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Why distortion techniques MUST be part of your recording vocabulary

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.

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass

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.

By David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass
Monday September 05, 2011

Readers' comments on this article...

Arthur D, Miami, USA
Wednesday October 24, 2012

i never ever knew distortion could be a good thing until a pro told me about "texture" from r&b singers voices from the 90s. it changed my life. afterwards i learned that those crispy sounds from tracks made by house music producers were also made by distortion. my music never sounded better and it really livens my tracks up. :-)
Johnny, Atlanta, USA
Wednesday November 23, 2011

Ok, there's a slight logical fallacy going on here: the idea that correlation implies causation. That is to say "this record has distortion and was successful, therefor the distortion is the cause of the success" when in fact, there may be no such correlation. The more logical conclusion (which the author actually came close to hinting at) is that the the distortion is a byproduct of mastering, and the song has been successful in spite of it. I don't see any compelling reason or data to suggest that distorted songs have a better sales performance, and in fact I would suspect that the opposite is true. Food for thought.
Justice, Port Harcourt, Nigeria
Monday September 12, 2011

how can compress effectively, and still get perfect sound?
Anonymous, Hank, United States
Friday September 09, 2011

I think its interesting that no one has mentioned that the track 'firework' has had one key benefactor on its side that has helped countless great songs in the past to become huge hits: its riding the wave of previous hits by Perry, hits that were much better. 'California Gurlz' and 'Teenage Dream' were her singles preceding this song, and those songs were both gems with great melodies, 'excitement', sexiness and without ridiculous distortion in the mix. They were both much better songs than 'Firework' which is probably the dullest and least interesting of her last five singles. The repeated notes on 'work' and 'worth' and 'burst' is very boring. 'Firework is one of those songs where the chorus is a verse. But when a songwriter gets on a role with a few great hits its very easy to make the next release a big hit too. Furthermore, Katy Perry being one of the most if not the most famous female artist in the world right now, any song, ANY single she releases at any time is almost guaranteed to sell platinum. She could deliberately make a song awful, trying to get it to not sell and it would still get a million downloads simply because it is Katy Perry. This is the same with any other artist/band when they are at the zenith of world popularity and have recently released other mega-hit songs.
Devon, Vienna, Austria
Wednesday September 07, 2011

Just wanted to chime in once more. Distortion as an effect is not a problem for me. Distortion as a by product of poor technique is another. We accept distorted guitars as par for the course nowadays but MGM records refused to release Frank Zappas first record on the grounds that the guitars were distorted. Distortion on the kick drum seems to be objectionable in the minds of many, but it works for industrial music just fine. Maybe it was out of place on a pop record that is not associated with a gritty attitude. If it sounds bad, it is bad. But in this particular case, I dont suspect distortion had anything to do with this songs success. In fact I dont even think talent was as much a factor in this particular "artist" aswas her family bloodline. I believe her success was "arranged" by just being born in the right family with the right connections. That is the sad state of the pop world. So the distortion just doesnt matter (to them) because this song was probably a hit regardless of its content or quality. It will be datedbecause of the hyper compression and auto-tune just as the gated snare and extreme reverb dated most of the 80s stuff. Keep shooting for quality and lets wait out this trend. If a client wants distortion and it strikes you as a bad decision, advise them as best you can, give them examples and get other opinions to make your point. In the end, if they still want it, I say give it to them. If daddy is rich enough or has the right friends, the radio will play it (and play it and play it) and you will have a hit under your belt regardless. If they fail... well they would have probably failed anyway since someone elses daddy already owns all the airtime.
Ed Mils, Tulare, Ca., USA
Tuesday September 06, 2011

I dont like the way Fireworks sounds either its a weird master but im not listening to the song im listening to the audio clarity and which instruments are panned. Which brings to the Firework of Fireworks, my mom called and told my 11 year old daughter that songs reminds her of my daughter. Now my daughter walks through the house all day singing the song i once hated but its my babies anthem so I drive down the street singing "Baby your a Firework" .... dang it!!!
Eliyahu, Jerusalem, Israel
Tuesday September 06, 2011

While I was trying to figure out what this song has, my wife pointed out that the lyrics are touching.(about everyone's specialness) I, being totally focused on the music, usually don't even notice the words of songs. But most people hear almost only the words! I am quite surprised that nobody has mentioned the lyrics as a possible appeal and popularity of this song.
Josh, N.i, Ireland
Tuesday September 06, 2011

Like it or not from the Beatles to Bruno Mars to Katy Perry and Elvis a hit record is a hit record.It has its own signature be that similar to others or not, understand it like it loathe it If I go to McDonalds or want a brand of tea I get what I want those people stuck in the purest sense I have been there and got nowhere. I am not saying you cant be original but there is a format for a hit record take the distortaion from the KT track and its still a hit record. Unfortunately we have to move with the times or get left behind or maybe you guys would rather be driving the first ford or whatever model that was first made. Progress good or bad happens if you asked me who I would rather have produce or arrange my album or song it wouldnt be any of today's producers it would be Quincy Jones,David Foster,Trevor Horn etc but believe me these guys are also following the new trend setters and adding it to their new work. the music of tday doesnt need arranged because the technoiology haS MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR IT TO SOUND FULL EVEN WHEN THERE IS NOTHING IN IT. I PUT IT DOWN TO PURE LACK OF TALENT AND IMAGINATION PERSONALLY GIVE ANY OF TODAYS WRITIERS OR PRODUCERS THAT COULD COME UP WITH A SONICALLY SUPERIOR ARRANGEMENT AND PRODUCTION OF SAY BOOGIE WONDERLAND OR ARTHURS THEME OR BOHEMIAN RAPSODY BELEIVE ME NONE OF THEM, WHY? LAZY BUNCH OF TALENTLESS SHOWBOATERS THATS WHY
Carter, Bath, Maine, USA
Tuesday September 06, 2011

Music is, ultimately, sound art. Just as a conductor's instrument is the entire orchestra, including not only the instruments but also the instrumentalists, so the performer's instrumental palette includes the studio, with its engineers. If, as engineer, you are unwilling or unable to deliver what the performer or producer wants, then you are ill-suited to the task at hand and will not get called again. You may be very capable at what you do, but the principle violinist from an orchestra is not necessarily who I would want fiddling at a barn dance. It's fine to specialize. It's fine to have your own strongly held opinions. But you only make yourself look bad if you knock the specialties of others, simply because they're not to your taste. Katy Perry's music is not to my taste, but it's clear her music is moving people. If you spend so much energy on speaking ill of her and the production techniques used on her music, you only brand yourselves as the ones who just don't get it. At this point in time it's impossible to tell whether this particular use of distortion is a passing fad or something that will stick around, but let's remember: deliberate use of distortion is at least as old as the kazoo.
I Hudson, Swan Hill, Australia
Tuesday September 06, 2011

I was having a conversation about KP a couple of weeks back, my view is, i really can't stand her looks or voice, yet the 5 or so i was in conversation with all thought she was the best looking Woman of the century, "helped of course by the common male fantasy she used on us" from this perspective all these 5 souls had decided she had an amazing voice to boot, maybe music isn't just about what we hear, then again, the article about the hit song spectrum freq's, says a lot more about how the masses have been zombefied, "audibly that is" Most of the music heard of Radio, TV, is throw away bubble gum, there should be a market for it, but not to the extent it is, it is not the consumer who will change it, it is the musician, or those who try new things, rather than follow the money, forget the music companies or radio stations, they lost their soul and direction years ago
Bill Horn, Topeka, United States
Monday September 05, 2011

I think there are really two issues involved here. One is the intentional distortion of a single instrument for creative effect. The other is the continuing trend of pop records getting louder, less dynamic, and more distorted. Regarding the first issue, I have become a big fan of a band called Thrice, and something they pointed out when they were tracking their own album has stuck with me: get the sound that you want. Whether you achieve that by recording directly into Garage Band or with complete top-end gear, so be it. We may find a use for intentional distortion at some point in our careers. It needs to be added to our palette so we can add that "color" when the right occasion arises. I am speaking only to the issue of distorting the kick for instance. That being said, I am not supporting the current trend of over-limiting all pop records to the point of complete distortion of the entire thing. The lack of dynamic range is irritating and boring.
Billj, Wading River, USA
Monday September 05, 2011

Its all about the music, and as such I always recommend against excessive intrinsic loudness and distortion. I will do it though only if the client insists. Its their dime.
Karel Post, Grou, Netherlands
Monday September 05, 2011

Sorry, distortion will never sell your records, total crap! A good mixed record, compressed musically will do the trick for you. I work at several radiostations and i am more and more often finding myself lowering the master fader when playing a record like Bruno Mars or lady blah blah. On Bruno i even cut the low end by 6 db's because of the harsh bassdrums (clipped as hell). So the only thing you get with "Mastered" records (as i call it f*cked up records) is a low dynamics / high irritation level recording. On the stations i work, those tracks are just lowered by 5 or more db's in playback volume. A decently mixed track will sound a lot better on the radio. Producers using clippers are just losers that can't impress with music, cant mix, but only impress with loud levels, pathetic really. Just like a VW Golf GTI. The only thing you need is a ssl limiter and decently compressed tracks on the mtr, simple as that! Start MIXING again!
Mark Bignell, North Delta, Canada
Monday September 05, 2011

I don't care for the song. She sounds a little like a seal in heat. hahahaha. Most likely a bit of auto-tuning was used. This is a recognizable, assembly line tune. The mass public are used to it and the mass distortion, because very few customers have proper stereos. All that's required is to slap it together as quickly as possible, and play it enough times everyday, and people will be convinced it's a good song. Name recognition and a signature production technique is what it's all about: good, bad or indifferent. This is all they're exposed to, so this is what they'll buy. If I listen to music, I listen to on-line stations like the BBC's 6 Music, Radio Paradise and NPR. I'm quite happy not to be in touch with what the non-musical industry wants.haha
Christian Heilman, Seattle, Wa, USA
Monday September 05, 2011

I can see both sides. While I personally abhore the brickwall limiting and wanton distorto mastering prevalent...we are, after all, a service industry. We serve our clients. We may not choose those treatments for our own music, but it's not about us..is it? So, we need to educate our clients as best as possible, so when they choose (its their choice) they can do so wisely. I also sometimes find that when I let go of my own preconceptions about something in the studio (right/wrongs) I can learn something I wouldn't otherwise. So while I will usually steer my clients against excessive limiting, I balance that by playing them uncompressed 24 bit mixes with dynamics, and hopefully get them hooked on that. it's a drak time for consumer audio, but I will balance my role as a servant to artist vision, and hopefully from time to time offer up something with dynamics, clarity and soul. In the end, we want to move someone, raise consciousness, and justify our time spent by making something built to last. So...it's a balancing act.
Devon, Vienna, Austria
Monday September 05, 2011

I agree with the desire for sonic purity, but in some of the responses to this topic, It is clear that some engineers (however right they may be) have the attitude of putting their own ego before the wishes of the artist. I think that is actually the wrong attitude. The engineer is here to help the artist and producer realize their sonic and artistic vision. The artists name is a lot bigger on the cover than the engineer. It is the engineers right not to take gigs that they would not best serve. In this case their best service to the artist would be to pass on the gig rather than force their own idea of what an artist should or should not sound like. Thats really not their call. The engineers first priority is to make the artist and producer happy. Not themselves. I am also against the loudness war and all that, but if an artist is not pleased (for whatever reason) with the engineers work then the engineer has failed them. Personally I think it is not an executive decision to add distortion but an artistic one. Maybe KP sounds weak witout it. That is a whole other problem though, isn't it?
Trent
Monday September 05, 2011

I heard this argument before and with the same breath people complain about 'pop' music and not caring what the masses think, then complain bitterly about how impossible it is to make money with music, the average person doesnt know what they are talking about, etc and so on. All the article is saying is if you want your music to sell in a big way, add this to your toolbox. If you want to be more indie, then dont use it.
Meandnooneelse, Agony (albany) Ga, USA
Monday September 05, 2011

When I originally listened to the recording I immediately picked up on the intentional distortion. As an industrial musician, I embrace it. I have made many songs with intentional distortion on the kick, all drums, vox, or slight amounts on the mix as a hole. It can really add "drama" to a song. Not everything is supposed to be perfect. You could say I like my music just my women... not so clean and pure!
Christopher Duncan, Ohio, USA
Monday September 05, 2011

Two shows recently aired on satellite TV come to mind. The first chronicled the supplanting of a small core of dedicated "old school" Walt Disney animators (you know- the staff of artists passionately pouring their hearts into countless hand made drawings) with computer generated animation. The second was a computer generated animated movie titled ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’. Viewing these two programs, it’s easy to see what happens when the “accountant and lawyer” non-artistic types control the creative process. The result is a meaningless, soulless, heap of feces. I’m waiting with great anticipation for the day that the little boy decries “The emperor has no clothes!”. But I fear that day will never come. Must we, like lemmings, follow the stampeding masses over the cliff’s edge? If we truly believe in what we do, and truly hold ourselves to a high standard of excellence in our work, I it’s up to us to stick to our convictions and prove them wrong.
Drew, Kc, Mo
Monday September 05, 2011

There was a time when distortion on electric guitar was considered bad too... just saying..
Soundman2020, Santiago, Chile
Monday September 05, 2011

Option 1 "Lose clients who want the sound of heavy distortion". Yes, that would indeed be the correct decision. Why should one be known for prostituting ones mixing / mastering skills, and doing whatever perverse antics the artist / label asks you to do? That's what got us into this stupid, no-winners "loudness war" in the first place. For how long have engineers around the world been decrying the ugliness and uselessness of extreme compression pushed to the edge of sanity? So now that there is nowhere more to go on that front (since dynamic range of less than 1 dB is pretty hard to do), we are supposed to just lie back and give in, distorting the hell out of everything? Thanks, but no thanks. If a customer doesn0t want quality and only wants "outrageous, screaming, shrieking, loud", then he can go looking elsewhere as far as I'm concerned. I refuse to be a "clipping ho", just to continue making money with "that" type of customer. I'd rather carry on with the ones who appreciate quality and skill, even if they pay less.
Anonymous
Monday September 05, 2011

I'm sorry, but frack the market! I bet all of us are engineers (or want to be) because we really love music. Thus, if we love music, how should we make distorted recordings, just for the sake of a good marketing? I'm completely against the damn 1dB dynamic range hits of this days, and I personally prefer to tell before I even put a mic on the kick to my costumers that I am an objector on the loudness war, and that if they want to sound good for all eternity, I'm the guy, but if they just want to massacre their fans with "first impression, short attention" songs, they just can start looking for another engineer. The point is, as someone once told me, we, the engineers and producers are responsible for "capturing the magic" the musicians play, not to convert it in a mass of overloads and distortions, unless it is explicitly implied on the style, a.k.a. Showgaze and alike!
Joe Lewis, Barcelona, Spain
Monday September 05, 2011

It is not easy to pick up this "extreme distorsion" you talk about if you listen at consumer level : ie. listening to mp3 on a computer. In any case, I think what stands out here are other more way important core things: 1. Lack of singing ability 2. Stock melodies, progressions and beats 3. Boring and unoriginal 4 on the floor commercial dance track. Who cares about the distortion? It's a crap song. And OF COURSE you can argue quadruple or whatever platinum because that's about marketing, promotion and product placement. Marketing is ALL and ONLY about preceptions... If people THINK that BMW is the "best car"... then, it simply is. That's thanks to ads, the way they do their marketing and about media and communications strategies... But to conclude, the attitude of "embracing" is absolutely correct because it refers to dealing and taking advantage of change and/or adversity. We must not succumb to the industry, but learn and reap from it without selling our souls and believing firmly in what we're doing.