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What is Distortion, and Why is it Such an Important Effect in Music?

Distortion is often associated with electric guitars in rock and metal music, but it’s far more versatile than that. Although abrasive distortion has proven ideal for bringing some well-needed fuzz, crunch and attitude, artists and producers have also applied the effect subtly to impart warmth, character and texture onto a range of instruments, and sometimes an entire track. 

With your Nura profile activated, you’ll be able to hear the full weight of the heaviest distortion and all the details of the most harmonic saturation. 

What is distortion?

In this context, we’re talking about distortion as a creative tool in music. However, distortion can also refer to bad audio quality. When an audio signal’s volume is pushed beyond the capabilities of sound systems or music software, it will sound crushed and will probably have most people in the room wincing. 

Distortion, overdrive or fuzz as an effect in music can be an amazing thing. Essentially, it involves manipulating and pushing the original soundwaves of an instrument until it’s almost unrecognisable. There’s plenty of science behind the practice and how various types of distortion can be achieved, but the most important thing we should know is that it’s perfect for amplifying emotion in a track. 

The rise of distortion

You can find distortion in guitar pedals and amplifiers, music software, hardware studio effects and even in speakers. Distortion’s origin is legend-like, though, with various musicians cited as the first user of the effect. 

One of the most celebrated tracks from the early days of distortion is Rumble by guitarist Link Wray in 1958. You’ve probably heard this song on Pulp Fiction, Independence day, The Sopranos and more. Link Wray would rip and poke holes in his amplifier cones to create a noisy, crunchy tone that just exudes rebellion. Several states and radio stations banned the song, including New York and Boston, in fears that its sound would encourage fights. It was still a hit, and Bob Dylan even called it the best instrumentals ever. Listen to the powerful effect distortion had on the track below.

Later on, in 1961, country artist Marty Robbins performed his track Don’t Worry with guitarist Grady Martin, who plugged his steel guitar into a faulty amp. The result was, of course, a raw, powerful sound that gave the track a totally new feel. Martin went on to record his own track with the effect, aptly named The Fuzz.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a slice of the fuzz pie. Gibson and other music equipment manufacturers began making distortion effects pedals for guitarists, and rock music suddenly sounded a lot cooler in the 60s. Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stone, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Beatles and everyone in between were all using fuzz pedals, distorted amps and overdrive in their music. 

By the late 60s and early 70s, bands such as Black Sabbath and The Ramones had gotten their hands dirty with distortion. With one listen of Sabbath’s Iron Man, you’ll understand how important distortion was to the emotion of that track and the band. Distortion was the catalyst for genres such as hard rock, punk rock, and eventually heavy metal. It proved essential for these aggressive, exciting and defiant genres. 

When the 80s came, there were more than enough distortion pedals and stompboxes to go around. Many artists and bands would experiment with the wide range of pedals on the market to find their unique, explosive sound. Metallica, Living Colour, Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith all erupted onto the scene with their own creative take on distortion that would define the 80s. 

Distortion then continued its reign into the 90s, with Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana, Bikini Kill, The Smashing Pumpkins and more pushing distortion up to 11 in their own way. Along the way, artists were also discovering that they could use distortion on vocals, drums, and entire tracks, too. Kathleen Hanna, vocalist of Bikini Kill and pioneer of the riot grrrl movement, would harshly push the volume of her mic so that it was subtly distorted, aggressive and powerful. 

Hip-hop swiftly caught on to distortion, too. You can hear it on music by everyone from The Beastie Boys to Kanye West, whether it’s a subtle amount of saturation to make drums more colourful, or straight up decimation of an instrument. With the dawn of computer music-making, distortion became even more accessible, with software emulations of pedals, rack effects, tape saturation, and new distortion that was previously unavailable. 

This made it easy to crank up the distortion on a synth or a drum loop. And that’s exactly what Daft Punk did on Kanye’s On Sight to create a raw, erratic sound that set the tone for Yeezus. The synth line and drum sounds are pushed to the absolute limit on this track, which sounds amazing on your Nura device.

You can hear distortion on an incredible range of genres today. Whether Kaytranada is using it to highlight a long kick drum to turn it into a bassline or whether it’s laid over the top of a lo-fi hip-hop track to give a vintage feel, it’s everywhere. Take a closer listen to some of your favourite music and see if you can hear how distortion contributes to the overall emotion of the track. Just don’t blow out your speakers or headphones. 

If you liked this article, check out What Is Reverb. and Why is it Such and Important Effect in Music?

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