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Old 07-08-2016, 11:27 PM   #1
A Little Man and a House
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Default Distortion on things that aren't electric guitars (question)

What things should be considered when attempting to create a recorded sound that will respond well to light overdrive or heavy distortion, when the instrument in play isn't actually an electric guitar? I have heard some nice results with distorted violins, cellos, etc. I am thinking of experimenting with this a bit with my classical guitar, probably just with some free ampsim (I have an amp but it sucks), and I'm wondering what things I should do/avoid. Or is this just a terrible idea?
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Old 07-09-2016, 04:42 AM   #2
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If you can monitor in real time, rather than add distortion afterwards, I think it will yield much more usable results.

Distortion changes how chords and sustain sound, so hearing the effect in real time will change how you play.
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Old 07-09-2016, 01:21 PM   #3
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i don't know about full on distortion, but mild overdrive can certainly enhance the sound of acoustic instruments. the "warmth" everyone used to talk glowingly about in older recordings was actually that. tape saturation, to the point of overdrive.

i know that classical guitars can sound very nice, when mildly over driven. listen to some of the recordings of jose gonzalez. he always seems to be right at--or just above--the point of saturation in a lot of his recordings. it's a very nicely compressed sound.

case in point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abp_tnLsYm4
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Old 07-09-2016, 02:11 PM   #4
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What things should be considered when attempting to create a recorded sound that will respond well to light overdrive or heavy distortion, when the instrument in play isn't actually an electric guitar? I have heard some nice results with distorted violins, cellos, etc. I am thinking of experimenting with this a bit with my classical guitar, probably just with some free ampsim (I have an amp but it sucks), and I'm wondering what things I should do/avoid. Or is this just a terrible idea?
No it's a great idea!
You have no idea how much distortion is used in mixing.

Even if you're after a more natural and/or audiophile thing with acoustic instruments. Think of it as part of the room component if that helps. When you find the perfect room to record an instrument that "lights up" just the right way, the sound you are capturing that has bounced off the walls a couple times has been distorted. You can also dial this stuff in with distortion in the box. It's a way to generate harmonics. Use an eq pre and/or post to limit the bandwidth. Maybe you only need a narrow band that saturates. You can try distorting a reverb instead too.
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Old 07-09-2016, 02:34 PM   #5
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One of the things that makes an electric guitar sound decent through even large amounts of overdrive/distortion is the fact that they don't put out much in the way of higher frequencies to begin with. Between string physics and the filter action of the pickups, the frequency response slants downward and has a pretty steep drop off somewhere between like 5-8KHz. This is important because first the distortion is going to add even more higher harmonics, and that can sound harsh, brittle, or fizzy, and second the higher harmonics are more like noise (not simple multiples of the fundamental frequency) and the multiples of those are just more noise. Again, what a lot of people call fizz. A good guitar speaker or sim thereof is going to roll off those high frequencies pretty quickly again, but it's still pretty easy to tell the difference. A piezo pickup or even a microphone on an acoustic instrument will probably benefit from some serious LPF before much of any crunch.

Course, sometimes we don't really want it to sound "good" when it comes out of the distortion, and then all bets are off.
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Old 07-09-2016, 02:42 PM   #6
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...the higher harmonics are more like noise (not simple multiples of the fundamental frequency) and the multiples of those are just more noise.
Guitars are not known for their perfect intonation!

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Course, sometimes we don't really want it to sound "good" when it comes out of the distortion, and then all bets are off.
One of my favourite sounds is bitcrushed harp
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Old 07-10-2016, 04:58 AM   #7
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Some good advice here. So I'll...

-Have the distortion audible while playing, probably keep it to headphones while tracking...

-Put a lowpass BEFORE the amp sim in the signal chain.

-Use mild overdrive to add WARMTH to chordy stuff.

-Experiment with stronger distortion, watch out for crazy amounts of high end harmonics with juidicious EQ, probably stick to melodies, rest strokes, and the odd power chord.

Maybe I should post my Reaper project file here when I get something together? criticism would probably be helpful...
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Old 07-11-2016, 05:39 PM   #8
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Playing a bit off the mathematical stuff above:

Something to keep in mind with distortion is that complex harmonies (for instance, chords with more than 2 or 3 notes) tend to become garbled because of all the harmonic clashing after the distortion is applied. There's a reason "power chords" on guitar are so ubiquitous; it's just the root and the 5th, and it is indeed powerful.

So distortion could (in some cases) sound cool on something like a minor 9th chord, but I find it often works better on monophonic/duophonic lines, or chords with only 2 notes (e.g. the root and the 5th)

Of course, I'm talking about outright distortion, not just subtle saturation. Something like tube/tape saturation should be applied all across the board, in my opinion, albeit in very subtle amounts.
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Old 07-12-2016, 06:46 AM   #9
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Yeah, that is my experience with distortion too. Lots of notes -> ugly. Perfect fifths -> pretty.

Actually, I've noticed the same general pattern with (non-distorted) instruments that have lots of harmonics.. a sax sounds nice melodically, but chords tend to sound rubbish (to me).

I guess that is because of those clashing harmonics you mentioned. Whereas an electric piano, or accoustic guitar, has very few harmonics, and will tolerate those big seventh chords or whatever. This is the same principle, I guess?

I experimented once with distorting a synth that I had tuned to just intonation, and this could tolerate more distortion, without sounding horrible. So, I guess this is somehow related to lining up those inconsistant harmonics? (I don't care for just intonation in most contexts, it sounds alien to me).
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Old 07-12-2016, 07:36 AM   #10
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It's because the harmonics of note A combined with the harmonics of note B have no tonal relation to the actual chord which is called intermodulation distortion. Based on what harmonics are being generated, mostly odd or mostly even is said to affect this.

A square wave (much like a fuzz face) theortically generates infinte odd harmonics (1,3,5,7) but a tube amp usually more even harmonics. This why some distortions handle four note chords better but others can seem tolerate anything but fifths.

Here is an extreme example of intermodulation distortion. It is a clone of the late 60s Octavia fuzz that I had just built and was testing before boxing up, which has an octave, due to that octave (2nd harmonic) being so strong plus other harmonics, almost any two-note chord creates a pretty spastic sound. Mind you, used in the right spots it sounds great but obviously using it that way is normally a rarity. Whenever I hit more than one note simultaneously you can hear it. Later I cut the octave off which relieves the IM a bit because that 2nd harmonic has been turned off.

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Old 08-11-2016, 07:20 PM   #11
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Yeah, that is my experience with distortion too. Lots of notes -> ugly. Perfect fifths -> pretty.
That's one reason all those guitarists and especially keyboardists who joined heavy rock bands in the '80s had to live by the "No thirds in the chords!" dictum if they wanted to keep their gig.
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Old 08-11-2016, 08:54 PM   #12
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That's one reason all those guitarists and especially keyboardists who joined heavy rock bands in the '80s had to live by the "No thirds in the chords!" dictum if they wanted to keep their gig.
I mean, neither Jimi nor Stevie Ray really worried about it much.

You have to be careful with this line of thought. Like I said above, we usually don't put distortion on things to make them sound prettier. We usually add distortion in order to add some complexity to the sound, but even extreme distortion can't really help a very simple input. Run a simple fundamental sine wave through as much horrible distortion as you want and the best you're going to get out of it is a square wave, which is not really a particularly interesting sound on its own. All of the harmonics produced are perfect integer multiples of the fundamental, and it's all just quite boring. If we want something interesting, we really kind of need it to throw up at least some rather unmusical harmonics - notes you can't play on the key or fretboard - to clash and add tension and drama and...well...complexity.
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Old 08-12-2016, 03:22 AM   #13
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Nothing says goregrind doom like an inverted fifth.
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Old 08-12-2016, 06:07 AM   #14
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I mean, neither Jimi nor Stevie Ray really worried about it much.
Well, lead guitarists who are the boss never do : ) Plus, it wouldn't apply to their kinds of music. Also, not that it should never be done, but it was the commandment sent down, especially to keyboardists who were supposed to fill in what drops out when the guitarist soloed. I have some miserable memories of having it screamed at me mid song : )
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Old 08-12-2016, 10:43 AM   #15
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Yeah it all depends on what (or who, i guess) you're going for. In a way I think it goes back to that thing about actually listening to the distortion as you're playing. I think you'll just naturally play to or against it as you see fit. It won't take long to tell if that third is ruining everything or adding exactly the right dissonance. You don't really have to think much about it or do any math. Plug it in, turn the knobs til it sounds good, rock.

I guess the point I was trying to make is that what comes out of a distortion is completely dependent on what goes in. Distortion itself is easy and frankly almost agnostic. The more you crush the signal, the less it really matters how you do it. What matters is how you filter the sound on either side of that non-linear element. You can get stoner metal out of a harpsichord. Piano into a Marshall stack can be a glorious thing. It could be difficult to tell a flute from a guitar if they both go through an octave fuzz. You just have to filter things properly on the way in.

But still and again I'm not sure we need to sit and do math. Turn the knobs til it sounds good! If the knobs you have won't get you there, drop in ReaEQ and you've got all kinds of knobs. Heck, ReaComp is a pretty powerful distortion engine in its own right. Set all the time constants to 0, ratio to inf, and you've got a variable knee, variable threshold saturator. String that once or twice in between a few instances of ReaEQ and you've got a modular distro on monster.
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