Recording with Distortion
This month we’re going to talk about
recording with distortion—or the lack of it.
In the process of tracking guitars, either at
home or in a commercial studio, decisions
must be made about the overall sounds and
how they fit each song. What helps separate
excellent productions from mediocre ones
is that magical balance between parts, and
the amount of distortion on your guitars can
be a critical factor in that equation.
What brought about the whole idea for
this article was actually a random event.
When I work out in the morning, I have my
iPod on shuffle. Naturally, as I’m a guitar
player, there’s a lot of guitar music in my
collection. It just so happened that a handful of tracks played back to back that were
heavy pieces, but with a noticeable lack
of saturated amp sounds. After listening
back again, I determined that in addition to being good songs to begin with,
the various layers of guitar sounds had a
powerful production impact—simply based
upon their distortion levels. Here are a few
examples from my listening session.
When one thinks of Led Zeppelin, heavy,
rocking guitars certainly come to mind. But
listen to “Kashmir,” from Physical Graffiti.
The guitars are not that distorted at all. In
fact, it’s a relatively light overdrive, certainly the sound of a good tube amp doing its
thing. Not only does it fit perfectly into the
mix, but the lack of distortion makes even
more space for the layers of keyboards,
and of course, Bonham’s drums. It simply
Another Zeppelin example is “The Song
Remains The Same,” on Houses Of The
Holy. The driving bed rhythm tracks are
quite clean. When it comes time for the
solos, the distorted parts have their own
sonic space and separate themselves nicely
from the rest of the mix.
More tunes followed in my listening: the
Smashing Pumpkins songs “Rhinoceros,”
“Today,” and “1979” all have excellent
dynamic breaks—all created through the
use of guitars that ebb and flow in their
distortion levels. The Cure’s song “Open”
features layers of clean and distorted guitar
sounds that appear and disappear, creating
an amazing sense of space and depth.
Take a listen to Steve Stevens’ guitar work
on Billy Idol’s classic Rebel Yell album.
Tracks like “Eyes Without A Face” have
rhythmic, clean electrics (and some acoustics), which are suddenly punctuated by
What helps separate
excellent productions from
mediocre ones is that
magical balance between
parts, and the amount of
distortion on your guitars
can be a critical factor in
wicked blasts of distorted guitar. The
effect is powerful and really helps lift the
song to a higher level. The same applies
to the tune “Flesh For Fantasy.” Steven’s
compressed and chorused clean sounds
are layered with heavily distorted parts
on the pre-choruses and choruses. In the
middle break, the heaviest chords hit—with
the most distortion. While they are simple
chords, their sonic power is undeniable.
In my recent work with Ace Frehley on his
upcoming album, he was also very careful
about the amount of distortion we captured from his amps. We would be working
on a part, and he would quite often go
out into the live room and turn down the
saturation on the amps, either by lowering
the master or the pre/post gain controls.
The net effect of limiting the distortion of a
track helps to make room for other sounds
in the overall production, especially additional layered guitars or solos.
When you think of guitarists like Page,
or any of the artists mentioned above,
heavy guitars with a lot of distortion come
to mind. But in reality, it’s not always the
case. After a good listen, you might realize
there’s a lot less saturation in their music
than you expect to hear.
So on your next project, take the time
to think about when you should—and
shouldn’t—drive the guitar parts. Also, with
the popularity of software guitar amps, you
can automate that distortion to increase
and decrease in real time. Obviously,
depending on the type of amp, the sonics
will change, but the effect will be there.
Sure, there are times when you’ll need to
“open it up,” but it’s important to take the
overall production value into consideration.
The old moniker, “less is more,” may apply
to your track.
is a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with
artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie. A lifelong guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround
Sound Mixing and composes for such networks as
Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and National Geographic.