Take It To The Limit (Part 1)

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From basic sounds and simple plugins emerge the most ear-twisting tones imaginable. In this tutorial we go to work with four of the bass music producer’s most powerful tools – distortion, dynamics, modulation and real-time control – and discover the fabulously noisy joy of extreme signal processing and sound design. Let’s get ready to mangle!

Distortion – The soul of sound

Distortion brings sounds to life. A simple sine wave at 100Hz plots a basic curve on a spectrum analyzer and sounds pretty boring, but introduce some harmonic distortion and you’ll see new peaks appear at 200Hz, 300Hz, 400Hz, 500Hz and beyond. These overtones make the sound richer in timbre – and louder!

Distortion brings sounds to life

Distortion brings sounds to life

There are as many ways of distorting sounds as there are preparing food, and sound engineers guard their secret recipes as jealously as Michelin-starred chefs. To continue the culinary analogy, while there are some tried and tested methods of creating distortion, there’s always room for a Heston Blumenthal to come along with a unique new flavor.

Even the simplest plugins that come included with DAWs such as Logic or Ableton Live have huge potential for creative destruction, and can do more than decimate individual sounds. Distortion plugins can also be used as compressors and ‘tone-enhancers’, and if you strap one across a group buss with a few sonically varied channels routed through it, distortion or even gentle overdrive can have a strong unifying effect – like audio ‘glue’.

Don’t limit yourself to plugins for generating distortion, though – try some combined software and hardware abuse! Create a hardware insert by connecting your DAW’s output to some real hardware, then route it back into the input and try overloading it – especially if that’s not what the device was intended for. Try cheap digital effects and pedals, or old cassette recorders. You could even try overloading the output or input of your audio interface, or an internal buss – experiment!

Step by step: Automating three types of distortion in Logic Pro

  1. We start with a Massive patch (CM Reece Flavour.nmsv) and a simple MIDI part. Call up an automation lane (via whatever system you DAW uses) for Massive’s Glide_Time parameter. Draw in a curve that allows long glide between notes but comes quickly back to the note at the beginning of the cycle. (Massive_clean.mp3)

  1. We insert Logic’s Phase Distortion plugin. This type of distortion uses its own input signal to modulate a super-fast delay line, which microscopically moves the signal around in time, creating a unique effect similar to frequency modulation. (Massive_phasedistortion.mp3)

  1. Set the Cutoff frequency to 230Hz and the Mix to 100%. This is too full-on to be an ever-present sound, so select the Mix parameter from the Automation dropdown and automate it to create some big pulses at a couple of different points in the part. Leave some space for more automation to come later though.

  1. We insert a Bitcrusher after the Phase Distortion and set up an automation lane for the Clip Level. This parameter slices off the top and bottom of the waveform, adding a super-harsh, ‘digital’-sounding distortion. Draw in some automation moves. The idea is to come back later and tweak these when all the automation is in place.

  1. Mess around with the Resolution control to give a weird tonal fizz to the sound. Smooth automation doesn’t work well with this parameter, creating a clearly audible ‘stepped’ effect, so block in some bold automation changes. We’ve decided to associate the low-res sound with the lower notes in the part.

  1. Now let’s automate the Downsampling control. Both Resolution and Downsampling can completely destroy the sound, but we’ll take the settings as far as they can go to make the most of all the flavor available. Extreme downsampling simulates low sample rate and can sound quite metallic and ‘8-bit’, like early videogames.

  1. Next in the chain is Logic’s Clip Distortion, which is designed to replicate the effect of a non-linear analogue distortion device, like a guitar amp valve. It has a warmer sound because of its inbuilt filters. Set up an automation lane for the Tone (the frequency of the high-pass filter) and put in a few dips here and there.

  1. Mow let’s play around with the Mix setting. We’ve decided to completely remove the effect wherever it isn’t doing much, and you can see that the automation here reflects where the action was in the previous step, the secret to creating these multi textural sounds is to be careful about when they’re all ‘speaking’ – pick your moments!

  1. Now we have a bunch of different distortion effects going on, but we also have wildly variable levels throughout. Use the Gain parameter to get the levels under control, so that the quieter sections can be heard. You’ll probably need to go back and adjust your previous automation in order to maximize the cumulative effect. (Massive_bitcrush_clip_filter.mp3)

  1. All that clipping creates some really intrusive high-frequency artifacts so it’s a good idea to end the chain with a filter. This not only cleans up any extreme high and low frequencies, but also gives you a chance to EQ the whole mess as a whole in the context of the rest of the track. Choose super-steep 48dB/octave sloped for efficient cleanup EQ. (Distorted_sounds_in_context.mp3)

Step by step: Using distortion to make low-frequency sounds audible

  1. To make a sub-bass drop, we load up an ESX24 sampler, which defaults to a sine wave. Set the Mod 2 destination to Pitch and the source to Env 1, then push the mod amount all the way up. Now set Env 1 up for the pitch drop. (Not deep enough? Duplicating Mod 2 in Mod 3 doubles the amount of pitch travel.) (Subber_clean.mp3)

  1. Next, we add an Overdrive plugin. This creates the upper harmonic partials that we’ll need to give our soft sine wave some teeth. Set the Drive to about 50% and the Tone to about 1kHz. Already, the sound is more audible. (Subber_overdrive.mp3)

  1. Insert a Bitcrusher and take the Resolution down to 8bit (we’re big fans of the Akai S950 sound!), the Drive to about 30% and the Downsampling to minimum. This is like what we did with the Overdrive previously, but now there’s more for the Bitcrusher to chew on. (Subber_bitcrusher.mp3)

  1. Next, we insert SoundToys Decapitator. Punish is on, Drive is at 7 and the ‘T’ or triode emulation is giving a great tone. Post-Bitcrusher, we could hear a faint tail, but Decapitator yanks it right into the foreground. We automate the Mix parameter to bring in Decapitator as the drop progresses. (Subber_decapitator.mp3)

  1. This ES2 synth patch takes two sine waves and bends them away from each other over time, creating a subtle ‘beating’ effect. This is done by routing Env 2 to the pitch of Oscillators 1 and 2 in the Mod 1 and Mod 2 slots. Both oscillators are set to sine waves, and using different modulation amounts in each slot creates the divergent motion. (es2dual_clean.mp3)

  1. To really make this effect happen, we need to use more distortion. This time we insert a simple Distortion II plugin and set the PreGain to 90%, the Drive to maximum and the Tone to 60%. The distortion takes that gentle beating of the sine waves and turns it into a pulsing throb. This shows how powerful sine waves and distortion can be more on that later. (es2dual_distortion.mp3)

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