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Distortion Can Ruin a Great Track. Here is How You Optimize it.

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Distortion is a component of sound that's been around since the beginning of audio recording when Edison invented the cylinder Phonograph in 1877. As the technology improved over time, so did the quality of the audio.

I n the 1950's, distortion became a mainstream component of the new genre called Rock N' Roll with electric guitars at the forefront of this radical new wave of music. This distortion was completely intentional and has been a staple in rock and other genres of music ever since.

Modern distortion comes in a variety of flavors these days. From guitar pedals that overdrive the sound, to tape machines that saturate when pushed hard, to clipping analog to digital converters and other outboard gear, to clipping plugins and signal levels in your DAW.

Distortion should ALWAYS be deliberate. Hearing it is easy when it's dominant in a signal but sometimes it's hard to identify when you've gone too far with it, especially for beginners. The most effective way that I judge distortion is by listening in my headphones at a VERY LOW volume.


In my opinion, you should always use your control room monitors for at least 50% of your work but if your room isn't acoustically treated it makes it more difficult to hear anomalies in your mix, even at low levels. Turning up the monitors doesn't help this situation for a couple of reasons. First, by making the sound louder, it's just going to bounce around your untreated room even more and skew your perspective. Second, the human ear naturally compresses audio when it gets loud, which ALSO skews your perspective. Listening in your headphones at a very low level allows you to have laser focus on things that are sticking out of a mix that you might not hear on your control room monitors. This is the best way to hear when you've pushed a signal too far. It's good to always push it to the max to see what it's capable of, then back off to find the sweet spot.
If you're using a tape emulation plugin for instance, push it far into saturation, then back it off just to the point that there is none, then tweak it up until you hit that sweet spot. Same with any plugin or piece of gear. Sometimes the maximum level is the right choice, but make sure it's deliberate when you do it.

Post comments about this if you have questions and thanks for reading!

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