It's been a big talking point for guitarists since the birth of the electric guitar. Most guitarists will have their favourite pedal be it an overdrive, distortion or fuzz pedal but distortion can be used on lots of different instruments - including DRUMS!!
Distortion can take many forms and I tend to think about distortion being something that changes the waveform in some way. Analogue gear was renowned for distorting waveforms when pushed - but in a pleasing way to the ear and that is why there are so many tape and preamp plugins on the market as they make the waveforms more pleasing to the ears by adding extra harmonics (generally) in adding more harmonics this aids for the elements in the mix more. And also can add to easier translation on smaller speakers.
But aside from all these types of plugins as much as they are great! I wanted to talk about other effects I use on my drums to get the sounds I do. As well as using analogue plugins to add warming distortion and saturation there are other plugins and hardware that can really add grit so I wanted to give my 2p's worth in this post.
Bitcrushing is a type of a distortion that works well on drums. It is a technique that alters the digital audio signal by reducing its bit depth and sample rate. By reducing the resolution of the audio signal, bitcrushing introduces a unique and gritty character to the sound.
When bitcrushing is applied to drums, it can bring out the percussive elements and add a crunchy texture to the sound. The reduced bit depth creates a lo-fi effect - this effect being similar to vintage drum machines and early digital samplers.
This distortion technique can make drums sound more aggressive, punchy, and raw, allowing them to cut through the mix and grab the listener's attention. One of the reasons bitcrushing works well on drums is its ability to emphasize the transient characteristics of the drum hits. The reduced bit depth and sample rate accentuate the attack portion of the drum sound, making it more pronounced and impactful.
It can bring out the percussive elements, add a unique character, and make the drums sound more aggressive and punchy. By reducing the bit depth and sample rate, bitcrushing emphasizes the transient characteristics of the drum hits, making them more pronounced and impactful.
A couple of Bitcrushers I generally use are the D16 Decimort, Audio Things Crusher and Logic Pro Bit Crusher. I've added the plugin windows above and below. All really good at what they do.
Again another great way to change (distort) the signal is to use clipping. This type of distortion literally cuts the tops of the waveform off. Take a sine wave for example which is a pure single frequency tone when introduced into a hard clipping circuit the top of the waveform would be cut off - so in effect the sine wave top (and bottom) would follow the red line instead of its original form as indicated below.
Clip distortion, when applied to drums, can change their sonic character, providing them with an edgy, powerful sound that resonates within the music. The unique, gritty tone it imparts can be a game-changer, especially when it comes to creating impactful drum sounds.
One of the reasons clip distortion is good on drums is its ability to make them more discernible in the mix. The harmony and saturation it introduces help the drums punch through, ensuring they aren't lost among the sea of other instruments. And whilst adding the distorting the attack of the waveform is mostly preserved.
Obviously a bit of a given this one and I touched on it at the start of the post this can bring alot of warmth and harmonics. I generally use these most of the time as a given to warm the tracks up before any processing. From Neve channel strips to tape saturation - I tend to use different variants again depending on the genre of music I'm recording.
The Soundtoys Decapitator and Radiator (pictured below) are also firm favourites along with my Distressors for the extra grit factor
Distortion Techniques for Drums
So in conclusion - there are alot of different forms of distortion and distortion in its simple form is a modification of a waveform in any way. There are some distortion that work better on drums than others and I've highlighted some I use here but that's not to say that this is an endless list - if you've found something that works well on drums then please share in the comments below.
More information on the above plugins can be found here (in no particular order)
D16 Devastor https://d16.pl/devastor2
D16 Decimort https://d16.pl/decimort2
AudioThing Crusher https://www.audiothing.net/effects/things-crusher/
Soundtoys Decapitator https://www.soundtoys.com/product/decapitator/
Soundtoys Radiator https://www.soundtoys.com/product/radiator/
Logic Plugins mentioned here are stock plugins part of Logic Pro
Mark is an online session drummer and producer based in Reading UK providing remotely recorded drums to clients all over the world.
His main focus on the drums is to always serve the song and listen to what is being played by the other instruments in the band. Be aware of the song and how it develops.
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