For maximum effect, combine Studio One’s bundled distortion plug–ins in a parallel signal chain.
Many of us use distortion processors not only on guitars, but on all sorts of sources: bass, snare drum, vocals or even accordion. But there is even more fun to be had putting parallel distortion on a source. By ‘parallel’ distortion I do not mean combining the processed and unprocessed versions of a signal, as you do with parallel compression. Of course, you can do that with distortion, too, but I am talking about splitting a source to two or more distortion processors and then recombining them. Parallel distortion can add complexity and nuance to sounds, rather than simply grunging them up. Thoughtful panning of distorted signals can lend greater size to a guitar sound, and selective application of distortion can produce unique effects.
Studio One comes bundled with two distortion processor plug–ins: an analogue distortion emulator teasingly named Redlight Dist (a slightly sly pun on the term ‘red light district’), and Ampire, a guitar amp emulator. There are a few ways to use these in parallel. One is to use both of them in the same setup; another is to set up multiple instances of a single processor.
First, let’s take a quick look at our fuzzy friends. Redlight Dist features three tube emulation modes and three solid–state modes, and although it’s capable of some great sounds, it often has wider bandwidth than I like to hear from a distortion processor. High–frequency distortion can be harsh, so I often band–limit Redlight Dist to take off a bit of the edge, by using its onboard EQ to roll off above around 4kHz.
Beyond the distortion type, there are two parameters determining the quality of Redlight Dist’s sound. Drive controls the amount of gain applied, and the most radical change in the amount of distortion comes at the very top of its range. Distortion sets the amount of bias being applied to the virtual tube, and, on the whole, has a stronger impact on the tone and amount of distortion. However, Distortion is only active when either the Hard Tube or Bad Tube model is chosen. The key to getting a good sound from Redlight Dist lies in how Drive and Distortion are set relative to each other — some of my favourite Redlight Dist sounds have both set to pretty low values.
Ampire is even more flexible than Redlight Dist, with about a dozen different amp models and almost the same number of speaker cabinet models, plus a set of virtual stompboxes. Though the same controls populate each of Ampire’s two input channels, the two channels sound quite different from one another.
Redlight Dist and Ampire have fundamentally different sonic ‘fingerprints’, which is why things get interesting when you use them together. In Screen 1 you can see a setup where I use both together. I recorded a lead guitar guide track (‘Ken gtr’) through a Line 6 Pod Pro, and simultaneously recorded the unprocessed DI guitar (‘Ken gtr raw’) to another track. In this example, I send the unprocessed signal through two pre–fader sends to bus channels, one with Redlight Dist inserted, and the other with Ampire on it. The three distortion processors (Pod Pro, Redlight Dist, Ampire) are panned centre, left and right, respectively. The spectral differences between the three processors create a nice stereo spread effect, which you can hear online in audio example 1.
I panned the brighter distortion sounds to the left and right to emphasise the image width, and put the darkest sound in the centre. Note, though, that the spectral differences between the channels will often mean that meters alone cannot tell you when the two channels are balanced: it must be done by ear. It is also worth bearing in mind that these examples will feel a bit less bright sitting in a mix than when listening to them in isolation. Note, too, that these are raw rough tracks with no delay or reverb, other than a little delay that was on the Pod Pro. If these three tracks were sent through a nice reverb program, the sound could be huge.
Another fun distortion technique is to split the input signal into two or three frequency bands, each with its own channel processing and distortion. In audio example 2, you can hear the results of placing three instances of Ampire on different channels, with the tone controls set to make them approximately low, mid and high bands. I like to animate sounds in the stereo field, and this band–split distortion technique serves as great cannon fodder for that approach. The mid and high bands each get flangers with different setups, while the low band gets tremolo and wah processing. All three instances are summed to mono, and the result is both more tonally and spatially complex than a straight–up, single full–bandwidth distortion effect.
Distortion fun goes far beyond lead guitar tricks, though, and I have also developed a neat way of roughing up a vocal sound. The raw signal is split to two channels. One channel uses the Pro EQ plug–in to apply a band–pass filter letting through only the mid frequencies, from about 200Hz to about 1.5kHz. This signal is then fed to Ampire, where some light distortion is added to it. The EQ on the other channel has the inverse curve: a big dip in the same band (band–reject) to which the first channel is limited. The trick here is not just balancing the levels between the channels, but also manipulating the bandwidths so the combined vocal tone is reasonable.
For this example, I kept about as much subtlety as one can have using a distortion processor on a vocal; and, when used in this way, it serves a bit of the same purpose as a harmonic enhancer in bringing an element out of the mix just a bit. Of course, the easiest, and frequently more enjoyable, action is the heavy–handed fuzzbox approach. If you find the right range in a vocalist’s voice, it’s possible to have the voice simultaneously heavily distorted and clearly intelligible. Another way to accomplish that goal is using parallel distortion in the same sense as parallel compression, mixing the distorted and undistorted signals together. This was a technique we frequently used processing dialogue files when I was at LucasArts Entertainment. Some of the processing used to create alien voices pretty well killed intelligibility, but adding just a bit of the original back in often restored it.
Mixing original and distorted can also work well with drums, especially kick drum. A bit of distortion can bring the kick up just a bit in the mix, but at the price of lost low end. Mixing a bit of undistorted kick back in (EQ’ed, if need be) can bring back the beef.
Distortion can provide subtle enhancement to a sound, or radical transformation. I once gated a hi–hat track, then shredded it with a distortion processor. It ended up sounding snare–like, so I radically EQ’ed the snare to be high and slappy and let the hi–hat carry the backbeat. And then there’s the obvious stuff, like two–way radio distortion, making acoustic guitars suitable for heavy metal, and so forth.
One important point to keep in mind working with distortion is that the point of distortion is to create a spectrally rich signal. More spectral components means more potential for masking. In short, if you get a few distorted signals going and are not being careful, it can all sound like a mush where it’s hard to make anything out and is annoying to listen to. It’s best to consider band–shaping a regular part of working with distortion processors.
Thinking of distortion as a shaping tool, rather than as a single, simple process can improve the quality of even your most basic distortion application. Parallel distortion techniques can impart sophistication and stereo width without using time delay. Small amounts of distortion can highlight specific parts of particular sounds. Now it’s more than just grunge and fuzz.
To hear the examples associated with this article, and download the Redlight Dist and Ampire presets used to make them, head to the SOS media homepage at https://sosm.ag/feb15media.