I love distortion.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.
Now that might surprise you, coming from the founder of Dynamic Range Day, but it’s true. Some of my favourite songs simply wouldn’t exist without it – like the sublime example in the video above, for example !
Distortion has been an integral part of the sound of recorded popular music since the very beginning, and it always will be.
And I love it.
So how can this be true ?
How can someone who bitches almost daily about the squashed-flat, distorted sounds of most modern releases, someone who has developed a plugin specifically to make sure people can hear exactly how much damage the Loudness War Sound is doing to their music – how can I claim to love distortion ?
First, let’s get something clear:
Distortion is a VERY broad term
Strictly speaking, anything that changes an audio signal in any way as it passes through a processing chain, is distortion.
So for example, here are some instances of distortion, ranging from the benign to the heinous – in my opinion:
Distortions that most people wouldn’t even call distortion
- Small, clean level changes – these change the signal and therefore qualify as distortion, but provided they’re done correctly, don’t harm the sound at all
- Added hiss – most of our favourite classic recordings are buried in it. Hiss is our friend !
- Subtle stereo width modification – again, this is a change to the audio signal and so is technically a form of distortion – but would be hard to class as “damaging”, in most cases
Distortions that people deliberately use because they like the sound of them
- Analogue valve distortion – this is a classic, you find it everywhere, built into mics, amps, consoles – there are even plugin emulations… we love it !
- Peak saturation – eg. analogue tape – It’s NOT “the secret of analogue warmth” that people often say it is, but there’s no question that a little peak saturation is often harmless and sometimes sounds great
- Compression pumping – This can range from very subtle stereo “mix glue” right through to heavy thump-suck-relax side-chaining – pumping is a form of distortion without a doubt, and the sound of it is everywhere in pop & rock music from the last 20 years
Distortions that are generally agreed to be NASTY (but some people like them anyway)
- Heavy aliasing – this is the effect you get from “bit-crusher” plugins, but happens in a less extreme way with old & poorly-implemented digital interfaces or sample-rate converters. If you’re making EDM you may love it, but if not – AVOID.
- Heavy limiting “crunch” – Limiting is probably the best way to get clean, musical level increases – and some great musical effects, especially using the old analogue variety – but overdone it sounds pretty unpleasant. Heavily over-limited snares are a personal pet hate of mine…
- Hard digital clipping – Small amounts of clipping distortion can actually be difficult to hear, but taken too far it’s nothing but unpleasant, as far as I’m concerned.
Distortions where the jury is still out…!
- Truncation distortion – this is what happens when you save 16 or 24-bit files and don’t use dither. Some people can’t hear it, some even claim it’s flat-out inaudible – personally I disagree, and prefer not to take the risk.
- Auto-tune – This is a musical effect, yes – but it changes the audio signal, so it’s technically distortion. T-Pain and others use it as a creative tool (even though they don’t need to) – and sometimes it’s used to commmit musical blasphemy. The Marmite of modern music ?
- The sound of vinyl – Vinyl changes the sound of music recorded and played back on it in many ways – some are obviously distortion (rumble, clicks, sibilance) but people love them anyway, and many will be upset to even hear of them referred to as distortion…
So where does that leave us ?
I’ve been meaning to write this post for years, now ! So why today ?
Because of this tweet:
— Jordan Hicks (@MightyJordan) November 6, 2014
– But not for the reasons you might think !
In fact by now you’ll probably see I actually agree with most of what Steve says in that CNET post…
Most of it.
But not all.
It’s that last paragraph that keeps sticking in my throat.
“Music is background sound for almost everyone, most of the time, and heavily compressed, and even harsh music is a plus when you want the sound to remain at a constant volume level.”
Sorry, but… bollocks.
DECIDE to distort… or DON’T
Let’s be honest – most of what Steve says is right.
All the forms of distortion I listed above, and a whole range of other types besides, are valid musical decisions.
If you want to autotune you vocals, bit-crush them and then compress the hell out of them – who am I to say you can’t, or shouldn’t ?
If it sounds good, it IS good, right ?
But that doesn’t mean that we have to distort everything, and in particular it doesn’t mean that we should distort it just because that’s what Artist X did, or because it’s the only way to get something “competitively loud”…
There’s so much music around at the moment that is heavily distorted – saturated, parallel compressed, leak-level limited and then clipped – and it doesn’t make anything automatically sound better. Often, it doesn’t even sound harsh as Steve suggests to me, it just sounds thick, muddy and congested.
Yes the right distortion can literally make or break a song, but no, just ramming everything up against digital zero for the sake of it doesn’t make anything sound better.
And no, just because everybody is listening on earbuds, laptops and mobile phones doesn’t mean music can’t sound great any more – that’s just a council of despair, and I won’t have it.
We need monitoring that allows us to hear exactly how much damage the distortion we use is doing.
We need tools that allow us to make objective comparisons.
And we need the confidence and courage to know that we can make music sound loud without excessive peak-level crush, and it will still sell in massive quantites – because music-buyers don’t care about loudness.
Distortion isn’t a simple “yes or no” decision, it’s a infinitely varying spectrum. Distortion is inherent in many natural sounds, and sounds great in many sutuations where it definitely isn’t. Sometimes it’s the last thing you want, sometimes it’s exactly what your music needs.
Please – do dabble with the dangerous, destructive, delicate delights of distortion for yourself – but don’t use it unless it makes your music sound great.