Posts Tagged ‘distortion’

Overdrive Creates Distortion

Overdrive is the process of overloading a device and the end result – what you hear – is distortion. Here are the fundamental ways distortion is created.

distortion (3)

As I like to put it: overdrive is a verb, distortion is a noun.

As you can see above, there are different ways to overdrive. But in the end, all overdrive methods produce a distorted signal. Yes, each kind of distortion sounds different, but that is all dependent on where the distortion is occurring. As the illustration above shows, distortion could be only happening in the amp (booster pedal or guitar volume). It could be happening in the pedal (overdrive and distortion). It could be happening in both pedal and amp.

A Quick Word on Tube Amps with Respect to Distortion

I have to make a bit of a clarification on where the distortion happens when it comes to tube amps. For those with tube amps, some come with a master volume, while others do not, and the distortion characteristics are different depending on the type of tube amp.

With amps that don’t have a master volume, typically the full power of the preamp section goes directly to the power amp; they interact with each other directly. At high enough gain what you’ll typically get is a combination of power tube distortion and preamp distortion. This produces a fairly warm, overdriven sound. As a result, getting just moderate amounts of break-up can make your ears bleed. It’s VERY loud.

For amps with a master volume, as it was explained to me, the master volume acts as a floodgate, controlling the amount of power that will go from the preamp into the power section. In this case, distortion will come primarily from the preamp tubes. This kind of distortion tends to be a bit more “fizzy,” square-wave kind of distortion. The advantage here is that you can control your output volume much better, but unless you open up the master volume, you won’t get that power tube distortion.

And one more note with respect to master volume: Some amps, no matter how much you turn up the master volume will never saturate the power tubes. I’ve heard that Mesa amps are set up this way. Almost all the distortion comes from the preamp. That’s not a bad thing. Mesa amps always sound BIG.

What About Speaker Distortion?

Just like overloading a device (tube, etc.), a speaker can also distort if the power thrown at it is greater than its capacity to play cleanly. I didn’t originally include this in the figure above because usually, the focus of overdriving and distortion tends to be on what you put in front of the amp and at the amp itself.

With speaker distortion, the speaker goes “out of round” and produces a distorted sound. Usually, it takes A LOT of power to make this happen – read: it’s loud. And with some speakers, it may not sound very good, as speakers are not all made the same.

Speaker distortion tends to be harsh, so that sound alone may not be at all pleasing to the ears. However, it is generally accepted that as an added dimension to an already distorted signal, it can provide some real magic.

With the speakers I use (Jensen Jet Falcon and Jensen Jet Electric Lightning), the speaker distortion presents itself as a high-frequency component to my sound. It’s barely perceptible, but I know it’s happening because I don’t hear it at lower volumes. I measured the output volume threshold when this happens, and my amp has to be producing at least 95dB of volume before it comes on. But when it does, WOW! It adds yet another dimension to my tone.

And as I mentioned above, not all speakers are equally built. Size, sensitivity, and even the cabinet can affect how and if a speaker will distort. So you will have to play around with different speaker configurations.

This is just some starter information. How you achieve the distortion you want to hear takes a lot of experimentation. But that’s where it gets fun! But buyer beware: There’s a literal, monetary cost to experimentation, so as I always say, take your time and evaluate as much as you can yourself without paying for it. For sure, gather opinions, but avoid getting something purely on someone else’s recommendation. In other words, verify, verify, verify…


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The answer is: It depends… 🙂

More likely than not, when I want dirt, I just crank my amp or at the very least get it to the edge of breakup, then use input volume and attack to get it. For some people, a cranked amp is all they need. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. And for a few years, I didn’t use any dirt pedals for overdrive; just my amp. But overdrive slut that I am, I eventually returned to using them. But unlike many players who use overdrive and distortion through a clean headroom amp, relying entirely on their dirt pedal(s) to give them their distorted tone, I use my overdrives, distortion and booster to enhance the overdrive tone of my amp. Here’s how I set my drive pedals up…

In front of my amp

I’ll usually have three drive pedals that I place in front of my amp. First in the chain is always a transparent overdrive. I use a Timmy for that. Next in line is an overdrive that adds color and that I can stack on top of my transparent overdrive. The longest in that position has been my Tone Freak Abunai 2, which has a great compressed tone in its asymmetrical mode, plus a nice bottom-mid. But I will also switch it out with either a GeekMacDaddy Geek Driver (based on the original ColorSound Overdriver circuit – originals sell for about $1200), a Doodad Check-A-Board Red (kind of a brighter TS-808), or when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll put my TS-808 re-issue in that position. Last in that chain would be a distortion pedal. I only have one and that is the incredible EWS Little Brute Drive.

At the end of my effects loop

I place my booster (Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Transparent Boost) at the end of my effects loop, which means it’s the last pedal before my power tubes. This gives a modest volume boost, but if my power tubes are already overdriving, it’ll knock them into full saturation, and I can get some nice power tube compression. This is great when I want to add some drama to a lead.

Some people prefer the “amp in a box” type of overdrives, letting overdrive pedals produce their distortion. I rarely use the overdrive pedals with a clean amp as I love the interplay between the natural distortion of an amp and the distortion of the pedals. What this also means is that because I use these pedals with an already breaking up amp, I rarely crank up the gain on these devices. I think that this where the true power of the overdrive pedal resides, as it is half booster, half soft-clipping device. The boost part can push an amp into breakup, then the clipping section will add another dimension to the distortion. Using an overdrive like this, it can be difficult dialing in a good balance between amp and pedal overdrive, but once I’ve found the sweet spot, it’s total ear candy.

I’ve talked previously about how I use my booster in my effects loop, so I won’t go into detail here, but with a booster, it gives me a secondary area to push my amp: after the preamp and before the power section. I like having two independent ways to introduce more gain into my amp. It’s a little finer control.

This is what works for me right now. A few years ago, that arrangement changed practically weekly as I was experimenting with different things. But I’ve pretty much established how I like to use my pedals, and haven’t changed much other than swapping out in specific positions.

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Got a press release from Pigtronix yesterday on the new Philosopher’s Rock pedal, which is an optical compression-sustainer/germanium distortion pedal. Normally I’d say, “Yeah? So what…” but this time I’m a bit intrigued, partially because I’ve been thinking about getting another compressor, and partially because I’ve been looking for another pedal to use distortion into a clean amp. So it’s nice that this pedal combines both. Here’s the press release:

Pigtronix Announces Release of the Philosopher’s Rock Pedal

The Philosopher’s Rock is a compressor sustainer and germanium overdrive pedal that expands the already notorious line of Philosopher pedals from Long Island’s Pigtronix effects.  The Philosopher’s Rock is the over-achieving little brother of the company’s top selling sustain pedal, the Philosopher’s Tone.  Simplified down to offer up the best sounds of its predecessor, the Philosopher’s Rock sports a streamlined control layout plus the added benefit of germanium enhanced overdrive, along with an unbeatable price point.

The Philosopher’s Rock utilizes Pigtronix award winning compression circuit that has been acclaimed by the likes of Andy Summers, Dweezil Zappa, Johnny Hiland and Billy Sheehan.  On this new unit, the controls have been paired down to a classic compressor layout of just 2 knobs (Volume & Sustain) plus a single toggle switch for layering in a refined, vintage flavored germanium overdrive.

With a four times wider range of compression, endless sustain, germanium overdrive and a new vertical footprint and idiot proof control layout, the Philosopher’s Rock is destined to become a future classic.

“The Philosopher’s Rock is Killer. It must go in my rig stat!” – Ian Thornely of Big Wreck

“The Philosopher’s Rock is incredible!” – Brad Whitford of Aerosmith

Pigtronix Philosopher’s Rock carries a list price of $175 and is available now at Pigtronix dealers everywhere.  Check out the Philosopher’s Rock and the entire 2012 lineup of Pigtronix effects at: www.pigtronix.com

All hyperbole aside, this pedal seems to be pretty cool…

Here’s demo video of the pedal:

For more information, visit the Philosopher’s Rock page!

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Awhile back, I posted an article discussing Overdrive vs. Distortion, discussing what I believed were the fundamental differences between the two, but also pointing out that the end result – no matter the source – will be distortion. The only difference between the two being how the signal is clipped to create the distortion sound. Overdrive pedals normally produce a soft-clipping distortion, whereas distortion and fuzz pedals create a hard-clipping distortion. Here’s a great diagram I found that describes the differences between soft and hard clipping:

As you can see from the diagram of the waveform above, soft clipping clips the peaks somewhat, while hard clipping pretty much lops of the peaks leaving a narrow dynamic range. This article describes clipping quite well. So what does this have to do with drive pedals? Well, let’s take stock of the types of drive pedals available to you.

First up is the booster pedal. Basically this is simply a gain boost that will add gain to your signal. It’s either used as volume boost or, if you’ve set your amp at edge of overdrive, the booster will take it over the edge into overdrive. Note that a booster is most effective with a tube amp. This will produce a soft-clipping waveform, and the distortion will come entirely from your amp.

Next we have overdrive pedals. These pedals come in LOTS of different flavors, but typically combine a gain boost plus a soft-clipping circuit. Most designs out there are based upon the venerable TubeScreamer design, though there are several that use proprietary approaches, such as the Paul Cochrane Tim and Timmy pedals (the Timmy is the best OD I have every played). Here, the distortion can come from both pedal and amp.

Then we have distortion and fuzz pedals. I’m lumping them together because they’re both hard-clipping devices, though fuzz really gets into that square-wave distortion where the signal gain is really amplified then severely clipped, with really aggressive emphasis on harmonics and overtones. You can get some pretty far-out sounds with a fuzz. Also, just like with overdrive pedals, many distortion pedals also provide a gain boost knob, though to produce distortion, they don’t really need it. Once you turn a distortion pedal on, it produces distortion right away with no help from the amp.

So which do you choose? Well the only good answer I can come up with is this: It’s the one that sounds most pleasing to you and fits your application, and notice I’m not putting on my normal smiley-face to indicate a “jk.” To come to my own “comfort zone” with drive pedals, I probably played a couple of hundred of them – maybe more – to finally arrive at the four drive pedals that I have on my board. I have 5 or six drive pedals that are actually collecting dust; a couple of which are worth a pretty penny, and I’m not using them at all – craigslist here I come!

In any case, I have all three types of drive pedals on my board: Timmy Ovedrive, Tone Freak Abunai 2 Overdrive, EWS “LBD” Little Brute Drive (distortion), and a Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 booster. I’ll describe how I use each so you may perhaps glean some insight on making a choice.

For my overdrive pedals, the Timmy and Abunai 2, I use them like an additional gain stage before my amp to soft-clip my signal before going into my amp. Typically, I have the amp at the edge of breakup and the combination of the overdrive pedal and the amp overdrive sounds are quite nice. The Timmy is a fairly transparent overdrive, whereas the Abunai 2 provides just a bit of color and compression, and it also includes a switch to choose the wave symmetry. I look at OD pedals as little “amps-in-a-box.”

When I want crunch; I mean rock crunch at any volume, I use my EWS Little Brute Drive. I look at this as a classic distortion pedal. It has a single knob to adjust the internal gain and can produce some pretty wicked distortion sounds. I use this typically with a purely clean amp, and let the LBD provide all the distortion.

With my booster pedal, I use it a few different ways. When I just want my amp tone alone and just want my distortion to come entirely from my amp, I’ll use my booster to take it into overdrive. I find it most useful when I’m playing a Strat and want to do a quick lead. But I also use it with my overdrive pedals and LBD. With my overdrive pedals, I use it to stack on top of my overdrives so I’m really slamming the front end of my amp. With my vintage Marshall-style amps, this gets the pre-amps totally saturated, and in turn drives my power tubes into saturation and compression. It’s a cool effect.

Used with my EWS Little Brute Drive, since the amp is clean, I use it for lead breaks to boost my volume just a tad so I can play over the rest of the band (and no, I don’t stomp on them, but it’s easy to get lost in the mix when we’re all together 🙂 ).

Please don’t take my mention of the pedals above necessarily as endorsements. I love ’em all, which is why they’re never leaving my board. But I arrived at this combination of pedals literally after years of evaluation. These are the pedals that I found work the best with my guitars and “go-to” amps (which are vintage Marshall-style amps made by Aracom Amps). YMMV… For my Fender amps, such as my Hot Rod Deluxe, I typically only use my LDB, especially with my Hot Rod Deluxe, which doesn’t have a very nice overdrive sound to my ears – it’s much better clean.

Just as I mentioned in my previous article about making your decision on a tube amp with respect to your particular application, the same holds true with drive pedals. You have to think about what you want to achieve before buying one. But here’s an extra piece of advice with respect to drive pedals: Because drive pedals generally run under $200, it’s easy to get them; and that’s the problem. You want to be extra careful in your buying process because you will end up like me, having a couple of grand worth of drive pedals that end up collecting dust.

I know it sounds rather mundane, but in order to rock, you have to do your homework! ROCK ON!

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I’ve never been much of a distortion box kind of guy; at least until recently when I got my EWS Little Brute Drive. I didn’t think I’d be using it all that much, but I have to admit, it is quickly becoming an indispensable addition to my pedal board. It’s as transparent as my Timmy, which is a HUGE plus in its favor, but the gain and distortion goes way beyond what the Timmy can do. But at the same time, it behaves insanely well with the Timmy. For instance, at my church gig yesterday, I was playing a song and had the Timmy engaged to give me some mild overdrive. There was a lead break in the middle of the song where I had to do a short 8-bar solo. But instead of switching the Timmy off, I just activated the LBD. OMG!!! I was immediately rewarded with tons of sustain, and singing, sweet distortion that was not at all over the top (I had the single gain knob set at about 11 am)

Amazing that all this comes from this little pedal that’s about 1 1/2 times longer than a 9 volt battery!

One thing though is that both the Timmy and the LBD are making me rethink how I approach my overdrive tone. Since getting them, I haven’t been cranking my amps near as much as I used to. I still love that saturated power tube sound, but tend to put my amps on just below the edge of breakup, then use my Timmy, the LBD, or a boost to push it over the edge. Mind you, I still have the Master volume up there. It’s just full out like it used to be.

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AH! HA-HA-HA HAHAHA! <manic laughter>

I guess my love affair with overdrive pedals hasn’t waned one bit – even with getting my Timmy. Don’t get me wrong, my Timmy will NEVER leave my board, but this totally cool, ultra-compact “Little Brute Drive” from EWS Japan is nothing short of amazing to me. Lots of overdrive/distortion on tap, right out of the box! And look at the bottom of the picture to the left: It ain’t much bigger than a freakin’ 9V battery! Amazing!

The way I envision using this particular pedal is for when I need heavier distortion than my Timmy, which is a light- to medium-gain device. The Little Brute has a much wider range of distortion; from fairly light to searing. And like the Timmy, the distortion is fairly open and uncompressed from what I could tell from clips. But even more important is that like the Timmy, it’s fairly transparent. I couldn’t detect much tone alteration from the clips I heard. So awesome!

You can fine-tune the output level and tone from inside the box – see the two blue adjustment screws in the picture? But from what I could tell, the factory settings are perfect.

Here are a couple of video clips:

Cost? $129, which is as much as a Timmy, but unlike the Timmy, you can get this online. Here’s a link where you can buy the pedal.

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I usually keep up on new stuff, but the Aria has been around for about a year now. Can’t believe I missed it! In any case, I just spoke with Dave Koltai of Pigtronix, and he said the Aria was the result of releasing a product with no marketing. I take it that Dave is one of those back-room geek dudes who come up with lots of amazing shit, then just put it out there. 🙂 Actually, after speaking with him, he’s a really cool guy, and it’s great to meet someone who has a passion for what they do, and that was clear that he has a passion for creating great pedals.

I’ve known about Pigtronix for quite awhile, but it wasn’t until I got the press release on the Keymaster and shared it, that I started looking in on Pigtronix’s product line. They’ve got an impressive array of pedals. The one that I’m really keeping an eye on is the Philosopher King pedal, which is a compressor/sustainer, grit, and envelope filter. Have to save my pennies up for that one, but it’s definitely something I’d like to add to my board. But more to the immediate, I also came across the Aria Disnortion pedal, and that’s what this post is about…

I love dirt pedals! I’ve got a bunch of ’em, and for some reason, I just can’t get enough of ’em (I know… I say that a lot, but it’s true). Each one that I have has a different character, and they rotate on my board with seeming regularity as I get the in the mood for different tones now and then. As of late, I’ve really been into more transparent overdrives and boost, as I love the natural sound of my amps when overdriven, and the Aria definitely seems to fit the bill.

Now with respect to transparency, let’s face it, nothing is transparent. Everything you put on your board will change your tone. But what I tend to look for – especially in dirt pedals – is that they don’t take anything away, ESPECIALLY dynamics and and note separation. Some pedals I’ve tried in the past sound pretty decent and have lots of dynamics, but at high gain levels, lose clarity and note separation. While I’m not a speed demon on the fretboard by any stretch of the imagination, I do have more of a legato style of playing where I play several notes in one complete phrase which I’ll end with a bend or sustain, depending upon what I’m playing. So note separation is VERY important to me. There’s nothing worse than playing a well thought out phrase, only to lose it in a mush. From what I’ve heard from the demonstrations by Peter Thorn and Andy at Pro Guitar Shops, even at high gain settings, the pedal retains note separation. That’s a huge plus!

Another plus of this pedal that I can see is the 3-band active EQ that provide 12dB of cut or boost to really shape your tone. The gain knob will give you clean boost to fuzz, which makes this an incredibly versatile dirt pedal. This ain’t no one-trick-pony; that’s fo sho!

Then add to all that this pedal retails for a street price of $149, OMG! I have to get this pedal! 🙂

For more information on the Pigtronix Aria Disnortion (no, it’s not a typo), visit the Pigtronix Aria product page!

In any case, for your viewing/listening enjoyment, check out these demo videos!

Peter Thorn

Andy @ ProGuitarShops.com

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Oo-la-la! T-Rex will soon be releasing a new distortion pedal called the Tonebug Distortion. Not much info on it yet, but it is supposed to lay on tons of gain. I was fortunate enough to see a video from the folks at GearWire that quickly demonstrates what this pedal can do.

Admittedly, I’ve preferred overdrives over distortion boxes, but I’m really liking the tone from this puppy! Don’t know if I’d shell out $399 for it, though. But T-Rex pedals are premium pedals, so that’s not a surprising price.

For more information, check out the T-Rex site!

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In a previous post, I asked, “Where have all the overdrives gone?” For the last couple of years, it seemed that a new overdrive pedal would hit the market every week. Then suddenly, about a month ago, it seemed that the well just dried up. Excuse the pun, but did the overdrive market become fully saturated? Looks like it…

It seems I’m seeing another trend, though not quite as profound as I saw with overdrives, and that is the emergence of fuzz pedals. And like overdrives, fuzz pedals seem to come in different varieties. The most basic is the original FuzzFace design which uses two transistors to create a bunch of gain so that practically everything that goes into it gets converted to a square wave. After that, you get pedals like the Zvex Fuzz Factory that gives you control over various aspects of the fuzz tone.

Personally, I haven’t spent that much time with fuzz pedals. It’s not that I don’t like the sound; I do, it’s just that my playing style really hasn’t leaned towards a “fuzzy” type of sound. For those unfamiliar with the fuzz tone, here’s a good demo.

The Difference Between Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz Pedals

I’ve been doing a lot of research on getting the fundamental differences between the three types of distortion, and the following is a synopsis of what I’ve found:

  • Overdrive – First is overdrive. This can be used as either a verb or noun, but from a sonic standpoint, overdrive produces the gentlest type of distortion, commonly known as soft clipping. Overdrive and booster pedals produce this type of sound. Using “overdrive” as a verb, it commonly means to overpower the pre-amp tubes of an tube amp, though technically it’s simply overpowering the input. Overdrive pedals simulate this with clipping diodes so you can get that overdriven sound at lower volumes.

    Overdive pedals include: Tube Screamer, Bad Monkey, OCD, Holy Fire, Swollen Pickle, etc.

  • Distortion – Here we get into a bit of a grey area because technically, any pedal that uses a transistor to clip or distort a signal is a distortion pedal, so the Tube Screamer and OCD fall into this realm. But many distortion pedals such as the TS also add signal gain, so they also overdrive the front-end of the amp. The big difference between Tube Screamer types and dedicated distortion pedals is in the type of clipping they produce. Distortion pedals produce a harder clipping of the input signal in their transistors at any volume level.

    Distortion pedals include: DS-1, Metal Zone, Holy Fire, Rat, Saturator, etc.

  • Fuzz – Fuzz is square wave distortion produced by a couple of cascading transistors that amplify the input gain so much that it produces a square wave when looked at in an oscilloscope. The tone of the fuzz typically has a lot of bass, and tons of odd-order harmonics. It’s ugly, but in a good way, and applied properly, can produce some spectacular tones. Jimi and SRV were masters of the fuzz.

    Fuzz pedals include: FuzzFace, Fuzz Factory, Graphic Fuzz

Note that I didn’t want to get too technical here mainly because the technology is less important than the tone. As in all things, you need to hear and play them for yourself to see what you like.

By the way, I found a great wiki article on distortion, which goes into a more technical discussion if you’re interested. Check it out!

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To date, this is the most popular article on this site, having held the top hits spot for the past several years now. My feeling is that it addresses the murkiness of the debate between overdrive vs. distortion. And despite many people like myself who constantly say they’re two, mutually exclusive things, it remains a subject that needs clarification. I’m glad this has been a -hopefully good – resource for people! 

Remember: Distortion Is What You Hear! Overdrive Produces It!

I had an interesting conversation with a friend today regarding the difference between overdrive and distortion. Talk about two terms that are bandied about interchangeably in the guitar world! If you ask ten different guitarists the difference between them you’ll get ten different answers. But a common theme you’ll hear is what each sounds like; in other words, you’ll get a much more qualitative description as opposed to a quantitative description. What I’ve been after is a much more objective, quantitative description of each, but not necessarily too technical. So after talking about one versus the other, I decided to write down what we discussed, and throw my two-cents into the mix.

First, let’s look at the two terms, but from the perspective of an amplifier. The simplest explanation I could come up with is that overdrive, or in audiophile terms, over-powering, occurs when input gain exceeds the capacity of a device to handle the amount of gain thrown at it; in our case, a tube. What happens is that the smooth waveform that goes into the device gets “clipped” because the device’s input capacity is less than what is being thrown at it. Sonically, we perceive the result of this clipping as distortion. The higher the amplitude of the wave, the greater amount of distortion we hear.

But what about pedals? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I wanted to take the time to clarify these terms. There’s been a lot of confusion about these two terms because they’re used so loosely, and oftentimes interchangeably. For me, I’ll stick with the audiophile’s perspective of overdrive in that distortion is the result of overdrive or over-powering an amplification device. A way to think about overdrive vs. distortion is that overdrive happens in the front-end (what you put in), while distortion happens on the back-end (what you hear).

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But here’s where we get into a bit of murky territory, especially with pedals. Strictly speaking, if we’re talking about overdrive as simply overpowering the front-end of an amp to make the tubes clip, the only pedal that is technically an overdrive is a boost pedal that takes your guitar’s signal and ups its voltage. But lots of manufacturers call their pedals overdrive pedals. In reality, all of those are distortion pedals as they include an internal clipping circuit which is overdriven into distortion – this includes the venerable Tube Screamer. OMG! Sacrilege!

So how do you tell the difference? That’s why I said we get into murky territory with respect to pedals. But as a rule of thumb, a distortion pedal will create a distorted sound irrespective of the amp. In other words, it’ll clip on its own. Put it front of the clean channel of an amp, switch it on, and it’ll create distortion. However, many, if not most, “distortion” pedals also provide a bit of gain boost to overdrive an amp. That’s where it gets murky, as most of the pedals termed “overdrive pedal” function as a combination of both overdrive AND distortion.

There are no real hard and fast rules, but in general, pedals that are commonly known as overdrive pedals (Tube Screamer, etc.) employ what’s called a “soft-clipping” circuit or transistor, where only a small portion of the input signal is clipped. Most distortion pedals employ a “hard-clipping” device to severely clip the input signal to get that “square wave” tone. But as I said, there are no hard and fast rules. Here’s an image that nicely describes the differences in the waveforms between soft-clipping and hard-clipping devices:

Picture courtesy of GM Arts

Sonic Differences Between Overdrive and Distortion Pedals

Many people have asked me over the years if there is a sonic difference between overdrive and distortion pedals. Having tested several of these pedals over the years, I hate to sound ambiguous, but from a practical standpoint, in some cases, it’s simply too hard to tell. For instance, if I crank up my Timmy’s gain then add a bunch of volume to slam the front-end of my amp, I get a lot of crunchy distortion out of my speaker as the signal squares off. Moreover, I get a bit of compression and sustain and it “feels” like I’m playing through a distortion box. On the other hand, if I take my EWS Little Brute Drive and turn the gain knob to about 10 am, I get a similar sounding distortion with a similar feel – even though it’s a hard clipping device! They’re tonally a little different as the EWS adds a bit of low-end punch, but nevertheless, sonically and feel-wise, they’re extremely close.

But there does exist a difference, and that is in output volume. When I do what I do with my Timmy to get that hard distortion sound, I have to use an attenuator because all the input gain creates A LOT of volume, so I attenuate the output so I can keep the volume at a manageable level. But with my EWS Little Brute Drive, because it’s a distortion pedal, it will clip irrespective of the amp, plus I set its output volume to unity. I can set my amp to any volume, then switch the pedal on to get my overdrive-like sound.  I actually do this with the Little Brute Drive a lot when I don’t want to lug my attenuator to a gig.

So yes, you can set up an overdrive or a distortion pedal to make it difficult to tell the difference, but in general terms, with a hard-clipping device, you’ll experience a lot more compression than with a soft-clipping device. The tone will feel “squishy” with very little dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, because sometimes that’s what you want. Overdrive pedals, on the other hand, because they don’t produce a square wave, will feel a lot more “open” and dynamic. There will be a bit of compression at higher gain levels, but rarely will you get to the order of compression that a distortion box will make.

Gain vs. Volume

Image courtesy of Sweetwater.com

Unfortunately, this is yet another area where we get into murky territory, and where a lot of people confuse the two. So to start out, let’s just put it simply: Gain is input; volume is output.

To provide a bit more clarity, think about the function of an amp as a two-stage device. The first stage takes the relatively weak signal from your instrument, then passes it on to the second stage and amplifies the signal to produce the sound.

The first stage of an amp is called the preamp. The signal passed through the preamp is called Gain. The level of gain will have a direct effect on the volume of your amp. Typically, the more gain you introduce, the higher your volume. BUT, that said, higher and higher levels of gain will have a lesser and lesser effect on volume, as the pre-amp reaches its capacity to handle the amount of signal passed to it (commonly called saturation) and will max out sending all it can handle to the second stage or power amp.

Think of the power amp as the stage that controls the output strength of your sound, or volume, if you will. It works similarly to the pre-amp in that the more signal you throw at it, the louder your volume. Some amps come with a Master Volume. Think of it as a valve mechanism that controls the amount of signal that is allowed to pass into the power amp. When it’s wide open, all the preamp signal will pass through to the power amp. For amps without a master volume, the amount of preamp signal allowed to pass to the power amp is set by the builder.

So what does this have to do with pedals? If you look at the picture above, whether labeled or not, all come equipped with both a Gain (or Drive) and a Volume (or Level) knob. These work pretty much the same way as Gain and Master knobs on an amp. The Volume knob controls how much pedal signal will be sent to your amp’s preamp. That could be enough signal to saturate your preamp which will overdrive it into clipping and create distortion. Combined with a distorted sound from the pedal, this could – and in many cases does – create a very pleasing mix of distortion sounds.

So which kind of pedal to choose?

The pat answer is it depends on what you’re after with respect to your distorted tone. I know that this is a rather ambiguous statement, but again, there are no hard and fast rules. In the end, you should choose a pedal based on what sounds good to you. But here are a couple of guidelines:

  • If you have a tube amp and just want distortion purely from overdriving the tubes, then a booster makes sense. There are several kinds of boosters. Some boost only a certain frequency range, like a Fat boost that boosts the lower frequencies. I personally prefer a clean, transparent boost that has a flat frequency response so that the distortion that occurs is my amp’s tone. I typically use a booster in conjunction with my amp set just at the edge of breakup, so when I switch it on, not only will I get a volume boost, I’ll overdrive the pre-amp tubes; and depending on how much gain I throw at the amp, I’ll get the power tubes working as well. Here’s a trick to try: If you have an effects loop, place the booster as the last pedal in your effects loop. When switched on, it will boost the gain going into your power tubes to saturate them. You don’t get a huge volume boost, especially if the power tubes are close to saturation, but you do get a bit of a kick. I learned that from Gene Baker, who does that in his rig.
  • If you want to add a bit of color and overdrive your amp, then a soft-clipping pedal like a Tube Screamer works quite well. Tube Screamer-type pedals typically give you a mid-range boost that results in a much warmer and smoother distortion. Many also add sustain and a bit of compression to simulate power tube saturation at any volume. My Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 is exceptional in this department. Then there are others, like the EHX Soul Food that add a bit color but interact well with the front-end of an amp. But that said, there are some like my beloved Timmy Overdrive that are transparent. They’ll give you the gain and boost but will not color your sound (Note: that you’ll still have to set up the pedal’s EQ). I will add though, that in general, an overdrive pedal sounds and performs best when the amp is already clipping a bit. The mixture of the two creates a more complex signal that is quite pleasing to the ears.
  • If you want to get a distorted tone at any volume, then a distortion pedal is the way to go. There are lots of these on the market. My personal favorite (and the one I own) is the EWS Little Brute Drive. It’s a half-size pedal with a single knob, but it will give you TONS of distortion at any volume. I normally use it for leads, as it gives just a few dB of gain, but gives me all the distortion I need to get a great screaming tone! It also colors with a fat bottom end which makes leads sound beefy. Typically, you’ll use a distortion pedal against a clean amp. But then again, there are no hard and fast rules.
  • Then if a distortion pedal still doesn’t provide enough gain for you and you need to get a hard-clipped, super-squishy, compressed distortion, then the fuzz will get you there. I call fuzz “ugly dog” distortion. To me it’s like an ugly dog that you look at and say, “holy s$%t,” but it has personality, so you can’t help but love it. Can’t say I’ve ever been into fuzz, but I’ve spoken to lots of players who use it all the time, and they love it!

You can also chain overdrive and distortion effects to great success (aka “stacking”). I do this quite a bit because you get colors that you can’t get with just your amp. One thing that I do regularly is to use an overdrive pedal to push my amp hard, then when I want to get more tube compression and sustain, I slam the front-end with a booster (which is the last pedal in my chain). This doesn’t result in a volume boost because the tubes are already saturated, but you do get much more high-gain sound, and that can really work with solos.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules. You have to play a lot of them to find your sweet spot. But that’s half the fun of it!

More Overdrive Murkiness…

I referred to my Timmy above as a “transparent” overdrive. There’s a lot of debate about transparency, but suffice it to say that while technically distortion is color, transparent overdrives are those that once their EQ is set up to match the EQ setting on your amp, they will not add any other “color” than distortion. On the other hand, once you set up a non-transparent pedal’s EQ, it will still add its own tonal characteristics to color your tone. In practical terms though, transparent overdrives fall more into the booster arena, but it’s the EQ and internal soft-clipping circuits that still define it as an overdrive.

But further exacerbating the overdrive murkiness is that many overdrive pedals are actually purpose-built to mimic the sound of a specific overdriven amplifier. These are meant to be played through a clean channel with lots of headroom. A good example of this is the Caitlinbread Dirty Little Secret that produces classic Marshall Plexi to Super Lead tones. With a pedal like that, you just set your clean channel to purely clean and let the pedal do the overdrive work.

Note: Several articles I’ve read on this topic use the generic “overdriven amp” explanation to describe all overdrive pedals. It would be okay if they described them with respect to how the pedal responds, but more often than not, they use the term to describe the sound. Unfortunately, they completely miss the pedals that are built to be transparent. I’m not saying they’re entirely wrong, but just a little narrow in scope when you consider the overall landscape of overdrive pedals available.

Now… let’s add even more murkiness to the overdrive issue, shall we? There are some overdrives like the EHX Soul Food, which is a Klon Centaur clone, that at first blush, fall into the transparent overdrive category. So one would think that you’d set your amp at the edge of breakup, then use the pedal to push it over the edge and add its own clipping. This is a common way of using an overdrive, and it’s exactly how I use my Timmy. But even though the Soul Food wasn’t purpose-built to mimic a particular amp, I use it almost exclusively as a standalone soft-clipping device played through a clean channel. Its distortion sound is so damn sweet that I don’t want to taint it by adding clipping from my amp.

So… what you choose will be wholly dependent upon what pleases you.

Update: November 26, 2012

I ended the article three years ago with the statement that you have to play a lot of pedals for find your sweet spot. Three years later, that statement remains true. You see, in a recent article where I asked if new overdrives are relevant with so many on the market, there are some pedals that work with certain rig configurations, and some that just do not. There are also some rig configurations that work great on stage that sound absolutely horrible in the studio. I’ve been in the studio for the last few weeks (grabbing studio time where I can), and when we worked on a song where I needed some high-gain sounds, my rig just did not work! I was using my trusty DV Mark Little 40 clean, with my Timmy and the Little Brute Drive for distortion. Sounded like crap when recorded. I ended up bringing in my VHT Special 6, cranking it up all the way, and slamming it with a booster! Worked like a charm, with all the high-gain character that I wanted out of that tone. So I learned a valuable lesson there.

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