Instrumental Dictionary – Distortion

We at MTN spend a lot of time thinking about music – listening to it, composing it, playing it…

What we’ve noticed is that we each have our own relationship with the sounds of various instruments. This ranges from the love we have for the instruments we play, all the way down to our petty gripes with certain timbres we hear (I for one have a rocky relationship with the sound of the piccolo).  Putting personal preferences aside, some sounds have an effect that you just can’t argue with – a soaring distorted guitar line is always going to mean powerful, a sobbing violin line is always going to mean melancholy, and a ukulele is always going to mean Hawaii.

Clients will often ask us questions like: “What’ll happen if we stick a trumpet in there?” and this has led to the creation of this series of blog posts: The MTN Instrumental Dictionary.  For each of these we’ll be focusing on a particular instrument or effect and thinking about its character, how it makes us feel, and its role in giving music meaning. This week, it’s all about distortion.




Fuzz, overdrive, distortion… call it what you will but there’s almost no other sound that is able to be simultaneously warm and dirty in sound quality, both ugly and sweet in character, and both rabble-raising and uplifting in emotional impact.

When we think of distortion, we tend to think of distorted guitars. From Hendrix and the Stones to Nine Inch Nails and You Me At Six, the fuzz guitar has been the hallmark of rock’n’roll since the early 60s when rock musicians began deliberately modifying their equipment in order to achieve this harsher, grittier sound to their guitar lines.  What used to be the result of a damaged or dislodged vacuum tube inside an amplifier soon became the signature sound of many artists seeking to charge their music with emotion. So what is it about the fuzz that has such a time-honored emotional effect? William Weir from The Atlantic has found an answer:

“Zachary Vex, owner of Z. Vex Guitar Effects in Minnesota, has a theory: “Our own voices distort when we yell or sing intensely, so a distorted guitar also reminds us of the human voice at its most exciting point,” he says. “Most audio stuff that affects us emotionally is a result of pretty primal factors.”

This interesting idea reinforces the role of distorted sounds in representing heightened emotion. This concept is not solely applicable to the fuzz guitar, however – any sound can be distorted, and distortion can be used for a variety of purposes.

So when do we tend to use distorted sounds in our compositions at MTN?  Distorted synths can be great for depicting space or depth when designing sound for picture – for example; an image of an endless horizon is well illustrated by a few long, quiet, distorted notes with plenty of reverb.

Sparse, fuzzy atmosphere effects (such as some low-level white noise) can also be useful in creating space in a mix – it can build a warm, wide sounding sound on which more prominent melodies can sit. Distortion is also often used on vocals, although to the unaccustomed ear, a small amount on a vocal would go virtually undetected, the effect of the distortion would simply make the vocal sound warmer and fuller, and the signal would not sound “distorted” in the traditional sense.

In fact, in some mixes you would find that almost every sonic element is distorted to some level. Tape Saturation, also known as analogue warmth, is a sought after effect that distorts a sound very slightly, with a view to emulating the sounds made when recording onto magnetic tape. The effect of saturating sounds in this way does not make everything sound outright distorted – it might just make everything sound slightly aged and nostalgic. Boards of Canada use tape saturation extensively on their first album – Music Has the Right to Children, for example.

Look out for next time where we’ll be talking about the birth of beats without drums – the Drum Machine.