Best Audio Interfaces in 2020

As a music producer, songwriter, musician, or audio designer, an audio interface is a virtual workshop that can make or break your work.

Consider your computer the workstation and the interface as the toolbox where the quality of your audio and your options in mixing, synthesization, and production are determined by the quality of the interface.

Whether you produce music on Mac or PC, there are tons of options for audio interfaces to buy in 2020. These 5 choices should be enough to get any musician thinking about their options and comparing the price, features, compatibility, and aptitudes of each machine. The buying guide below these reviews compares the major features that should be considered when buying one of these audio interfaces.

This guide should help anyone looking for an audio interface in 2020 compare models based on their needs and expectations to choose the right one for their work.

Reviews of the Best Audio Interfaces

Audient iD4 High-Performance Audio Interface

The Audient iD4 audio interface has 2 inputs and 2 analog outputs (it has no digital outputs, in other words).

By offering a simple interface, complete with a mic preamp, phantom power for condenser mics, and instrument level DI for guitar and bass, the Audient iD4 is the best overall choice for an audio interface, especially on a budget.

The iD4 also has dual headphone outputs and an output for speakers.

The whole interface works on USB power and features compatibility with Apple’s camera connection kit, as well as mobile optimization for iPads and iPhones.

USB audio interfaces come in many shapes, sizes, and costs. Audient’s iD4 2-in/2-out USB interface is the best in its price range, with enough features to satisfy experienced audio producers and the optimization for Apple devices that many designers crave.

Pros

  • Simple interface with premium condenser mics
  • Dual headphone outputs and speaker output
  • Powered purely by USB connection
  • Affordable price

Cons

  • No digital connectivity

Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo

Featuring thunderbolt connectivity, 2 analog inputs, 6 analog outputs, optical Toslink digital connectivity, and an audio resolution of 24-bit/192kHz, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo is our pick for the best premium-priced audio interface available in 2020.

Its audio output and UAD-2 plugins have a quality second to none on this list, though the price reflects it.

The Apollo Twin MKII Duo is a desktop-format interface that connects to Mac or PC by Thunderbolt, rather than by cable, and has to be powered from a wall outlet rather than by USB power. This restriction may be a con for some audio designers.

The Apollo Twin MKII Duo can also power UAD plugin effects and comes with Solo, Duo, and Quad options.

The Unison pre-amps are also great emulation plugins for each of the Universal Audio Apollo’s input paths.

Real-time UAD processing allows designers to track audio through vintage tape machines, compressors, pre-amps, and guitar plug-ins with zero latency.

Premium preamps, line outputs, and real-time analog classics UAD plug-in bundles make the interface a premium design choice for songwriters and producers.

Its updated 2.0 software bundle includes a drag and drop interface, resizable windows, and channel strip presets.

For anyone who can afford it, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo is the premium choice on this list.

Pros

  • High-quality output with an array of options
  • UAD plugin effects
  • An array of preamps and emulation options
  • Real-time analog classics bundles and other extra features round out a premium package

Cons

  • Thunderbolt-only connectivity can be restrictive
  • Powered by wall outlets rather than USB
  • Premium price

Focusrite Scarlett Solo USB Audio Interface

This 3rd generation Focusrite Scarlett Solo audio interface features pro tools, USB connectivity, and a top of the line preamp.

The bright, high-quality sound output of the Focusrite Scarlett is due in part to its switchable air mode.

It also features two hum-free outputs and a guitar/bass input.

Its high-quality converters record and mix at a quality of 24-bit/192kHz, which is the industry standard for premium audio output. For those less experienced in audio interfaces, its quick-start tools help new users install and run the interface easily.

The Focusrite interface also features pro tools such as Ableton Live Lite, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, a plug-in suite, a creative pack from Focusrite, and other virtual instruments available through download.

Focusrite also offers an XLN addictive keys subscription and a Nugen Audio Monofileter Elements plugin. Focusrite Scarlett Solo’s integration with online subscriptions, as well as its USB-powered system, make it a quality modern audio interface for those shopping on a reasonable budget.

Pros

  • Pro Tools and other online subscriptions give users a lot of options for customization
  • Its converters and recorders are high-quality and industry competitive for audio output
  • Its plugins are available by subscription through many free services offered by Focusrite
  • USB-powered audio interface
  • Competitive price

Cons

  • Lack of compatibility for USB3 ports

PreSonus AudioBox Audio Interface

The PreSonus AudioBox Audio Interface is compatible with PC and Mac and bus-powered by a USB 2.0 audio and MIDI interface.

Pretty much any recording software that songwriters and producers use is compatible with the PreSonus AudioBox.

It also features a low budget price for designers that need a quality interface without putting up a ton of cash.

It features 24-bit resolution audio output and an array of kHz sampling rates, including 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96. Its 2-combo mic and instrument inputs feature high-performance, high-headroom mic preamplifiers, and low-noise output.

PreSonus uses over 6 GB of third-party resources, including software and plugins like the Studio One Artist DAW software and the Studio Magic Plug-in Suite.

Its features combined with its high-quality output and add-ons make it the top choice on this list for budget-priced audio interfaces, for both PC and Mac users.

Pros

  • Compatible with PC and Mac
  • USB 2.0 audio output and MIDI interface
  • 24-bit resolution audio output
  • Third-party resources including pro plugins and add-ons
  • Low-budget price

Cons

  • Without a powered USB 3.0 hub, the PreSonus experiences some connectivity trouble

BEHRINGER Audio Interface

The Behringer Audio Interface features a 4×4 2.0 Audio/MIDI interface powered by USB.

Its professional audio has an output of 24-bit/192kHz. For those that want to design audio on many different recording software programs, Behringer’s audio interface works with Ableton Live, Avid Pro Tools, Steinberg Cubase, and other popular tools.

Behringer streams through 4 inputs and outputs, as well as featuring a MIDI I/O with ultra-low latency.

This audio interface is compatible with Mac and PC.

The Behringer has 4 modern MIDAS-designed Mic Preamplifiers with 48 volts of phantom power. The chassis on the Behringer is made of impact-resistant metal.

As a studio tool, the Behringer Audio Interface works with a myriad of plug-in microphones, instruments, and line-level sources for incredible studio flexibility. Behringer also flourishes with MIDI devices to improve control.

Pros

  • High-quality audio output
  • 4×4 2.0 Audio/MIDI interface
  • Powered by USB
  • Compatible with various audio interface tools from Ableton, Avid, and more
  • 4 inputs and outputs, as well as preamps with over 48 volts of phantom power
  • Impact-resistant casing

Cons

  • A single phantom power switch for all channels can detract from mixed audio sources

Best Audio Interfaces: Buying Guide

This buying guide for audio interfaces in 2020 compares the major features that will fall under fire when audio designers and songwriters shop for different brands.

Even if you don’t prefer the ones listed in this review series, you can still use this buying guide to compare models of your choice for their features, including audio quality and specs, hardware features, cost, software add-ons, and compatibility.

Audio Quality

The audio output quality is a huge part of any decision to purchase an audio interface for composers and audio producers in 2020.

Many of the devices on this list output at 24-bit/192kHz, which is professional quality for a personal studio.

Many also feature Audio/MIDI interfaces, phantom power, combo mics, high-performance instrument inputs, and other audio devices.

The most expensive model on this list, the Apollo Twin MKII Duo, has options for UAD plugin effects and comes with Solo, Duo, and Quad options, as well as other emulation and performance fixes.

Thankfully, you don’t always “get what you pay for” with audio interfaces since even the budget options on this list come with a ton of features.

There are some premium input and output options that you can only get at a high price, however, so audio engineers and producers that are looking for specific optimization features should prioritize the features most important to them when comparing interfaces.

Hardware Features

The hardware can make or break these interfaces. The number of audio in/out ports differs between interfaces.

The microphone input and the options for additional hardware compatibility differ as well.

The most significant difference in hardware between interfaces is the power source.

Some of these devices can be powered purely by USB input, which is desirable for most composers. Others require wall outlets to power, which can be less convenient.

A designer’s inputs are limited by the physical ports for plugins. Some interfaces, for instance, such as the Focusrite Solo, lack compatibility for USB3. It’s essential to know each interface’s compatibility before buying.

Cost

Comparing cost is a simple comparison between audio interfaces.

The models on this list range from budget options under $100 to $800 premium audio interface hardware.

The price isn’t always proportional to the number of features offered. Our top pick, the Audient iD4 interface, has a mid-low price compared to others on the market. However, the premium features offered by the high-end interfaces may be exclusive to that price range.

For general shoppers, our budget recommendations should easily suffice. Only those with specific premium features in mind should opt for pricier alternatives.

Software Add-Ons

Many audio interfaces come with access to other suites and program add-ons that can be purchased or even subscribed to for free (PreSonus is big on these).

These add-ons give users a range of compatibility options, as well as access to other audio mixing and design suites through their interface.

Ableton Live and Softube offer fantastic, multifaceted design suites that some interfaces can easily connect to and use.

Compatibility

Not all interfaces are compatible with certain design suites. Veterans of Ableton or other specific tools should check compatibility before purchasing an interface.

Compatibility also matters in terms of hardware. Not only are power and output options a concern, as mentioned, but software compatibility matters as well.

Some audio interfaces are compatible with PC and Mac, but some are not. This could narrow your list automatically.

Audio designers with specific programs they want to run also need to check compatibility between the audio interface and the suites, plug-ins, extensions, add-ons, and other performance features and subscriptions they may want to run through their new interface.

The Takeaway

A new audio interface can make sound mixing, composing, design, recording, and other audio engineering feats easier.

Many interfaces are compatible with software upgrades, add-ons, and other subscription services.

No matter how much customization a sound designer wants from their at-home design studio, there are audio interfaces out there that can provide those services and more.

Choosing the right one requires knowledge that we hope to provide in this review series and buying guide.

We reviewed several of the most popular and well-reviewed audio interfaces to compare their features and present the options for sound designers that want them.

Our all-around pick for the best audio interface in 2020 is the Audient iD4 interface, which has a simple design and a ton of compatibility with software plugins, despite being designed for Mac users.

In our experience, most composers prefer Apple devices anyway, but for those that are die-hard PC fans, there are options for them as well.

Comparing the hardware compatibility, power source, plug-in options, software interface, audio quality, and versatility should give any composer or producer in 2020 the options they’re looking for in the realm of quality audio interfaces.

Best Delay Pedals

When you set out on to become a guitar player, there are so many different things that one should learn. And it all goes way past just the techniques and music theory.

The problem with this seemingly simple instrument is that it comes with an additional set of features and challenges, including a variety of different effects and other devices that can either enhance the tone or just help you perform music in different ways.

There’s even some science involved in making a perfect rig.

Be that as it may, delay pedals remain as one of the essential components for electric (or even acoustic) guitar players.

Without them, your tone might just be too “dry” and uninteresting. Sure, some may resort to using reverb pedals, but the delay or echo effect has its own charm and makes the tone more appealing in most of the contexts of modern music.

But this comes with its own set of advantages – what are the best delay pedals that you can find these days?

Well, the problem is that we have an over saturated market and so many different brands and models to choose from that it gets difficult to filter out the good stuff.

This is why we decided to do our own research and a rundown of the best delay pedals that you can find on the market these days.

Boss DD-8 Digital Delay

Of course, with a list of any kind of pedals, you just can’t avoid adding Boss somewhere in there.

For this purpose, we’re opening things up with their DD-8, which is a continuation of their long-running series of digital delay pedals that started way back in the 1980s.

While retaining the same classic design and features of the older models, DD-8 manages to push this effect to a whole new level and bring some diversity in there.

Aside from mind-blowing 10 seconds of maximum delay time, it also comes with 11 different delay modes.

Additionally, it also features a separate plug that allows you to pair it with a tap switch or an expression pedal.

MXR M169 Carbon Copy

But in case you’re more into vintage stuff, simplicity, and old school kind of tones, then you can look into MXR and their amazing M169, also known as Carbon Copy.

The beauty of analog delays lies in the so-called “bucked brigade devices” that are essentially a line of capacitors that store and transfer the signal.

While it can’t have more than 600 milliseconds of delay time, the repeated tones sound just a little muffled. And this is exactly the appealing thing about analog delays, including MXR’s M169.

There are just three simple controls and an additional switch that adds some modulation in the mix.

TC Electronic Flashback 2

TC Electronic has always been pretty good at keeping things simple and very functional and versatile at the same time. This is exactly what we can see with their Flashback 2 delay.

Aside from three basic controls for volume level, feedback (number of repeats) and delay time, it comes with 8 different delay modes, as well as 3 additional slots for the company’s famous TonePrint feature.

These are specially designed presets that were made in collaboration with some of the biggest guitar heroes of today.

Additionally, TC Electronic’s Flashback 2 pedal comes with a looper that’s capable of recording up to 40 seconds of your playing.

Behringer VD400 Vintage Delay

Yes, there might be some weird looks that we have Behringer on the list of the best pedals of any kind. However, some of their pedal models actually work rather well, at least for their ridiculously low price.

For instance, we have their VD400 Vintage Delay that has pretty much everything that you need if you need just a simple echo effect.

There are just three basic controls that you find on pretty much any delay pedal – volume (labeled as “intensity”), repeat rate (of feedback), and delay time.

Yes, it has only 300 milliseconds of delay, but it’s an actual analog delay and it’s a budget-friendly pedal. What more could you ask for?

Dunlop EP103 Echoplex

Dunlop comes up as one of the best manufacturers in this game. And that comes as no surprise at all, since they’ve been building their great reputation for decades now.

For the list of delays, we’re bringing their EP103 or the so-called Echoplex. This simple little pedal is way more powerful than it seems at a first glance.

Beneath a stylish-looking simple device comes a very powerful beast that can completely reinvent your tone.

Echoplex is a compact recreation of those quirky-sounding tape-based delays that have remained popular among the lovers of old school tones.

Just imagine the possibilities with this simple little pedal.

Electro-Harmonix Canyon

Electro-Harmonix is yet another old brand that’s been around for quite a while.

Although typically popular for their amazing Big Muff Pi fuzz pedals, they also have other exciting effects, one of them being the appropriately named Canyon delay.

Of course, just like almost all of the delay pedals today, it features three basic controls.

However, it’s all enhanced with two pro-level features – 10 different delay type presets and a total of 62 seconds of loop time. These are pretty amazing additions to such a seemingly simple little pedal.

Boss DD-500

Look, there’s no way to avoid mentioning Boss at least twice. But DD-500 is not like your average digital delay.

It’s a full-on echo effect workstation with a surprisingly vast amount of possibilities. In fact, it’s as if you made a special effects processor just for the delay effect.

Aside from its 12 delay modes and ver detailed parameter controls, it comes with an onboard phrase looper and even a selectable bypass type.

Even though it’s a digital pedal, it does an amazing job of replicating those analog delays, including tape-based ones. It’s a bit expensive, but you just can’t go wrong with it.

Best Headphones for Audio Production in 2020

Headphones for audio production need a few major qualities to improve their functions, features, their ability to cancel noise, and their modern technology conveniences such as voice activation and control.

Comparing these features can be difficult when you’re dealing with not only the major brands but the diverse models they offer.

This review series and buying guide are designed to give you the inside track on the best headphones to buy for audio production in 2020.

We’ll go over the key features of the 5 major models we like and then compare them by criteria in a buying guide to help you determine which will best suit your needs.

Even if you don’t want the models we list, you can still use the guide to work through your own choices and compare their aptitudes against your needs in audio production.

Reviews of the Best Headphones for Audio Production

These reviews of the 5 best headphones for audio production include their major features as well as any possible drawbacks they may have.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones

Audio-Technica is one of the most critically acclaimed names in studio monitor headphones and the ATH-M50x tops our list for the same reasons that people have been buying them professionally for years.

Audio engineers and pro reviewers agree that these professional studio monitor headphones are some of the best that money can buy.

The extended frequency range of the ATH-M50x headphones gives them industry-leading clarity in both accurate bass response and the higher registers.

Audio-Technica has circumaural design earcups that completely cover your ears and provide professional sound isolation for mixing and design even in a noisy environment. This makes them perfect tools for a busy engineer or a club DJ.

These premium headphones though have something the cheaper models don’t, which is a 90-degree swiveling mechanism on the earcups that provide efficient ear monitoring. The earpads and headband were also ambitiously comfortable compared to the price.

The detachable 45-millimeter proprietary cable fits into a large aperture driver for optimal sound delivery. Rare earth magnets and copper-aluminum wire voice coils promote professional sound quality and clarity.

Though the price is premium, there are more expensive models on the market with lesser quality.

Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x studio monitor headphones are recommended by audio professionals everywhere and we see no reason to dispute them.

Pros

  • Superior sound quality and clarity, as well as an extended frequency bass range
  • Proprietary aperture drivers, 45-millimeter
  • 90-degree swiveling earcups for maximum sound isolation
  • Comfortable pads and headband

Cons

  • These headphones are built for audio monitoring and production; some users have noted that they can become uncomfortable when used for casual purposes like gaming

Status Audio CB-1 Closed Back Studio Monitor Headphones

Status Audio’s CB-1 headphones have a ton of industry-leading features that make them a favored budget option for some top musicians and audio producers, both for quality and comfort.

They show up on top technology review compendiums for a reason – we simply had to include them on our list of the best audio production headphones for 2020.

The 50-millimeter drivers on the CB-1 headphones set them apart, giving the sound quality a more expansive range.

Two 9-foot cables and an adaptor give you the ability to take them throughout a larger workspace and a custom locking mechanism prevents them from popping out.

CB-1 headphones are compatible with any audio cables, ensuring that any professional sound producer can use them with the equipment they already have.

The design and aesthetics also really impressed us. The Status Audio headphones have a slim look that doesn’t show off any branding. They’re built small enough to fold and store easily for travel.

Speaking of design, the CB-1 headphones are also designed with comfort in mind, with a padded headband and stuffed earcups that stay comfortable for hours of wear.

The cup fully covers your ears, making it unnecessary to create a noise-canceling effect using a tight headband – the earcups do it automatically.

For comfort and style on a lower budget, the Status Audio CB-1 Closed Back Studio Monitor Headphones are another top choice.

Pros

  • 50-millimeter drivers
  • Studio-quality audio production
  • Minimalistic, unbranded design
  • Slim construction promotes storability
  • Padded earcups for complete ear enclosure

Cons

  • Not the best bass range response on the market

Audio-Technica ATH-M20x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones

Audio-Technica tops our list as the best studio headphones in general, and they’re coming back for a top budget pick.

For their winning designs in both engineering and features, offering premium sound cancelation, ideal aesthetic construction, and the perfect physical technology to maximize the quality and efficiency of your sound production in 2020 without breaking the bank.

Audio-Technica designs their headphones specifically for audio engineering, both tracking and mixing.

If you know anything about sound design headphones, you know that they usually aren’t wireless – the 40-millimeter drivers on the ATH-M20x studio monitor headphones are copper class aluminum wire voice coils for the best possible sound quality. They’re tuned to enhance low-frequency performance for more accurate mixing.

The aesthetic design is also top-notch, with contoured earcups that provide perfect isolation and cancelation in even noisy environments, ideal for both sound production and being a DJ.

Those who are into tracking, mixing, or design know the conveniences of a single-side cable exit, which the Audio-Technica has in a magnet neodymium slot.

For audio production headphones on a budget, look no further than Audio-Technica.

Pros

  • Sturdy construction
  • Rare earth magnet drivers with copper-aluminum wire voice coils
  • Contoured earcup design (circumaural) for premium sound isolation/cancelation
  • Single-side cable exit with 40-millimeter drivers

Cons

  • The 3-meter cord may be too long for some, depending on the workstation setup

Sennheiser HD280PRO Headphones

The Sennheiser HD280PRO Headphones are for people who know their technical specs and want quality audio production headphones on a smaller budget.

For those with painful necks, these headphones also have a weight advantage, weighing a comfortable 285 grams in total to take the strain off.

Circumaural ear coupling improves sound isolation for professional mixing and production.

The natural sounds on the Sennheiser headphones are responsive and warm, with a nominal impedance of 64 ohms and a sound pressure level of 133 dB.

Those who are technically minded and know what they want out of their specs will be happy to know they have a frequency response of 25000 Hz

The Sennheiser HD280PRO headphones are also refined for comfort, with earpads and headband padding that help you stay comfortable while wearing them for long periods.

Pros

  • Lightweight construction makes the Sennheiser headphones easy to wear for long production sessions
  • Ear coupling provides unique sound isolation properties that encourage working in noisy environments
  • Replaceable pads, headband padding, and audio cord

Cons

  • Some users complain that the pins on the internal jack get bent when the stiff cable on these headphones pull on them over extended periods

Status Audio BT One Wireless On-Ear Headphones

While most audio engineers opt for the higher quality metals and surer quality of corded headphones, some prefer to be modern, perhaps because of the constraints of their workspace.

For that, they may want a Bluetooth option. While not as lauded as corded headphones, there are some great wireless headphones for audio production out there.

Our top pick in that category is the Status Audio BT One Wireless model.

These headphones have a 40-millimeter driver that promotes clarity, giving a full bass range competitive with the corded models in its class.

The metal frame gives it a sleek, modern design, with modern conveniences like button controls on the headphones themselves to promote ease of use.

These include playback and volume controls, as well as a microphone that lets you make calls from your headset without taking them off to use your phone. It easily folds for travel.

Of course, with the Status Audio BT One Wireless On-Ear Headphones, you’re wondering about the Bluetooth.

The Bluetooth 5.0 of the Status Audio BT headphones supports two phones, tablets, or computers. Compatible devices include those made by Mac, PC, Android, and Personal Media Players Pixel.

Being wireless, you also need to consider the battery life on these headphones.

Thankfully, the Status Audio BT headphones last 30 hours on one charge, making these headphones the ideal companion for sound producers traveling long distances.

They charge by USB in just over an hour. These features make the Status Audio wireless headphones our pick for the best Bluetooth-enabled headphones for audio production available in 2020.

Pros

  • Convenient Bluetooth technology compatible with most smartphones and tablets
  • Modern, minimalist design aesthetic
  • 30-hour battery life on a 1-hour charge
  • Quality bass range
  • Built-in buttons

Cons

  • The plastic frame and headband aren’t as durable as some of the more expensive models

Buying Guide

Here are the main categories of features that should be compared between these headphone models.

By shopping with this list in mind, you can make sure to buy exactly what you need.

Sound quality

The sound quality is stellar on the headphones we listed, but not everything on the market is made equally.

When you’re shopping, look for things like the decibel limit, bass range quality, and other technical-specific features and compare the models for their specs.

Construction

Construction will set some of these models apart, with price factoring heavily into the material quality of the headband and frame, as well as the cord.

Some have stiffer cords made of rarer metals and others have budget plastic constructions that might save you money but may cost you durability.

Earcups are another significant aspect of construction, with some of the models listed providing professional-level sound isolation by covering your whole ear, which is what you want from audio production headphones.

Construction also factors into the aesthetic design of the headphones, with some favoring flashy branded designs and others being sleeker and more minimalistic.

This can affect practical use as well as preference, however, since some models are slimmer and more foldable for use in travel.

Cost

Cost is a measurable response to your preferences depending on your needs. From our top premium pick, down to our budget pick, both by Audio-Technica, you should be able to find audio production headphones that work with your budget.

Special features

Some of these headphones have special features, which could make or break them in terms of your preferences.

Some are easier to take on the go, including the completely wireless Bluetooth versions that can connect with smartphones and tablets and are ideal for mixing music on a plane ride.

Other more expensive models have swiveling earcups such as our top Audio-Technica pick, and others have built-in buttons.

The length of the cord also factors in here, with some providing too much or too little compared to the needs of your workspace.

Since these features can’t be compared to each other numerically, you need to know what special features are a priority for you before you start looking so you can match the audio production headphones to your specific needs.

The Takeaway

Audio production requires subtle and effective tools. Comparing headphone brands and models can be complicated if you don’t know the standard of comparison.

This review series and buying guide are designed to help you sort it out by comparing the main features of the different models available, including their construction, aesthetics, and cost.

Our top pick for headphones for audio producers and mixers is the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones.

They have superior material construction, including the earcups, headband, and lead wires, and industry-leading professional sound quality. The earpieces have leading sound isolation tech, giving you the ability to mix and design sound on a professional level for a consumer-grade price.

Though you might buy different models depending on whether your needs involve travel, wireless functions, or a specific millimeter driver, the models listed in this review guide should serve you well so long as you know enough to compare their construction and functions to your needs as an audio producer in 2020.

Best Studio Monitors in the Market Right Now [2020]

Whether you are a music production professional or a beginner starting a Home Studio, choosing the right quality monitors is one of the most difficult decisions.

Which are the best studio monitors?

This recurring question has many answers, as many as audio monitors are in the market, and the best way we can take to decide is to check which ones satisfy better our needs.

When choosing studio monitors we must ask ourselves certain questions that will help us select the right ones.

The first question is about the size of our study, will they be used in a home study or in a professional study?

The next thing is to define our budget, and taking into account these 2 factors, we will analyze among the three fundamental quality parameters: Build quality, sound quality and connectivity.

 Let’s  start with some of the best professional studio monitors :

Adam Audio A7X

The Adam Audio A7X monitor has a great reputation among professional audio production studios; even, many affirm that “everything that happens through the A7X sounds good”.

It is the creation of a German company, which has positioned this monitor as the bestseller in its catalog.

It is a versatile, highly balanced, near-field monitoring speaker.

The Adam Audio A7X has a price of around $750 per unit, a slightly high price for those who start, but they will ensure the highest clarity and quality when mixing.

It features a very high frequency response from 42Hz to 50kHz.

It has a built-in amplifier with a power of 150W, which helps power the 7 “carbon fiber woofer and a 2” tweeter called X-ART, properly used by the brand, producing surprising audio clarity as it does not dominate the room and makes the sounds highly decipherable.

Construction quality is high, designed in high-density wood. In terms of connectivity it has 2 audio connectors, RCA non-balanced and XLR balanced.

Neumann KH 120 A

The Neumann KH 120A active audio monitor competes in quality / price ratio with the Adam Audio A7X, it is created by the German company Neumann, a leading manufacturer of studio microphones that has been working in the sound industry for more than 90 years.

This studio monitoring speaker demonstrates all the experience of this legendary company, focused on its new line of monitors.

KH120A is a monitor d compact, two – way study has so far proven an excellent quality for the approximately $700.

It’s especially outstanding for its incredibly detailed mid-range sounds.

The Neumann KH 120A features a minimalist and compact design, a height of around 11″ and of just over 7″ of  width.

The build quality is excellent, it consists of a two-piece cast aluminum case, it has curvatures in its casing that substantially improve the sound and also giving it a sophisticated look.

In the sound quality apart, it has 100W of power 50 W Woofer and 50 W Tweeter, and a frequency range from 52Hz to 21KHz.

Its connectivity is a bit limited since it only has one XLR input.

The Neumann KH 120A is highly recommended for its accurate reproduction, balanced tone and uniform sound dispersion.

Yamaha HS8

Let’s start with midrange audio monitors, where prices below $500.

HS line Yamaha monitors are one of the most used and traditional on the market.

Characteristics of the HS5, HS7 and even the legendary NS10 remain in Yamaha HS8: room control High Trim, and regulation of low and high.

This monitor has higher overall performance than its predecessors, thanks to a unique mount that reduces vibration and the phase switch, which allows you to configure a subwoofer system with simple connections, without the need for additional equipment.

 The price of each monitor varies around $340. As because build quality of the Yamaha HS8, we can say that it has a simple but elegant appearance.

They are made of dense MDF, and they have good acoustic damping. However, it has very few settings available.

The HS8 has an 8” cone woofer shows minimal distortion and good sound, even at the low end, which is very important for producers working with heavier bass.

1” tweeter is highly clear in terms of highs and the frequency range is from 38Hz to 30KHz. Its power is 120W, and has XLR and TRS balanced and unbalanced inputs.

 PreSonus Eris E5 XT

For a price close to $150, you can get a special studio monitor for small spaces.

The PreSonus Eris E5 XT audio monitor are the revamped version of the Eris E5, and it is considered one of the best in terms of price range and its amazing features.

It has a 5.25″ woofer that comes with its own 45W power amplifier, comes with low-frequency Kevlar transducers, and the 1″ silk dome tweeter.

This active studio monitor can output up to 102 dB of maximum sound pressure.

They are equipped with an EBM (Elliptical Boundary Modeled) waveguide designed by Hugh Sarvis of WorxAudio, which gives you a privileged response before the frequencies.

This feature is ideal for group work, as it creates a 100 degree horizontal dispersion, creating a larger optimum point.

On the back it brings a simple tone control for the range of bass, mid and treble sounds.

It has unbalanced RCA inputs, ¼” balanced TRS and balanced XLR or Jack inputs. It has no tone control.

JBL 305P MkII

Finally, if you have a low budget to start, the JBL 305P MkII audio monitors are the ones for you, at $100, you will get the scope and clarity of a good audio studio.

This monitoring speaker is made of MDF and some parts in black PVC. Its mold is made of structural ABS, which gives it a robust and construction and quality.

The 305PMKII features a 1″ tweeter, 5″ woofer, 82W total power, and a frequency range of 43Hz to 24KHz.

Low frequencies are surprising, especially if compared with other monitors in this same range.

Other features that set it apart from the rest, is the audio quality at high volumes, as it remains accurate and clean, with no added roughness or distortion.

On the back they have volume control, bass and treble controls and XLR and TRS connections. A peculiarity is the implementation of what JBL calls “image control waveguide”.

This technology allows that, to the placed anywhere in a room, an accurate representation of the sound will be heard.

How to EQ Vocals

Most of the music out there is vocal-centric. This means that all the vocals all the time should sound absolutely perfect.

Whether it’s a live performance or a studio recording, everyone will be paying attention to vocals the most. However, tweaking the voice to sound just about right is not exactly the easiest task.

In fact, many of the amateurs and semi-professionals will always have a hard time setting up vocals the right way. But the last thing you want is to have a quality singer sounding awful in the mix.

With this in mind, we’ll try and explain a thing or two on how to properly EQ the vocals.

Choice of a microphone is essential

Before we get fully into it, we need to point out that the quality of the input is of essential importance of any type of recording or a live show.

There’s no amount of editing and mixing that can help you if the original recording sounds awful.

So before even getting anywhere near the mixing console or your EQ plugins, make sure to have a suitable microphone for what you need.

Look into different polar patterns and think whether you need a dynamic or a condenser mic.

Each microphone picks up audio differently and will focus more on specific sets of frequencies. This is the reason why you really need to take this into consideration before recording or tweaking the EQ knobs.

It’s all about the vocalists

If you’re recording entire bands, or setting up the EQ and levels for live shows, there’s an order of operations you’ll need to respect.

Start with the lower-end spectrum and go from drum sets, then move to bass guitars, guitars, keyboards, and then the vocals.

The idea is to make them all work together and not have them go into each other sonic “territories.”

And before setting your hands on lows, mids, and highs on the mixer’s EQ, you’ll first need to be setting the gain knobs for each of the instruments.

But while setting the EQs of all the individual instruments, bear in mind that you’re giving enough “room” for the vocals. If you do everything step by step and tweak the way you should, laying the vocals on top will be like a breeze.

Cutting

The way you should be looking at the EQ is that you not only boost but also cut specific frequencies. This is especially made easy with parametric EQs.

Depending on the type of the microphone, the singer’s voice and technique, the room you’re recording in, and the rest of the band, you’ll need to be cutting some frequencies in the vocals.

And these unwanted frequencies can be all over the spectrum. In addition, the vocals can have a lower end boost to them if the singer is too close to the microphone. This is also known as the proximity effect.

The microphone will also pick up the other instruments, and that’s also something you’ll need to be thinking about while setting up the EQ.

Tweaking over the spectrum

So when doing the vocals, you should first start with high pass filters and cutting off everything below a particular frequency.

Some may suggest that you cut off everything below 100 or 150 Hz, but this depends on various factors and the given situation.

After dealing with the lower end of the spectrum, focus on the lower mids or the higher low-end range – somewhere around 330 to 360 Hz.

This is a bit of a “muddy” area, and if we’re talking about male vocals, you might get a really muffled sound if these frequencies are pronounced.

Start cutting a few dB at a time and listen to what happens. The point here is to allow the vocals to stand out in the mix by cutting frequencies in this area.

Go up the spectrum and try and find potential issues if there are any. For instance, the higher mids or the 2.5 to 4 kHz area might add some unwanted harsher “grinding” vibe to the tone.

However, if you cut this area too hard, you might lose some clarity. So be very patient and focused when tweaking these parts.

Then we have the higher-end spectrum where all the sibilance is and where all the harsh consonants might pop out.

This is usually between 5 and 7 kHz, and you’ll need to find the exact spot to filter out in this area, depending on the singer. Again, cutting too much here will reduce overall clarity.

Everything above 8 kHz can help you add that cutting edge to the lead vocals.

However, this is also where all the cymbals and high-end noises are. If you overdo on these frequencies, you might pick up too much of the unwanted stuff in the vocal mic.

Of course, cutting is a bit more complicated if you have an analog mixer. You’ll need to be looking at the “Q” control, or the bandwidth, as well as the frequency range knob for lows, mids, or highs.

Of course, everything these days is more accessible with digital mixers or plugins.

Listen to the whole picture

After setting it all up, you’ll need to take time and listen to the whole picture.

If something sounds like it’s lacking, try and boost these frequencies a little bit, without bringing too much of the unwanted noise.

For instance, if you think there needs to be more lower-end in the vocals, boost narrowly somewhere around the 200 Hz area. If you need more clarity, try narrow boosts around the 6 to 8 kHz territory.

In case you’re doing a live show indoors, it would be a good idea to walk around the venue and hear if every part where the audience should be doesn’t have any unwanted noises.

At the end of the day, setting up vocal EQs is not only about the vocals. It’s about the whole picture and helping singers stand out in the mix without making everyone’s ears bleed.

Best Affordable Studio Desks

Whatever it is that you do, having a work-friendly environment is a must.

Just imagine how much time and energy you’d spend dealing with uncomfortable working space and all the inconveniences that come with it.

If you’re dedicated to studio work, production and mixing, what you really want is to fully concentrate and focus on the music instead of constantly getting distracted and irritated by all the flaws of your surroundings.

Of course, one of the most important decisions you have to make while setting up a studio is finding a proper work desk.

However, no matter how crucial they are, these specialized desks sometimes might get a bit expensive. Especially if you’re looking for some kind of custom measures for your work space.

Luckily enough, there are some affordable studio desks that you can find out there. We figured that we could do some digging and we came up with a brief list of these cheaper solutions.

You don’t need to worry anymore – you can still have an ergonomic desk and a work-friendly environment without unnecessarily draining all of your savings.

Pyle Height Adjustable Sit & Stand Desk

Something for those who’d like to have an adjustable height desk without busting a bank. It might not be suitable for those who plan to have a bit of a larger setup, but it definitely comes in handy for every solid home studio.

This desk, made by Pyle, ensures easy setup and adjustment and is designed with ergonomics in mind.

There’s enough room on the main surface for a monitor and anything else you need, in addition to the keyboard tray. Definitely worth checking out for its price.

HomCom 61 in. Modern L-Shaped Computer Desk

But if you want space, and have enough room for such a piece of furniture, you should definitely check out HomCom 61 in.

Modern L-Shaped Computer Desk. Aside from its great looks and a sturdy steel frame, this one allows a few different practical features. It would probably take some time setting up, but you get a very practical elevated rack, keyboard trail, and even a computer stand in the corner.

Of course, being “L” shaped, it takes up some space and is probably a better option if you have a larger studio.

Overall, the HomCom 61 is designed as a classic work desk with a bit of workspace to spare.

If you do have some room to use, and if you plan on having larger studio speakers without using separate floor stands, then you should definitely consider one of these.

Z-Line Designs Cyrus Workstation

Maybe not as spacious as HomCom, but Z-Line Designs Cyrus Workstation  gives enough room in addition to its great design. After all, do you often see such an affordable desk with tempered glass as the main work surface?

In addition, it features a keyboard tray, a lower surface for the computer, and a monitor rack that’s as wide as the entire work surface.

It can come in handy if you have a setup with two computer monitors in mind. This way, however, you’d probably need separate floor stands for your speakers. Since the rack is wide enough, you can also use it for one monitor and two speakers.

Ultimate Support Nucleus-Z Explorer Studio Desk

Although this one is right on the edge between affordable and expensive, the Ultimate Support Nucleus-Z Explorer is probably one of the best options for its price. Yeah, it’s about $900 or so, but it’s a well-built and sturdy desk with two 4-space rack modules.

Made of powder-coated fiberboard, it has around 24 inches surface depth and the secondary upper surface with about 12 inches of depth.

Whatever kind of setup you have in mind, the Nucleus-Z Explorer will be a very useful workstation for your needs. If you want to go professional, this is the more affordable solution for a solid studio.

Studio RTA Work Station

It might be a relatively higher price, at least compared to some other products on the list. But, after all, the Studio RTA Work Station is not exactly a computer desk either. Although pretty straightforward, it is designed for studio works.

A very wide desk with specialized rack spaces for different outboard gear, a separate monitor tray, and the lower surface for your computer or anything else that you might have had in mind.

Being in the $450-500 territory, the Studio RTA Work Station is on the line between amateur and professional workspaces. It’s simple, it has enough room, it’s very well-built, and it’s not really that expensive for such a piece.

Studio RTA Producer Station Maple

Another one by Studio RTA, the Producer Station Maple is a bit of a behemoth among these desks that we included in the list.

Just like the product described above, it’s on the territory between amateur and professional-tier desks. However, this one allows more room for different rack-mounted units.

In fact, it has dual 20-space racks, monitor surface, one smaller rack below the monitor surface, keyboard tray, an extra slide-out tray, and the lower surface for computers.

The main surface is over 70-inches wide, while the upper monitor surface has about 60 inches of width. Pretty impressive if you’re planning on having many rack-mounted units.

Omnirax Presto Studio Desk

Now, Omnirax Presto 4 Studio Desk is also one of those lower-end professional work stations like the Nucleus-Z Explorer.

It can be found for a bit less than $900, but it’s more than worth it for a desk of such quality that has ergonomics and spaciousness in mind.

The upper shelf for computer monitors and near-field monitors, the very spacious main surface, keyboard shelf, and two rack spaces – is there anything else you need?

It’s also very well-built and comes in a few different color options. It might be a bit heavier, but it provides so many features for professional or semi-professional-level

Auto-Tune Alternatives

It’s pretty mind-blowing to see how much technology has advanced and how it shaped the music world. What was once literally considered to be science fiction is now possible through simple and affordable software.

When it comes to music recording and production, one thing comes to mind – the legendary Auto-Tune.

It was first introduced in the 1990s by Antares Audio Technologies, and it drastically changed the approach to how vocals are recorded and processed. The principle is simple, any noticeable variation in pitch that doesn’t fit the song can be adjusted and corrected.

But even though it’s so helpful, Auto-Tune was also met with criticism.

Many consider this to be cheating, as almost anyone can now sound good in the studio, in combination with this software and heavy editing possibilities of many DAWs. But nonetheless, it fins use both for correction and the obvious use, as is the example of the “robotic” voice in modern music.

In this brief guide, we thought about covering some of the best alternatives for Auto-Tune.

After all, the software became so widespread and the standards, at this point, require a lot of pitch-altering and similar processing that it’s almost impossible to make a representative vocal recording (or even instrumental) without at least some meddling in the style of Auto-Tune.

So, here’s what we decided to include…

Waves Tune

So first, we would like to look into the Waves Tune plugin, which provides both basic and more complex pitch altering. But whichever of these uses you require, the plugin will handle it all well.

The interface is pretty intuitive, although it might take a little time for some users to get accustomed to it. But what’s really exciting, and what makes it stand out in our view, is the addition of the real-time vocal pitch correction. It’s a fairly advanced feature, although it’s accessible even for non-professional users.

Celemony Software Melodyne 4

If you’ve been into music recording and production, there’s a high chance you’ve already been introduced to Melodyne by Celemony Software. The great thing about it is that this is one of just two products made by the company.

This means that they’re fully focused on quality and functionality, rather than an abundance of random numerous mediocre plugins. And they’re updating their stuff all the time, so everything works like a charm, no matter the operating system.

Melodyne, which is now in its fourth full version, also features the company’s now-famous Direct Note Access technology. This means that you’re able to tweak individual notes in an already polyphonic audio file. This is a very advanced feature and we can’t remember another plugin with such a great addition.

Cakewalk + Roland V-Vocal

Now we head over to V-Vocal, which comes as a collaboration between Cakewalk and the legendary Roland. This particular plugin can not only correct and adjust the pitch, but it also allows you to mess with the timing, add some dynamics to it, or even put a vibrato. These are all essential features when recording and processing vocals, or even some specific instruments.

While it might seem just a little confusing, once you get a hang of it, V-Vocal will be a good ally in adding pitch correction to an audio track.

It even lets you zoom in drastically in order to take care of some seemingly unnoticeable and “microscopically” small mistakes. Many producers, both professional and amateur, have been using it for years.

Mu Technologies Mu Voice

You don’t often find such an advanced plugin like Mu Voice by MU Technologies. Interestingly enough, it’s not a demanding piece of software, yet it provides you with so many controls and options for detailed pitch correction.

It includes a very unique package of tools and lets you edit everything without the annoying pitch curve editing. What’s more, it works with ultra-low and unnoticeable internal latency, about 5.8 ms. This means that you can even use it in live settings without even noticing any performance lags or other related issues.

Steinberg Pitch Correct

Steinberg pretty much cemented their place in the world of music production and mixing, both with their famous Cubase DAW and the revolutionary VST protocol. Expectedly, they also have an abundance of other great products in this sphere, one of them being the Pitch Correct plugin. It first appeared in Cubase 5 and was later included in many other versions.

It handles the processing pretty well, but it’s also very potent for any real-time settings as well. It’s fairly easy to work with, although it’s not as advanced as some other examples on this list. Nonetheless, this is a great tool for home-recording enthusiasts who are used to Cubase products. It can also find use in some professional settings for minor tweaking.

Zynaptiq PITCHMAP

Zynaptiq are not one of those big and famous companies. However, they still make some of the best products on the market. The one we’re including here is their PITCHMAP.

Now, what’s very interesting with this particular plugin is that it gives the user an option to mess with all the melodies and harmonies in real-time using a MIDI keyboard, or any other type of a MIDI controller. You can even suppress individual sounds in the mix or add synth-like effects.

To add to all this, PITCHMAP has a very intuitive interface, allowing easy and fast handling. To put it simply, you just can’t go wrong with Zynaptiq’s PITCHMAP, no matter the musical style that you’re working with.

Synchro Arts Revoice Pro 4

Here, we would also like to include the Revoice Pro 4 plugin, which is made by Synchro Arts. So aside from the regular pitch editing, you can also add vibrato to the vocals and mess with the pitch and also edit the audio’s timing.

At the same time, the audio quality remains as good as the original one. This is a very advanced professional plugin, with the main focus on keeping the audio resolution.

Eardial Review- Is It Worth It’s Price?

Despite the technological changes in the past six or seven decades, one thing about music remains the same – we still like it loud.

No matter the genre you’re into, if it’s not blasting you in your chest, then it’s not loud enough.

While all this definitely sounds like fun and games, we do sometimes forget about all the possible consequences.

Yes, hearing damage and tinnitus should be your concern.

While it might seem kind of lame for some to have hearing protection on live shows or any music events, this is something every loud music lover should consider having.

Besides, these find many other uses outside of music – your work or other hobbies might involve loud noises and loud environments.

After all, as a recent study found, staying in music venues for over 15 minutes with constant noises above 100 dB significantly increases the risk of permanent hearing damage.

Many of the products out there might not be that practical or they might just feel too uncomfortable to have them jabbed in your ear canals for extended periods of time.

However, there’s one pretty interesting product we thought we should check out. Called EarDial, these are described as first-ever “invisible smart earplugs.”

The hype seems to be real- With over 1000 reviews averaging at 4.5 out of 5, this has to be one the best ever ear plugs:

Read all reviews here.

So let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Eardial Features

Eardial features at a glance

Maker: Eardial
Main Features:
High-fidelity noise filter,
Flat 20db attenuation,
Earwax protection,
“Hidden” design- not visible to naked eye,
iOS + Android app.
Our Rating: 4.8/5
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First off, things started off a few years ago as a crowdfunded project. The goal was to have “smart” earplugs that would not take away any enjoyment from any kind of live music experience.

EarDial plugs are made from completely transparent hypoallergenic silicone.

The idea here was to make them as discrete as possible and not cause any kind of irritating reactions on your skin.

Although pretty light, these earplugs are well made and are not that easy to damage.

Being so elastic, they’ll fit well into an average ear. They’re designed to be easily inserted and pulled out via a special grip bump and grip indent.

But EarDial’s secret weapon is their high-fidelity noise filter inside the silicone construction.

This filter is designed to filter out all the messy parts of the spectrum and let only the good stuff through it.

You should hear all the music without being too much affected by the plugs while also being able to talk to people around you without anyone yelling in each other’s ear.

The plugs themselves offer flat 20dB attenuation, which should be more than enough for any average concert, music event, or anything involving loud noises.

At their very end, there is also earwax protection that will keep the precision filter intact and clean.

They come along with a very compact aluminum casing with a specialized storage tray.

Nothing too fancy, but it’s surprisingly practical. After all, you want to keep them clean and not carry these in your pocket without a casing.

Comfort and Design

The first thing that we could notice is that the material is really soft, making them pretty comfortable to hold in your ears, even for extended periods of time.

In addition, they’re fairly unnoticeable.

They won’t stick out of your ear, unless for the small pull-out handle. If you’re in a standard music venue, there’s almost no way someone will notice you have something in your ears.

Why are they called “smart” earplugs?

These earplugs come with a specialised app for iOS and Android devices. Well, it’s nothing that works with the plugs themselves – there aren’t any Bluetooth or other connections in the EarDial.

The app is actually measuring the intensity of noise around you. It then calculates how much time at this level you’ll be safe from permanent hearing damage, with or without EarDial plugs.

There’s also some additional info about how noise may affect your hearing in the app itself.

It’s nothing high-tech so the “smart earplugs” label is not fully justified. Nonetheless, the app is still pretty useful.

How they compare to “conventional” hearing protection

Despite this, the EarDial is significantly different compared to any other conventional earplugs out there.

The first and most important thing that we can notice is that they don’t “suffocate” the music. While they reduce the noise and keep you safe from noise, many of the plugs you find today make everything sound so muddy.

Thanks to the sophisticated filter, EarDial plugs do 20dB flat attenuation. This way, the sound spectrum is not significantly altered and you don’t get that heavy bottom-end boost.

EarDials are also smaller compared to other plugs.

This is pretty useful for aesthetic reasons, but it might be just a bit annoying when you want to pull them out. Some have even complained that they’re too small for bigger ear canals and that they don’t hold too tightly in their ears.

On the other hand, the size and the material make them pretty comfortable compared to standard foam and silicone plugs. They’re pretty soft and elastic and are, in most cases, easily adaptable to ear canals.

Obviously, they’re significantly more expensive compared to most of the standard earplugs.

However, we would argue that the price is justified.

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First, you get great comfort, making it possible to have them in your ear for hours without being bothered too much.

Secondly, they’re pretty easy to carry around in the small compact aluminium casing.

The biggest strength comes with the high-fidelity noise filter. It’s as if the unwanted noise magically disappears with music and speech getting through the filter just fine.

If you’re constantly exposed to loud music or just loud noises, then EarDial will definitely be worth the price. If you’re a frequently gigging musician, earplugs are a must (especially if you’re a drummer).

But as most earplugs are not exactly comfortable and tend to make everything sound too muddy, some may get discouraged to get themselves a pair. EarDial, on the other hand, will be the perfect solution.

Some have also argued that these help with shooting ranges or high-noise construction works and loud machinery.

We didn’t test them out in these particular scenarios, but would rather recommend you go with other designated hearing protection for those settings. As for concerts, music events, and your own live performances, EarDial is the way to go.

Types of Guitar Amps Explained- All You Need to Know

If you play or have played guitar in the past, you’re probably familiar with that feeling that every young guitarist gets when they’re introduced to the technical world of guitars.

There are so many interesting amps, pedals, different parameter controls on guitars, as well as many other gadgets that open up a whole world of possibilities.

And it’s not just about the tone, but the ways that you can further control the dynamic output and add a whole new sphere of expression to your music.

Therefore, it was pretty expected to see the instrument find its way into many different genres, going way outside of rock, metal, blues, and jazz where it initially became popular. What’s more, we even saw the rise of synth guitars in many shapes and forms, but that’s a whole different discussion.

What we really want to focus on in this piece is the topic of electric guitar amps. Well, also acoustic guitar amps, but we’ll get to that in time.

Ever since their inception, guitar amps have been changing the world of music, delivering the amplified guitar sound to the members of bigger or smaller ensembles or bands, as well as those involved in studio recordings.

However, talks about guitar amps are never that simple and over the decades they went through some serious evolutions. These days, we have countless amp models, with a lot of them even specialising in certain genres.

With all this in mind, we figured we could explore this world further and explain all the different types of guitar amplifiers. In the end, we’ll try and help you find what suits your needs. But before we begin, let’s cover some basics.

So, what are guitar amps?

The purpose of any guitar amplifier is to – as its name suggests – amplify the signal from the instrument’s pickup and to reproduce and further shape its tone through its circuits and speakers.

In almost all of the cases, it features the preamp section and the power amp section.

The most tone shaping is done through the preamp section, where you’ll also find the equalizers and additional effects, such as distortion.

Brief history

Back in the 1920s, acoustic guitars were slowly getting out of the spotlight in big band settings. There was just no way for them to compete with loud wind instruments.

The development of magnetic pickups for instruments opened up the way for amplifying the signal and reproducing the tone through different devices.

The 1953 Fender Champ 5C1 source: wikimedia commons

The first guitar with a pickup came in 1928 and was sold with an accompanying amplifier. These amplifiers were basically small-sized PA systems with special instrument inputs and volume controls.

In the 1930s came the development of the first amplifiers with vacuum tubes – a standard that’s present even to this day. Things slowly kept developing, and the bigger players came into the amplifier game.

Over the years, the engineers and manufacturers began including additional controls for tone shaping and even some effects like spring reverb and tremolo.

Important developments came in the 1950s as guitar amplifiers became more focused, with some of the players even exploiting tube amps’ properties to get distortion.

But since these amps were relatively bulky and expensive, another big breakthrough came in the late 1960s and the early 1970s with the implementation of solid-state transistors in the guitar industry.

This not only helped pave the way for more compact effects units but also allowed for more affordable amps that were easier to maintain. What’s more, it provided more consistency in tone, but we’ll get to that soon.

More recently digital technologies found their way into the guitar world with digital signal processing. Aside from additional onboard or external effects, the whole new world of possibilities opened up with the introduction of the so-called “digital modelling amps.

At this point, these are the most advanced products in the guitar world, capable of convincingly replicating tones of standard guitar amplifiers of any type.

Types of guitar amplifiers explained

You can clearly see that different types of amplifiers were developed in different eras.

The two main types are, of course, tube amps and solid-state amps. Then we have the so-called “hybrids,” fusing the best of these two worlds.

We’ll also go through amps for acoustic guitars, the digital modelling amps, preamps, and we’ll also mention another division – the distinction between combo amps and stacks.

At the end of this guide, you’ll hopefully be able to form your own opinion on the matter and find out more about each type of guitar amps. Ultimately, the goal is to find the most suitable solution for your own needs. So let’s get going.

Tube amps

source: keiichiro shikano flickr

Even to this day, with so many different technological advancements, tube amps are still the most highly valued products in the guitar world.

Despite being somewhat “ancient” technology, their unique “warmth” and the dynamic response still capture the hearts of guitar players of any genre worldwide.

Developed way back in the first half of the 20th century, they conduct and amplify the signal through vacuum tubes – also known as valves in British English.

As we said, the tone of these amps seems warmer and more “organic” to the human ear, while it also reflects on the dynamics of one guitarist’s playing. What this means is that, at normal or higher volumes, the harder you play, the more “clipped” or distorted the signal gets.

Of course, it differs from amp to amp, and with some jazz-oriented amplifiers, you’ll get more of that warm saturated tone. On the other hand, with rock or metal-oriented amps, you’ll get a full-on distortion.

Back in the old days, the 1950s and the 1960s, guitarists pushed their amps over the limits to cause clipping on purpose.

Over time, they began implementing treble or full-range boosters to achieve distortion. After some time, manufacturers introduced separate or switchable distorted channels in the preamp section.

In the early days of development, there were a few different tube variants used in these amplifiers. However, some standards that we see today were set in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Preamp sections almost exclusively have 12AX7 or ECC83 tubes, while the power sections feature 6L6, 6V6, or EL34 tubes. The preamp section does the main tone shaping, while the power amp does the main amplification of the signal with some additional additions to the overall tone.

Fender Bassman. Source: wikimedia commons

The old Fender Bassman, pictured above, which was initially intended for bass guitars, made a huge breakthrough with its sonic properties. When Marshall slowly came into the spotlight, they completely changed the landscape of the guitar world, setting the standards with pieces like the legendary JCM800.

Other great tube amp manufacturers include Orange, Hughes & Kettner, Vox, Peavey, Mesa Boogie, and others.

Tube amps can be found in pretty much any genre. The natural saturation and distortion with dynamic response are its main strengths. Some even resort to using overdrive pedals, like Ibanez’s Tube Screamer, to push them over the limits and achieve those unique distorted tones.

However, the main disadvantages come with their price, as well as the expensive and constant maintenance that comes with frequent use. They’re also pretty difficult to take on tours as they require maintenance and the sonic properties might change over time as the tubes get worn out.

Another disadvantage comes with the fact that you need to push the volume knob to higher levels in order to use a tube amp’s full potential. However, this means that the normal tone can be achieved only when the amp is producing loud sounds.

This was later sorted out with lower-wattage amps and the so-called “power soak” features that allow powerful amps to operate at lower wattages.

If you’re interested in knowing more about tube amps, the video below gives a pretty good overview of how they work:

Solid-state amps

Fender Pro 185 Solid State Amp. Source: wikimedia commons

The development of transistors and semiconductors eventually brought changes in the guitar world.

Firstly, they came in handy for the development of distortion pedals, as well as delay and chorus effects. The previously bulky and impractical tape-based units were now replaced by compact floor units.

As for the guitar amplifiers, those with transistors and semiconductors were way cheaper, more consistent in the long run, and were much lighter.

While this definitely solved many issues for guitar players, the downside came with its tone:

First off, it sounded way more sterile or “rugged,” especially the distortion.

Secondly, they had almost no dynamic response.

This lack of warmth and natural clipping is a huge dealbreaker to some, but there are still those who actually like the tone of solid-state amps.

For instance, Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell actually prefers solid-states over valve amplifiers, mostly due to their specific distorted tone.

Roland JC-120UT. Source: wikimedia commons

In addition, many famous guitar players of various different genres have praised a piece like Roland’s Jazz Chorus, pictured above, for its crystal clear tone, as well as its unique integrated chorus and vibrate circuit.

Overall, it was their practicality and price that helped them stay on the market. Even to this day, almost every cheap beginner amp is a solid-state one.

Hybrid amps

Since tube amps are expensive and the solid-state amps lack the warmth, the next logical step was to create the so-called “hybrid” amplifiers.

These, in most cases, feature one tube in the preamp section, usually 12AX7 or ECC83, while the power amp section is completely solid-state.

In some very rare instances, like with Music Man’s RD-50 released in the 1980s, it was the other way around – the preamp section was solid-state while the power section featured 6L6 tubes.

With this combination, guitar players were able to get some warmth and dynamic response in their tone. Vox is pretty popular with some of their hybrid amps, like the Valvetronix series.

On the other hand, with the modern rise of modelling amps, some are beginning to question the justification of the hybrid prices these days. This is why some manufacturers also started adding digital processing and “amp modelling” in both hybrid and solid-state amps.

Acoustic guitar amps

For quite some time, many manufacturers began selling acoustic guitars with piezo pickups.

At this point, it is somewhat of a standard and a more practical alternative to miking up the whole instrument at the expense of the loss of some sonic properties.

While such guitars with piezo pickups and integrated preamps, can be plugged directly into mixers and PA systems, there are still many different amps made especially for acoustic guitars.

In a way, these acoustic guitar amps are kind of like smaller versions of PA systems. The only difference is that they might be tweaked and voiced in such a way to pronounce the qualities of an acoustic guitar.

They usually come with a regular instrument input for piezo-equipped acoustic guitars, as well as an additional input (or a set of inputs) for microphones. In some cases, you can even use both the piezo and a microphone and create a full spectrum of tones.

Although somewhat resembling just PA systems, they are pretty popular among those who want to use true acoustic tones in band settings, mostly due to their specialised voicing and additional functionalities.

Many even include digital processing.

Combo amps versus stacks

(Combo amp on the left, amp stack on the right)

While we’re discussing all the different types of guitar amps, it’s worth noting that there’s another important distinction.

Amplifiers for electric guitars or basses can come in “combo” forms or as the so-called “stacks.” And this goes both for tube and solid-state amps.

The combo amplifiers are 2-in-1 kind of deal, with one unit containing both an amplifier and a speaker cabinet. Combo amps usually come with one or two onboard speakers.

On the other hand, we have the stack formation. In this case, the amplifier parts (both the preamp and the power amp) are in the form of a so-called “amp head.” The head can be connected to a separate external speaker cabinet that usually features four speakers.

The stack variant is usually a more expensive solution, but it provides additional options if you want to use the amp with a different cabinet.

However, the decision between combo or a stack formation can come down to certain personal choices as well. After all, many professional musicians can be seen using both types of amps.

Modeling amps

Now we come to the “controversial” part.

The digital modelling amps are basically very complex digital processors that are capable of emulating amplifiers, cabinets, even certain pedals.

Some of the earliest examples came in the form of standalone processing units like the Line 6 POD, pictured above, which was released back in the late 1990s.

But this was just the basis for their further development, and these days, it’s pretty hard to tell any difference between a digital modelling amp and a classic tube amp.

In fact, many argue that there are basically no differences and that these are convincingly replicating even some of the best tube amps of all time.

After all, many have failed blind tests and still can’t hear any difference. However, the whole “modelling amps vs tube amps” discussion is still ongoing and there’s no official consensus on the matter.

These modeling amps come in a few different forms, either as rack-mounted units, amp heads, or even floor units. But these can all be plugged directly into mixers and PA systems.

In some cases, they also come with their own power amplifiers and can go directly into passive speaker cabinets.

The two biggest advantages of these digital amps are their practicality and consistency.

What’s more, front-of-house engineers love them, as they’re pretty easy to work with.

There’s no miking up in most of the cases, they go straight to the mix and the monitoring, and can bring countless pre-made presets as needed. Some of the most popular examples these days include Kemper, Fractal Audio Axe-FX III, Line 6 Helix, and Boss GT-1000.

What’s interesting is that many solid-state amplifiers these days come with an integrated digital amp modeling unit.

For instance, Peavey Vypyr amps have some interesting amp models to offer, as well as some smaller practice amps like Yamaha THR10II.

These solid-states with amp modelling often come with a USB output, making it possible to use them as audio interfaces as well. So that’s a pretty exciting addition.

Plugins for DAWs

Although not “real” physical amps, there are plenty of options that work either as standalone software or DAW plugins and which do some great amp emulation. What’s more, many modern studios use these instead of actual amplifiers. For instance, Line 6 offers a plugin version of their Helix modeler, called Helix Native. Some other amp modeler plugins include Guitar Rig and Amplitube among others.

Preamps

There are plenty of products these days, either in the form of rack-mounted units or in the form of pedals, which are basically like preamp sections of regular amps. These can either be solid-state or tube-based and, in some cases, we even have analog amp emulations. They’re not amps in the classic sense but can serve the purpose in some cases.

Most of these preamps come with two outputs. One of these outputs can be plugged in directly into the power amp section of a regular guitar amplifier, in the “return” knob of the regular effects loop (if an amp has one). The other output features its own cabinet simulation and can be plugged in directly into the mixer. They provide a very compact alternative to guitar amps, and in some cases, even give very convincing tube amplifier tones. Just plug them directly into a mixer or an audio interface, and you’ve got yourself an amp tone within the form of a slightly bigger pedal or a standard rack unit.

Some great examples of preamps in form of pedals would be Huges & Kettner Tubeman, Mesa Boogie V-Twin, Diezel Zerrer, and AMT Electronics SS-11A.

What’s the best option for me?

The abundance of products these days can create a bit of confusion for guitar players these days. After all, with so many great things out there, it’s kind of hard to choose what really suits your needs.

But there are main points to cover here. You have to find something that will represent you well as a guitar player with its good tone, allow you to express yourself through music, fit your style of music (or scope of styles), and something that’s practical.

So let’s look at the genres that you’re playing first.

Basically, if you’re mostly into vintage and old school bluesy stuff, we would advise a good vintage-oriented tube amplifier.

If you’re on a budget, there are even some great yet cheap alternatives such as Bugera Infinium, Egnater Tweaker, Ibanez TSA15, Vox AC10C1, and many others.

If you really can’t afford an amp, then try and go with a tube-equipped preamp pedal.

Now, if you’re into more modern rock or metal stuff, you can go both ways.

There are plenty of great tube amplifiers, either as combos or as amp heads, that are specifically metal-oriented. Mesa Boogie has a lot of great amps, like the Mark V.

However, these amps can get quite expensive, bulky, and pretty impractical if you’re going on a tour.

In case you really don’t want to bother with bulky and heavy equipment that can easily get damaged, then modelling amps are lifesavers.

What’s more, some of the biggest names in rock and metal music began using stuff like Kempers and different versions of Axe-Fx modelers, especially in the progressive metal sphere.

Then again, certain metal players still prefer the rugged tone of solid-state amplifiers. There are some great pieces that you can find these days, and it is somewhat of a misconception that solid-state amps are just for beginners.

If you’re a frequently touring musician, modeling amps are really a great solution.

First, they’re fairly cheap with the options that you get with them. Secondly, they are pretty easy to work with on tour and you and your front-of-house engineer won’t have to worry about microphone placements and worn out tubes all the time.

Just plug it in, do some minor tweaking if necessary, and you’re good to go. In some cases, even preamp pedals can come in handy for those who play live shows all the time.

And even if you think they might not be convincingly replicating great amps, there’s hardly any chance your audience will notice in most of the live settings.

Those who plan on recording in studios often go for tube amplifiers. If you’re in a completely controlled environment, then there are more options to use the full potential of a tube amp.

Then again, many guitarists began recording in studios with digital modeling amps. This usually depends on the kind of music and the kind of recording you’re making.

As for beginners, the common recommendation, in this case, are smaller solid-state amps.

As a beginner, you can either go with something simpler, like the Fender Campion series that also has its own onboard effects.

If you’re willing to experiment more, you can go with one of those amps that features amp modelling and a USB output, making it possible to use it as an external soundcard with your computer.

If you’re really keen on tube tones, then you can go with some cheaper tube amps. However, we would rather advise beginners to go with something simpler, possibly with lower wattage.

But, at the end of the day, the decision comes to you and no one else.

You’re free to create and reproduce music the way you want to.

In some cases, even blues old school-loving guitar players can find what they need in modern digital modelling amps.

Maybe some modern metal or pop players will find their voice in vintage amplifiers.

The best way would be to go out there and experiment and try out as many amplifiers as you can. This way, you’ll get the full picture and will be able to find what really works best for you.

How It Works: What Is the Difference Between Overdrive, Distortion, and Fuzz Effects?

Getting into the world of music takes more than just learning music theory and proper technique.

Whatever is the instrument of your choice – guitar, piano, violin, or even your vocal cords – there are so many aspects that you’ll first need to get into in order to get your tone right.

Especially with an instrument like an electric guitar where setting up your tone requires extensive research and sometimes even years of experience.

In fact, many have literally turned this into a scientific field, and there are actual engineers working on designing and tweaking pedals, rack-mounted units, and other effects.

We could easily say that being a good musician these days, especially a guitar player, is a combination of music theory knowledge, tight technique, knowledge of how pedals work, and experience.

With all these traits checked out, you’ll be able to know when to apply which effect for a particular genre or a situation.

With all this being said, we’ll be getting into some “secrets” about one of the most important effects in the world of modern music – distortion.

The iconic Boss DS-2 Turbo distortion pedal

Although often associated with guitars and rock music, you can find the effect used, one way or another, with other instruments and various genres.

Of course, EDM musicians will also use distortion, mostly as vst plugins, although it’s not uncommon for some DJs to even implement guitar distortion pedals in their setup.

The same could be said for some solo string players, like violinists or cellists, who like to mingle and experiment with these effects.

The particular issue that we’re getting into has caused confusion among many musicians over the years.

We all know about overdrive, distortion, and fuzz pedals. We’re also somewhat aware of their sonic properties.

But there must have been at least one moment where you wondered about what are the actual distinctions between these three effects.

If you’re having trouble understanding the difference between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz – worry not! After this guide, you’ll get familiar with some of the technical details and will also know how to implement these effects the proper way and in required situations to perfectly fit your style. So let’s get into it.

What you need to know first

Before jumping into the technical details of how these three effects work, there are a few things you need to know first.

We don’t want you to end up with more questions than answers.

The first important thing you need to know is that all of these three effects are actually distortion by definition.

Look at it as an umbrella term for these three distinct types of effects. Yes, this might get a bit confusing since among these three we also have an effect labeled as “distortion.”

This subcategory of distortion, that’s also named “distortion,” is just a widely accepted (dare we say commercial?) name for an effect that’s achieved by heavy clipping.

We’ll get into all these details in a few moments, but what you now need to know first is that distortion, as an audio signal processing effect, is divided into three widely accepted commercial categories – overdrive, distortion, and fuzz.

Now that we have this part covered, a few other things you need to know. Below, we’ll be explaining a thing or two about the clean signal, what headroom means, what’s clipping, and how the musicians back in the old days achieved.

Clean signal

Let’s take the ordinary unprocessed clean guitar tone.

This kind of signal can be represented as one smooth continuous sine curve.

Now we get into a physics aspect of it.

The signal has its wavelength, which is the length of one peak of the sine curve to the next one, and peak-to-peak amplitude, which is the height of the curve from one peak to the other.

What we’re interested here is the amplitude.

The more you push the volume, the “wider” the peak-to-peak amplitude gets.

This means that a louder signal will have a bigger amplitude compared to a quieter one.

To fully grasp this, here’s a graphic representation of a continuous sine curve with all the important elements marked on it.

source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sinus_amplitude_en.svg

Clipping

The next thing we’ll be explaining here is the process of clipping.

Every device that you play through – be it an amp, pedal, or a mixing console – has its limitations.

You can’t just increase the amplitude to infinity and beyond and expect it to sound the same, only louder.

At one point, the signal going from your instrument will get too loud for the device that you’re playing through and it will ultimately get “clipped.”

This means that both the top and the bottom of the wave get cut or “clipped” and you end up with that broken-sounding tone.

Instead of getting louder and louder, the amplifier or a pedal cuts the signal and turns into that “buzzing” mess.

Below, you can see a graphic representation of what clipping looks like:

source: https://lithiumgrim.jouwweb.nl/blog/319712_headroom-say-what

As you can see, by increasing the amplitude, the signal eventually reached the limitations of a certain device – let’s say a pedal.

It appears almost as if someone literally clipped off the top and the bottom ends of the otherwise perfect-looking smooth sine curve.

Now we get to the most important part.

By doing this “clipping,” the resulting tone gets distorted. Most of the distortion pedals achieve the effect through a 2-step process.

  • Step 1- the original signal is amplified through the so-called operational amplifiers (or op-amps for short) which are integrated within the circuit.

  • Step 2- this amplified signal is clipped using the transistors or diodes, depending on the type of pedal. The whole point of these components is to bring the threshold down and clip off the signal.

We should also mention that there are symmetrical and asymmetrical types of clipping.

The clipping is usually done by two diodes or two transistors, one clipping the bottom end of the sine curve, and the other one the top end.

If you have two different types of diodes and transistors, they cut the signal unequally on top and the bottom, causing irregular wave shapes.

This is referred to as asymmetrical clipping and can be found with some overdrives these days, usually as a switchable mode.

Headroom

What you also need to understand is the concept of “headroom.”

In the above section, we explained how the limitations, or a threshold, of a certain device, like an amp or a pedal, cause clipping and distortion.

The headroom represents the “space” between the peak of your clean signal and your amp’s or pedal’s threshold.

In this area, the signal will be “safe” from any clipping or distortions. Depending on the device’s purpose and design, they can either have larger all smaller headroom.

How they did it in the old days

Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and get into the history of the distortion effect.

Back in the old days, the late 1940s and the early 1950s, it wasn’t exactly easy to achieve any kind of distortion.

What’s more, there was somewhat of a disagreement between guitar players and engineers. The first group loved that dirty distorted tone and always did their best to find any means to achieve it.

The latter group, the engineers, looked down upon clipping and distortion as if these were their arch enemies. To them, the distortion was an error.

Since all of the guitar amps in that era were tube-based, the guitar players noticed that by pushing the volume control to some “dangerous” territories, the tone would get all distorted.

But it wasn’t exactly the kind of distortion we hear today. It was more of an ambitious competition between the guitar players and bands to sound louder and more unique. It was just a slight coloration, something like a milder yet ear-piercing overdrive these days.

There are a few early examples from the late 1940s of distortion being used in popular songs at the time.

But arguably one of the best-known examples is “Bob Wills Boogie” by Bob Willis. His guitar player at the time, Robert Junior Barnard, pushed the amp over its limits and got that “hot” and slightly distorted tone. Maybe not exactly heavy by today’s standards, but it was still pretty exciting for the era. You can listen to the song below:

As time went by, guitar players found more and more ways to distort their tone.

However, some of the distorted tones on singles and records were a result of happy accidents.

One of the most prominent of those accidents comes from 1951 and it happened to a guitarist named Willie Kizart.

Playing with Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, the group was all set to record a tune named “Rocket 88” in the studio.

Unfortunately, Kizart’s amp got damaged in transport and, of course, the tone suffered. He was left with no choice but to record using what he had at the moment. But surprisingly enough, the resulting tone turned the song into a hit.

After this, everyone was trying to replicate the buzzing sound, marking the beginning of a true revolution in modern music.

As a result, many began deliberately damaging their amplifiers to achieve the effect, making it a trend that continued well into the mid-1960s.

In 1960, Marty Robins and his band entered the studio to record a song called “Don’t Worry.” It’s not certain whether it was the idea of the engineer there or Marty’s guitar player Grady Martin, but the guitar was recorded through a faulty channel on the mixer.

The resulting solo was pretty heavy for that era. The song was released in 1961 to critical acclaim.

Going further, there were some other examples of distorted guitar in popular music, with some musicians even getting in touch with engineers to help them create distortion devices.

However, the first commercially available distortion pedal was FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, released in 1962 by Gibson under their subsidiary brand Maestro.

This device, initially marketed as some sort of a proto “multi-effects” piece, only got more attention after Keith Richards implemented it for The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction“, which was released in 1965.

The iconic FZ-1 Fuzz Tone pedal by Gibson

It’s too bad that no one told the guys from The Kinks about the pedal since they resorted to slashing the speaker of an innocent amp to record 1964’s “You Really Got Me.”

Well, at least they achieved a great distorted tone and went down in history for being one of the pioneers of modern rock and hard rock music.

Later in the 1960s and the early 1970s, guitar players used the potential and properties of their tube amps to get a distorted tone, with companies deliberately making it easier for them.

Some guys like Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore or Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi used a clean booster, Dallas Arbiter’s Rangemaster.

This way, they pushed the signal and made it hit the threshold of their amplifiers more easily, achieving more clipping and distortion in the process. This particular method is being used even to this day, mostly by those who are fans of vintage-oriented tones.

The 1970s saw the rise of guitar pedals as we know them today.

Thanks to the invention of transistors and their implementation in the music equipment, the distortion became easier to achieve.

Of course, there’s the unavoidable mention of the piece like Fuzz Face by Dallas Arbiter from the late 1960s, a pedal that’s being produced to this day by Dunlop Manufacturing Inc.

Fuzz Face by Dallas Arbiter. source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FuzzFace_Effect_Pedal.jpg

And this was really the golden age for guitar distortion.

Some of these same circuits, with some components improved or altered, are still being made.

There’s the Boss DS-1 Distortion that made its debut in the late 1970s, as well as the revolutionary Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi from the early 1970s. Another piece that also changed the game was Ibanez’s iconic Tube Screamer, developed from Maxon’s old OD808.

These are just some of the examples of pedals that came into the spotlight and helped guitar players change the course of history.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, we got the final distinction between the three types of distortion that we’ll be discussing today.

So how are they different? Let’s find out.

Overdrive

First, we start with the overdrive, the “mildest” of the three.

Many beginners, or even novice players, look down upon overdrives as distortions with less gain.

However, this is far from an exact definition of overdrives and how they work.

In fact, their tone has very little to do with the amount of saturation but rather how it is achieved.

The difference comes down to the type of clipping.

First, with overdrive, we have the so-called “soft” clipping. The sine curve of the clean signal is cut in a softer manner and the shape of this new clipped waveform has no rough edges. The resulting tone often resembles what you would get by pushing the old amplifiers over their limits. The only difference here is that you usually don’t get any kind of dynamic response with just the overdrive pedal.

Here’s a simplified example of the difference between soft and hard clipping.

source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clipping_waveform.svg

The soft clipping in overdrive pedals is usually achieved through diodes, while the classic distortion or fuzz pedals use transistors. There are three types of diodes – silicone, germanium, and LED-based.

Overdrive pedals can often be seen used in pair with tube amplifiers.

This way, the overdrive pedals serve as a boost that will further push the limits of the tube amp and cause its own “organic” clipping.

In addition, there’s clipping going on in the pedal itself, which will add some coloration to the overall tone.

Overdrive pedals can even be used paired with dirty channels of tube amps to create natural-sounding tones in the high gain areas. This is exactly why many metal players have been using Ibanez Tube Screamer or Maxon OD808. Another great example would be Zakk Wylde and his signature MXR ZW-44 Overdrive pedal.

As for those milder tones, a piece like Boss OD-1 or BD-2 Blues Driver works well with clean channels of both tube and solid-state amplifiers. Their soft clipping and a somewhat muffled tone come as a great solution for vintage-inspired bluesy tones.

Distortion

What guitar players and other musicians often refer to as “distortion” is the distortion effect with hard clipping.

This nomenclature might cause some confusion since the subcategory of the effect bears the same name. However, we can clearly hear the distinction and tell it apart from overdrives.

The classic guitar distortion effect has that “fried” or “scorched” tone, going into more “dangerous” territories while keeping the tightness.

The clean signal gets processed through operational amplifiers and transistors, just like with overdrive pedals. However, the signal here gets cut abruptly, causing the wave to get sharply distorted.

While there is certainly an abundance of different distortions, this particular effect is usually associated with hard rock and heavy metal music, along with most of the subdivisions of these genres.

Famous pedals that come to mind are Boss DS-1, Boss MT-2, MXR Distortion Plus, TC Electronic Dark Matter, Pro Co RAT, just to name a few.

Compared to overdrives, hard clipping of distortion pedals is most often achieved using transistors.

The most often type of a transistor you can find these days is silicon-based, although there are some rare instances of germanium ones.

Fuzz

If you really want to go off the charts and have a psychedelic-drenched tone, then get yourself a fuzz pedal.

The closest thing we can find to describe the fuzz effect is a broken amplifier, similar to the tone achieved in the above mentioned “Don’t Worry” by Marty Robbins.

The main distinction that makes fuzz different from other types of distortions is pretty simple – it features extreme clipping.

The waveform is so distorted that it resembles a square shape. This way, you not only get a very “disfigured” tone, but also a very rich harmonic content. This effect is usually achieved without the use of operational amplifiers, but rather just transistors doing extreme clipping.

However, fuzz is not for everyone’s liking. It’s mostly present in psychedelic rock, blues rock, or stoner and doom rock music, and is usually not the favorite choice of classic virtuoso shred-type guitar players. Nonetheless, the effect requires very tight technique and great control over your playing. You don’t want to get anything wrong with the fuzz effect turned on.

The first commercial fuzz pedal was the Maestro FZ-1. Other famous examples include the well-known Big Muff Pi, the legendary and very rare Univox Super-Fuzz, as well as the Fuzz Face which was originally produced by Dallas Arbiter.

The Big Muff Pi. source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EHPi.jpg

The Fuzz Face got some significant popularity due to the fact that Jimi Hendrix used it back in the day.

This same model, with some changes in the circuit (the inclusion of silicone instead of a germanium transistor) and the overall design, is now manufactured by Dunlop.

What about boost?

You should not confuse boost with distortion pedals.

Boosters just amplify the signal without any clipping done inside the pedal.

They come in handy paired with tube amps, letting them do all the organic-sounding clipping and helping them achieve distortion on their own.

They’re not exactly the most exciting devices, but they have their purpose.

What you should also know

Technically speaking, a clipped signal is pretty close to a dynamically compressed one.

Compressors increase the volume of quiet parts and decrease the volume of louder parts, making the overall output dynamically more even.

The distortion itself comes with some compression with it, ultimately making an impact on the dynamic response of your guitar tone.

The harsher the distortion and the harder the clipping, the more compressed your tone will get.

What’s the best option for me?

The choice of the right distortion comes down to your personal preferences, the style of music, and the types of guitars and amplifiers that you have.

Overdrives usually work best for old school type of stuff, although you’ll find them in pedalboards of modern metal players who use them for enhancing the tone of their tube amps. Giving the softer, mellow, yet mid-range oriented tone, they’re a great option if you use clean channels of tube amplifiers.

Distortions are a classic choice for any hard rock and metal player. Whether you’re playing through a solid-state or a tube amplifier, they’ll always be able to create those scorched yet controlled tight tones for both rhythm and lead playing. They’re the most popular choice for most of the genres these days.

Fuzz effect is a bit tricky and is for those with very specific tastes. First off, it’s not easy to have things under control with a fuzz pedal on, and it’s mostly useful for single notes. Having a rich harmonic content, playing power chords with a fuzz pedal might not be the best choice, especially if there is more than one guitar in the band. It’s mostly a choice for stoner, doom, psychedelic, and blues-rock guitar players.

But at the end of the day, we are not bound by any laws and written rules.

You’re always free to experiment and go outside of the conventional boundaries of any genre.

However, knowing some of the rules and old trends will help you in your creative endeavors and you’ll be able to create a better tone for a given situation.