sounds I slam it through a compressor and add distortion In order to get feedback noises…

And for industrial drums ill just eq, compression, eq, envelope, eq, distortion,eq, etc…I just keep repeating the distortion eq compression volume/filter envelope effects chain in no particular order till i get the sound i want…

I’ve only once automated the wave shaper plug basically I switched between two instances of the plug with each having different saturation curves by playing/automating with the mix level…but I’ve never tried applying the switch of distortion with the envelope controller using it to modulate the mix level or doing the switch in conjunction with frequency band splitting…

I use wave shaper because I dont have things like a tube amp, or just regular amps or other types of gear at my disposal

And normally I just use distortion to create gritty baselines and shoegaze type pads and filter it to taste so that its audible and doesnt drown out the other elements in my tracks

Mixing it is tricky for me cause im trying to make things audible against a wall of sound but to overcome this I filter certain frequencies in both the dry and wet signals and combine both together…

Software in order of common usage:

  • Decap - because it’s just so versatile. Everything from an undetectable sheen to vroom vroom drive to sonic destruction. I don’t know what I’d do without it.

  • Saturn - love love love being able to saturate/distort distinct bands. Lots of cool shaping features, too.

  • Ohmicide - if Decapitator does sonic destruction, this does sonic retardation. So fucking over the top in cool and interesting ways. Being able to blend really distinct and shapeable distortions is way fun.

  • D16 Devastor - I should probably use this more; it sounds great. Lots of settings, filters are cool. I tend to use this more on percussive elements, I think, but I can’t say why.

  • Amplitube - or whatever amp sim tickles your funny bits. As good on other things as it is on guitar. Very versatile.

  • Bunch of other plugs that don’t get a ton of use.

Hardware (in no particular order) - love me some outboard through pedals and back again

  • ProCo RAT - classic, sounds good on everything. Have built a ton of clones and thrown different op amps and pots in them for slightly different feels.

  • MXR Distortion+ - a hold over from playing guitar. Lots of fun, kind of thin and forward sounding, does mild breakup well.

  • Dwarfcraft Great Destroyer - when nothing but completely fucked up will do.

  • Behringer UB802 (circa 1995) - this thing sounds amaz-a-balls when pushed. Totally gnarly. Double duty as a feedback/no input mixer.

  • '69 Twin and '72 Bassman - don’t get a lot of love these days, but nothing compares to micing these up and running delayed piano parts through them at high volume.

  • Neve 1073 knockoff (but with a Carnhill tranny) - I built this years ago and it still gets a lot of use. Sounds particularly good when pushed with a decent mic.

Distortion is once of those things that’s too broad to pin down as “you need to do this with it”. It’s like prescriptive EQ - it only makes sense in the broader context. Sometimes cool as centerpiece, sometimes better in small amounts as accent or glue. I tend to mix the final product taken on its own merits, rather than “this thing with distortion on it”. I do tend to sculpt with EQ after the fact to get it to sit in the mix correctly.

I think the important thing is to play with it. Try different things. Run it in parallel, throw delay on the parallel track, only distort the delay, EQ it before and after, crush it with compression, whatever. It’s amazing how different even bog-standard distortions can sound with some pre and post tweaks.

One trick I’m a big fan of sound design by attrition. Record something > do some stuff to it > trim a bunch of EQ or isolate parts > start over. Enough iterations and something cool and inspirational is bound to come out. Distortion is great for that.


Turn down the wet dry
Watch how it affects the gain
Use distortion w as much frequency control as possible

Try it after all the other fx instead of before. Distortion after reverb or delay is a beautiful thing.


You a 100% need to use more d16 devistator and the upgrade to mkii is well worth it. That being said Saturn js sooooo good.

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Can get some awesome sounds via resampling a distorted sound and time stretching it then adding a chorus effect…turns a sound into digital liquid…

Great to use as a harmonic exciter

And can soften a sound by blurring the frequencies…or can give it more texture with a little bit of inventive use of clipping

Also after applying distortion I always set the high pass filter at 10hz or something to get rid of the inaudible frequencies…


I love Trash, Ohmicide and Fabfilter Saturn for general design tools (even though the latter is technically just saturation with a few distortion models built into it).

As for guitars, I stick to the standard modules that are usually emulating hardware pedals. I’m sure the latter would sound slightly better, but for the cost / space required, I’ll keep it in the box.


@xSANTAxDURSTx That fred Durst beat battle you hosted was challenging trying to effectively use the distorted guitar sample and mix it properly was quite a task…

Camel crusher is still great for effect. Just try it. You’ll know if it’s what you want right away, and if it is then you just get “that sound” in like 4 seconds.

Another fun thing you can do with the fruity waveshaper, is filter out the individual polarities of the waveform (or full on audio) and then process those separately. Technically, I’d still call that distortion as it’s dependent on gain dependent transfer function to make it happen. Anyways, just route audio into two send channels, with one waveshaper set on each to cancel out one of the polarities of the signal. Then you can process just one polarity of the audio. If you route Sytrus right, you can do it with the filters in there as well.Ultra%20distortion


Lots of cool stuff already has been mentioned and I just want to add Live’s Amp. I use it way too often because it sounds so sick. Gain and Dry/wet automation does wonders. Very crushing and crunchy, especially Blues, Lead and Heavy modes.

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That’s why the cleans were there, too. The real joy of mixing guitars (IMO) is from the ground up.

Sometimes when you shift just one EQ curve on the guitars or drums, they just stop fitting together and you have to sometimes even start over from scratch. Achieving some sense of ‘realism’ in the box is so tough that I can only claim to have done it a small number of times.

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I really need to learn how to use the Fruity WaveShaper. Some of the presets sound cool on the right material, but when I step out on my own it just makes a mess of the signal lol.

I wonder if I can get distortion via manipulating the gain parameter of a compressor with a fast randomlfo…and use another compressor to slam the sound with a high gain and a low ceiling…

I only know the basics. The closer you are to a straight line, the less distortion. The smoother the transitions (IE using curves instead of angles) the less fuzz you get. A very basic distortion for analog warming purposes would be to just open it up, and then put an upward curve in the line to taste. That’s your analog distortion model right there, and it’s how I use it 95% of the time. Image line just has the habit of letting people do whatever with their stock plugs, and that means they usually let users go way, way farther than they need to for most common use cases.

BTW, the default view is mirrored, so you don’t see the negative polarity of the transfer function, but it’s a mirrored copy of what you’re doing on top. If you flip that switch at the bottom, you can edit the negative and positive polarities of the transfer function separately, which is what I do to filter away one polarity of the signal. Then you put a flat line in the middle for either the negative polarity on the left or the positive on the right, which just makes any input on that side go to zero.

@bfk The only difference between compression and distortion is the attack/release a compressor gives. Think about it, if you put a signal into distortion, like the waveshaper, you change the output level for a given input infinitely fast based on the function you define in the window. A compressor changes the output level for a given input level based on the threshold and ratio settings as fast as the attack and release allow. That’s why, when you’re compressing bass, you have to back way off the attack and release so that the compressor can’t change level too fast and cause distortion. If the compressor changes gain faster than the wave changes level, it modifies the wave shape instead of the volume of the wave, and that’s distortion.


Thanks man, I appreciate it. That’s enough to get me started.

Software, the usually ones Saturn, Decap. Cubase stock ones.

Hardware, for subtle tape saturation a pair of RND 542s tape emulators. And for proper distortion, elecktron analog Heat. In fact I practically print all my out board synths through the Heat, from subtle to face melting

The saturation curve I use is literally a random squiggly chicken scratch type line…lol

I own all the usual suspect distortion plugins but to my surprise the one that is seldom mentioned is Cytomic “The Scream” I’ve been using it for sometime now its an amazing pedal emulation of the 1979 Ibanez Tube Screamer, the drive and tone just scrunches my munchies.
Its been in beta for ages because in the finished version you’ll be able to choose your own components to build any pedal you want swapping them around on the PCB, so its taking a lot of work/research as he models various diodes, transistors, capacitors etc available on the market, however for £30 the beta works perfect and totally destroys the UAD version in terms of realism.
My number one plugin for getting that Alessandro Cortini driving sound.

pictured is the beta i use, the finished version will look more like the original green pedal.