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The recording studio is a funny place. Engineers spend thousands of pounds to ensure the truest, purest recording of the source material, while the material itself might be an unholy wail of screeching, fuzzy guitars or distorted vocals. And some engineers insist on recording the best singers in the world through tube gear that adds yet another level of grit and grime.
Let’s face it: we like distortion. We like raw, rough, crunchy sounds that spit and growl. And we get these sounds through various types of distortion effect, such as overdrive, fuzz and clipping.
Distortion happens when a signal exceeds levels that the gear it’s passing through was designed to handle. This causes, in some cases, overdrive. Overdrive can be subtle, like when using a tube microphone or preamp, or dramatic, like when your guitarist cranks his stack up to 11.
When the signal gets too hot to handle, it ‘clips’. Too much clipping results in an unpleasant sound, but that may be just what you want!
Other sorts of distortion might not be so appealing - digital clipping is nasty. However, even that might find a place in some forms of music.
Obviously, distortion doesn’t require us to buy costly studio gear - there are plenty of stompboxes, real and virtual, that can give you the grunge you need.
Distortion is primarily used for guitars, but it can also be very effective on vocals - just ask Trent Reznor. Used subtly, it can spice up digital drum tracks or loops too, and some folks even love the sound of fuzz bass.