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Why distortion techniques MUST be part of your recording vocabulary

Do you hate over-mastered, distorted recordings? That might just be why your work isn't selling.

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Please take a quick read of 'The Worst-Sounding Hit Record Ever' and listen to the audio. You might care to read the comments too, many of which are insightful.

The song is Firework by Katy Perry and clearly it is massively distorted. I had heard the song many times on TV, radio and my car stereo (courtesy of the car's other occupants) and I had always enjoyed it, although the strings - to my mind - are a little harsh.

But I didn't notice the distortion until I listened to the song from CD, on my favorite pair of extremely hi-fi headphones. Then I listened on my hi-fi speakers and again on my near-field monitors.

Distortion. Intense distortion.

At first I blamed the mastering process. Generally I find the effects of mastering for loudness merely unappealing. But this was appalling.

But I listened more closely. My feeling is that it is the kick drum sample that is distorted, and the whole mix is compressed to give a pumping effect around the kick.

I don't like it. I don't like it at all. I am sure that the song could sound so much better given the benefit of clean recording and mastering.

But you can't argue with...

Quadruple platinum.

A quadruple platinum award means Firework has sold over 4 million copies, and that's only in the United States. The sales figures in other major music markets are equally impressive.

It might be possible to speculate that, without the distortion, Firework might have achieved quintuple platinum, but with my hand on my heart I just don't feel that is so. There is something about the entirety of the artist, the song, the recording, the mastering (and the marketing) that put together has given Firework's creators their deserved success.

This brings my to my point...

My point is...

If this extreme distortion, that many listeners find unpleasant, is a component of such a successful record, then it has to become part of your recording technique.

Suppose for instance you make a recording, and the client says it isn't exciting enough. (Don't expect the client to use technical language, or be specific about what they want.) If you can't bring yourself to turn up the warmth on the kick to thermonuclear levels, then the client will find someone else who can.

And if it's not the kick, then it could be some other instrument, perhaps even the vocal. Mastering has for a long time been the char-grill of the recording process, so it might happen there.

So, I would say that anyone who doesn't like this kind of sound has three options...

  • Lose clients who want the sound of heavy distortion
  • Do it reluctantly, when pressed

Or...

  • Embrace extreme distortion, make it your own, make it artistic and make it good!

So although the ability to make a clean, undistorted recording of any types and combinations of instruments and voices is absolutely essential, so is the ability to manipulate audio in any way that pleases the market. A knowledge of distortion techniques and their artistic application should be part of any engineer's skill package.

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By David Mellor Monday September 5, 2011
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