When reading or talking about music, you might hear the word ‘distortion’ come up.
Sometimes you can recognize what a distorted guitar, for example, sounds like, but it can be really hard to understand the actual mechanics of it.
What makes a sound or instrument distorted, versus one that is making a normal sound? How are musicians able to intentionally distort sounds?
If you find yourself wondering about the finer details of distortion, then this is the article for you!
We’ll take you through exactly what distortion means in relation to music, as well as how distortion is used by musicians to make exciting and unique sounds!
There are some fairly technical musical terms in this article, so we’ve made sure to include an extensive FAQ section at the bottom to explain any and all of your questions!
What Is Distortion?
The term distortion refers to a change in the original ‘form’ of a sound wave. This means deviating from the normal, curved pitch of a sound into something complex and rougher.
Although distortion may sound like a strange, avant-garde technique that musicians use, it’s actually a lot more common in our lives than you might think.
Faulty or low-quality recordings of voice are a prime example of distortion we hear frequently – for example on an old home movie when voice crackles.
Distortion, in short, is what we would call an ‘imperfect sound.’
If you were to look at distortion in waveform – which is the digital form of music and sound – you instead of perfectly smooth lines, you would see jagged and erratic lines to replace them. This is a representation of how the sound wave has been manipulated.
How Is Distortion Created?
Over the course of music history, distortion has been used by musicians to create specific sounds.
Once, distortion would have been seen as a negative. That’s because if you're trying to make pitch-perfect tones, any blemishes or distortion are seen as ruining the smooth sounds.
However, since the 1960s and the birth of heavier music such as Rock and Roll, musicians have learned how to use distortion to their advantage.
The oldest and most simple way musicians created a distortion in their music was by increasing volume and input gain on their electric guitars.
Input gain is how much audio input you add into a system – in this case, an electric amplifier, and this mixed with volume creates a massive distortion of sound depending on the levels.
You may be asking yourself at this point – why would musicians want distorted and imperfect sounds?
Well when it comes to an electric guitar, this distorted tone is the basis for nearly all rock and roll, metal, punk, acid rock, hardcore punk, and even hip-hop music.
It is that traditionally ‘growling’ guitar tone that many famous guitarists throughout history have used to create amazing solos, catchy riffs, and classic chord progressions.
Grunge music, which came to prevalence in the 90s with bands like Nirvana, used heavy distortion to create a dirty and sludgy sound to their guitars. This created the entire genre of grunge which linked these dirty tones with heavy riffs and gritty lyrics.
Distortion In Modern Music Production
Since the birth of music-making software such as Ableton, Logic, and FL studio, distortion has become a major tool that producers use in beats, instrumentals, and general music production.
For example, modern hip-hop producers might use distortion to warp the sound of a sampled piece of music, in order to change it so that it can be rapped over.
When once musicians would have to physically create distortion with the use of synths, pedals, amps, and the settings on their electric guitars, modern producers have a range of tools and plugins that distort sounds for them when creating pieces of music.
Modern music software allows them to not only distort sounds but also to choose the exact levels by which the sounds are distorted.
Modern hip-hop music makes great use of distortion when manipulating ‘808’ drums, which are made deeper and more volatile. This creates more impressive beats that give a lot of impact behind the rapper's words.
Distortion has a rich history of usage within popular and alternative music, and will likely continue to be used by musicians and producers as music progresses and changes.
If you’re a musician, it’s worth at least experimenting with distortion of your instrument or music production software to see what this technique can do for you!
We hope that this article has shed some light on what exactly distortion means, as well as how it’s been used throughout musical history.
Below is a short FAQ section that will explain some of the more technical aspects of this article.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Input Gain?
Input gain is a limiter that sets the levels of sound going into whatever musical device you’re using.
For example, it sets how much input your electrical amp is getting from a guitar.
What Is Output Gain?
Output gain is the opposite of Input gain. It sets the level of sound that is going out of the musical device.
What Is Sampling?
Sampling is a technique within music production in which an artist takes an element of an existing song or piece of music and includes it into a new song.
For example, hip-hop producers often take drum beats or melodies from previous songs, distort and change them, and then add them into a song they’re making.
Although this might look like stealing, the idea behind sampling is to pay homage or to modify the old sounds in order to create something completely new!
What Is Music Production Software?
Music Production Software is the name we give to applications that allow you to make music on the computer or phone.
They will often have a variety of virtual instruments that can be programmed to compose entire pieces of music without needing the physical instruments.
Music Production software also allows you to greatly modify sounds with onboard ‘plugins’ and synthesizers.
What Is FL Studio?
FL Studio is a free music production software, which was created in 2003 by the Belgian company Image-Line.
It has grown in popularity over recent years and is now a respected Music Production software for iOS, macOS, Android, and Windows platforms.