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Wellcome to our article on the BEST Online Mastering Service! Mastering and mixing an audio track is a craft that takes years and years to master (no pun intended). However, improvements in artificial intelligence and music production software have made it so that this skill actually isn’t really necessary to learn anymore.
Today’s article will show you exactly how cheap and good some of the available INSTANT online mastering services are.
They obviously aren’t perfect. We are of course talking about on-the-spot instant mastering, and not just going and filing an order on-line for a human to master your tracks later. There is no human interaction with these online mastering service tools, you are the only human hearing them.
At the end of the day, there’s no way for these tools to know what your vision for the track is, and nothing beats the personal touch of an engineer.
Having said that, all of the tools tested in this article improved our track pretty much instantly at a very small cost. Some of the best online mastering service products were truly mind blowing, producing radio-ready tracks in a matter of minutes.
We have no doubt that these platforms will open the doors for hundreds of thousands of home producers and artists, allowing them to have good quality mixes in the time it takes to drink a coffee.
So here they are, our favourite online mastering services, reviewed.
NOTE: If you are on a mobile device, scroll to the right to see all picks and inside the cells to see all their content.
|Product Name||Main Features||Export Formats available||Rating / Pricing|
||Distribution tool for spotify apple music, google play music, amazon music, pandora and beatport.
Collaboration / Feedback tool
2 master controls: Style (warm, balanced, or open) and Intensity (low, medium, or high)
|LO-RES MP3 (192kbps)
HD WAV (24bit)
CHECK PRICING OPTIONS
||26 different settings for the final mix.
Freebies included: A Crash Course in Mixing (PDF), a bunch of Ableton templates and a Logic Pro template
Manual mastering tool with Abbey Road Studios option
|16 bit WAV
24 bit WAV
CHECK PRICING OPTIONS
||Automatic video creation
Automatic Youtube loudness setting
Limiter, ceiling, oversampling, sound quality, sample rate, low and high cut controls
Easy mastering mode
Huge range of statistics on pre and post mastering track
API for developers
|16 bit WAV
24 bit WAV
32 bit WAV
CHECK PRICING OPTIONS
BEST Online Mastering Service – Editor’s Choice – Landr Mastering Review
Landr is a household name in the online AI powered mastering industry. Developed by the Canadian company MixGenius, it’s been around for a while and it keeps expanding its tools, now also offering distribution, collaboration, promotion tools, and even rent-to-own plugins.
The BEST service on the list, The LANDR Online Mastering Service has a really simple interface, loads of cool features, and keeps on improving.
We also found it to produce the best masters out of the tools tested. Here are our thoughts.
- Includes a distribution / release tool for spotify apple music, google play music, amazon music, pandora and beatport.
- Really clean and pleasant interface.
- Includes a collaboration tool which allows you to share masters and get feedback.
- Allows for reference mastering.
- 2 controls to customise master: Style (warm, balanced, or open) and Intensity (low, medium, or high)
- Different pricing models available (per mix, per month).
- Less than stellar customer support, according to several reviews.
- Distribution tool can take a few days to work.
- Limited master customisation options.
Landr: BEST Online Mastering Service – Our Rating: 9.1 out of 10
The mix preview took about 5 minutes to prepare, whilst the actual mix took about 10 to 15 minutes. The app works in the background so you can close the browser and check back on it later.
As previously mentioned, this was probably the most enjoyable interface to work with. Everything was where we expected it to be, and the layouts simply look good.
Quality of Mix: 9.3/10
We provided a rather low-quality, uncompressed hip hop instrumental track. The result was notably cleaner, louder, and overall quite impressive.
If you’re looking for a simple mix for the online platforms (spotify, beatport, etc), then Landr Online Mastering Service is more than suitable.
Playing around with the customisation controls (style and intensity) yielded slight differences in the mix, though the out-of-the-box mix ended up being our favourite. The reference mastering tool also caught our attention, though again, we didn’t notice a huge difference in the mix after uploading a classic hip hop track from our library.
If you’re looking for a more customisable Online Mastering Service, then you might want to keep on reading our reviews.
But overall, it kind of blew our minds. The final result was pretty much radio ready and was a huge improvement from the track provided. Some nuances, tones, and little tricks might have been added by a professional engineer, but the final result was very good- a no-thrills simple mix that was very pleasant to hear.
Additional tools: 9.4/10
The standout tool is undoubtedly the ability to release your tracks directly to the major streaming platforms.
This saves a ton of work and in our experience, worked relatively well, taking only a couple of days until the tracks were available in all the platforms. Some users have complained of slow release times, so we can’t guarantee that all users will have the same experience as us.
The collaboration tool was interesting, but in our opinion, not that useful, specially because the mix can’t be customised beyond 2 controls. So even if you manage to get great feedback on your track, there’s not much you can do with it.
Here’s a tip, you can actually try Landr, the BEST Online Mastering Service for free, so if you go ahead and sign up, upload your mix, and wait a few minutes, you’ll be able to judge for yourself.-> TRY LANDR FOR FREE
#2nd Choice BEST Online Mastering Service – Cloudbounce Review
Second on our list is Cloudbounce. Having launched in 2015, they’re also a somewhat familiar name in the industry.
Unlike other Online Mastering Services in the list, Cloudbounce has a more stripped down approach to mastering, offering solely their mastering tool, and no other bells and whistles.
It’s interface also isn’t as shiny and clean as some other tools in this list, though it makes up for it with the additional controls and settings for the master sound that other tools don’t offer.
- Relatively cheaper than competitors (mixes start at 9$).
- Different pricing plans available (per mix, per month, per year).
- 26 different settings for the final mix.
- 3 output formats: 16 bit WAV, 24 bit WAV, MP3.
- Lightning fast.
- A pack of freebies are included with every account: A Crash Course in Mixing (PDF), a bunch of Ableton templates and a Logic Pro template file for your mixes.
- Interface was often confusing, with banners and footers obstructing buttons and menus
- No additional features besides mastering (ie no distribuiton, feedback, etc)
Cloudbounce: Our Rating: 8.4/10
As with most tools in the list, the upload, preview and mastering took only a matter of a few minutes. This was perhaps the fastest service in the list. Throughout this whole experiment, the speed at which these masters are produced was what most surprised us.
It seems like a small investment in a web designer could make this tool so much better, but unfortunately, it’s still quite clunky and unfriendly to the user.
Quality of Mix: 9.5/10
The out-of-the box mix (pre-customisation) sounded really good. In our opinion, a bit aggressive and with a lot of loudness and attack, but this was also due to the nature of the track. After correcting this with the many customisation options, the track ended up sounding great.
And here is where Cloudbounce Online Mastering Service really stands out. It has hundreds of different possible combinations between the two controls (musical genre and mastering controls) that allow you to play around until you find the perfect mix. It also sounds extremely well for what it is.
Whilst the first control (musical genre) is pretty straightforward, the mastering controls allows for much more customisation. It allows you to boost low, mid, and high sections of the music, add brightness, warmth, loudness, and more.
Due to this feature alone, we award Cloudbounce the highest grade in the list of BEST Online Mastering Service providers, in terms of mix quality
Additional Tools: 7.5/10
There was only one additional tool we could find, however, it’s one we quite enjoyed. After mastering the track, there is an upgrade available, which allows you to send the track to the abbey road studios for manual mastering by one of their engineers.
We thought this was pretty cool. This will cost you around 100$ and allows you to get a human touch on your AI powered mix.
This service will probably rely heavily on template files and presets, though its still a great way of improving the mix without investing that much.-> Try CloudBounce for free
#3rd Choice BEST Online Mastering Sercvice – AImastering.com (by Bakuage) Review
Bakuage’s AImastering.com is a pretty unconventional choice for our list. You won’t find them in a lot of lists, and that’s really unfortunate, because we actually loved their AI.
If you have some technical knowledge of how to master a track, you’ll have a lot of fun with AImastering.com Online Mastering Service.
It includes a youtube loudness feature and automatically creates a downloadable video for your song, so if you use youtube as a promotion platform for your work, this is an absolute no-brainer. But our favourite feature was undoubtedly the “statistics” page of the mix.
After the AI finishes the master, it creates some very interesting statistics including “professionally”, which is how close the track sounds to a commercial track. This kind of “gamifies” your production and mixing skills and allows you to benchmark your progression as a musician- very cool!
There’s a bunch of other analytics provided such as loudness and waveform analysis that really allow you to perfect your track and compare pre-master and master versions.
It’s not all roses though. We did face some technical issues, hitting a 502 page when trying to download the master
- Automatic video creation for youtube.
- Youtube loudness setting.
- Controls for limiter, ceiling, oversampling, sound quality, sample rate, low and high cut.
- 4 output formats: 3 WAVs, 1 MP3
- Option to preserve bass. Or not- might result in distorted bass.
- Easy mastering mode– focuses on loudness only.
- Statistics given: Loudness, RMS Peak, True Peak, True Peak(15kHz lowpass), Loudness Range, YouTube Loudness, Micro Dynamics Space Professionality, Acoustic Entropy, Ear Damage, Dissonance
- Loads of graphs and analytics provided.
- Relatively affordable– 1 free master, then 9.99$/master, or 29$/month for unlimited masters.
- API open for developers.
- Some bugs were encountered.
- Docs could be better written
AImastering.com: Our Rating: 8.4/10
AImastering took slightly longer than it’s competitors, though it was still very fast. Within 10 minutes, we had a great sounding mix.
The interface, copy, and help docs could be improved. Their homepage simply states “Free Mastering is Available”, which might be a bit confusing for a somebody who stumbles upon the site. However, despite not being very flashy, the interface works well and everything is easy to locate.
Quality of the Mix: 9.3/10
Here, we’re considering the master produced with the standard options. Due to the many controls included in the tool, the range of tracks produced is huge. Therefore, we’re sticking to the “easy” mode of using AImastering.com
Overall, another solid mix. It’s really hard to set it apart from the other tools in the mix, though we find this track to have less loudness and bit more warmth out of the box.
Much like the other tools in the list, the final result was more than ready for distribution on the online platforms, which clip and compress a lot of the nuances of a track anyway.
Additional Tools: 7.0/10
In terms of additional tools we could only the video creator, which was pretty cool, but honestly not that useful if you’re not using youtube. And even if you are, you’d probably want to invest a bit more in a proper video.MORE INFO
Landr vs Cloudbounce Online Mastering Service Comparison
After reviewing these first two BEST Online Mastering Services, we’ve gathered some thoughts and notes about they compared.
Here’s our rundown:
Landr is a better investment for artists looking to focus only on production and creation of music. There aren’t many ways to customise the mix, and it provides an easy distribution system.
If you want to eliminate the amount of decisions during these stages, then Landr is your tool. Create a track, upload it to Landr, have them distribute it, and go back to the studio.
Cloudbounce is more of a no-thrills solution that requires a bit more work.
You’ll spend more time customising the master, and you won’t be able to distribute or promote the track directly through the platform.
However, Cloudbounce is, in our opinion, the best solution if you’re interested exclusively in the quality of the mix.
It gives you way more style and mixing options, even allowing you to send it to a very reputable studio in case you’re not satisfied with the cloudbounce version.
eMastered vs Landr Online Mastering Service Comparison
Our final comparison is between Landr and eMastered. We got asked by one of our readers to compare the two, so we thought we’d give eMastered a try and see how it stacks up. Here are our thoughts:
eMastered offers more control over the mix, with 6 controls and the option to use a reference for mastering. However, the Landr AI is, in our opinion, superior a producing a clean and loud track.
When it comes to pricing, Landr starts at a way lower price point, almost a third of eMastered. This is for the basic subscription though. The advanced Landr sub is still cheaper, but the Pro will be slightly more expensive.
With that in mind, we choose Landr as the overall winner for BEST Online Mastering Service.
How much should mastering cost?
Mastering budgets live in a spectrum. A master from a top shelf studio will set you back several thousand dollars, whilst there are online mastering tools that are as cheap as 19$. But how should you decided how much to spend?
Like most things in life, you roughly get what you pay for. However, for a very small investment, you can get your track sounding pretty good, even radio quality. By very small investment, we mean under 100$, through an automated service such as one of the ones listed above. This represents the best return on your investment. If you’re uploading your track to youtube, or a social network such as instagram or facebook, a lot of the quality will be lost anyway.
And if you’re a professional musician, who expects to have their songs played on the radio or needs high fidelity masters, you should be ready to spend a few hundred dollars in a studio such as Abbey Road, who now offers an online mastering service.
And there you have it folks! Our favourite Online Mastering Services. If you made this far, we’re sure you’re ready to bite the bullet and try out one of the services on this list. At the end of the day, most services offer a free master as a trial, so you don’t have much to loose. And as always, if you have any experience with any of the softwares in the list, post your thoughts below!
No matter what budget you’re working with, serious composers and music producers need a MIDI controller or keyboard compatible with their devices.
Home and mobile studios enable music producers to plug into their computers or work over Bluetooth, connecting to DAW software and VST synth plugins, as well as other installed programs that composers rely on to design their music.
From portable MIDI controllers to sturdy home setups, from minimalist designs to all the knobs and buttons anyone could ask for, composers and producers have a lot of options when it comes to MIDI controllers to buy in 2020.
This review list includes some that can be bought on a strict budget and others that are premium picks for high-end customers.
Either way, these are the best MIDI controllers available and provide the audio interfaces that any pro music developer needs.
Below the review list, we’ve assembled a buying guide to compare the main features that buyers need to be aware of when shopping for the best MIDI controllers.
Even if you don’t like the brands we’ve listed, you can use this buying guide to find your own, or compare the ones that you already have in mind by their main distinguishing features and compatibilities.
Reviews of the Best MIDI Controllers in 2020
Many MIDI controllers have synergy with apps and other subscriptions that music designers commonly use.
The Novation Launchkey Mini-Key MIDI Keyboard is no different.
It has an intuitive relationship with Ableton Live, one of the most popular pro design suites out there.
Ableton Live on the Novation MIDI keyboard provides recording, macro-control, MIDI capture, and clip launching software.
Novation’s arpeggiator is intuitive but it isn’t simple: it allows designers to control beats, patterns, octaves, and more.
The MIDI keyboard has a fixed chord mode that helps with transposition. 16 velocity-sensitive RGB pads, 8 rotary controls, sustain input, and pitch touch strips make Novation a versatile design and sound clip manipulation device.
The primary appeal of the Novation Mini-Key MIDI Keyboard is its portability.
You can take the keyboard with you physically but can also send program changes and apps to other hardware, as well as adding keys directly over MIDI.
An affordable price as well as a 3-year manufacturer’s warranty make the Novation Launchkey Mini-Key MIDI Keyboard the best overall pick for MIDI controllers in 2020.
- Ableton Live support
- Intuitive arpeggiator controller
- Portable design
- 8 rotary controls, 16 RBG pads, and versatile design devices
- Low price
- 3-year warranty
- The layout is not optimized for live looping
This second MIDI controller from Novation comes in 49-key and 61-key variations.
It combines MIDI hardware and CV/Gate synths into one piece of premium hardware, which is our pick for the best high-end priced MIDI controller available in 2020.
The Novation MkIII perfectly controls with Ableton Live’s software and integrates easily with your chosen DAW.
It has an internal 8-track pattern-based sequencer with a high-resolution sequencer and recorder that lets composers selectively play and edit separate sequences from the keyboard.
The keyboard on the MkIII is renowned as a premium synth-style keybed with a high scan rate, aftertouch, and semi-weighted construction.
Its arpeggiator can be set for different types, sync rates, lengths, and customizable pads and design rhythms. It has 1 routable clock for control across the whole system.
The Novation 49SL MkIII, 49-Key MIDI Controller has a high-end price but the full keyboard is pro-grade and sturdy. For advanced systems at a premium price, this is our high-end pick.
- 8-track sequencer
- Premium semi-weighted synth-style keyboard
- Advanced arpeggiator system
- 3-year warranty
- Premium price
The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S61 Mk2 Keyboard comes in 25-key, 49-key, and 61-key variations.
The Komplete Kontrol keyboard connects to most virtual instrument systems. The Fatar keyboard is professional quality, featuring after-touch on its 61 semi-weighted keys.
Its pitch and mod wheels have an ergonomic design and offer touch strip technology for expression control.
The set of KOMPLETE instruments and the Native Kontrol Standard instruments all have pre-mapped control on the Native Instruments Keyboard.
The Komplete Kontrol is portable, offering more keys than average on this USB 2.0 bus-powered keyboard. Its design features 8 capacitive knobs, a 4D encoder, and a full range of control over the various plugins, transports, and mixers used by the composer’s DAW.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol Keyboard has an intuitive OLED display for use with its Smart Play system. This allows composers to scale snap, trigger chords, and arpeggiate their tracks.
Being portable and configurable to most composition software, this MIDI controller keyboard is a fantastic high-end mini keyboard, though it has a premium price.
- After-touch design offers intuitive control
- Ergonomic touch-strip design
- Completely bus-powered by USB 2.0
- Compatible with plugins and various composing services
- Configurable and portable
- The mini keys aren’t for everyone
- Above-average price
The Alesis V49 MIDI Keyboard Controller has 8 backlit pads that are pressure and velocity-sensitive that enable beat production and clip launching on a professional level.
Its interface includes 4 assignable buttons and 4 knobs that interface seamlessly with most music production software. Its buttons and knobs are lit for ease of use.
It has octave buttons that give composers access to the full pitch range, which can be modulated with control wheels that help the Alesis V49 MIDI Keyboard deliver more creative control over sound clips.
Alesis also includes premium software already integrated, which is impressive at its low-end price. This composition software includes Ableton Live Lite 9 and Eleven Lite, Mini Grand, ProTools, First Alesis Edition, DB-33, and Air Music Tech’s Xpand!2 virtual instrument software.
Alesis offers 3 sizes that increase portability, with 25, 49, or 61 full-sized square-front keys that are velocity-sensitive and ideal for various professional virtual instrument suites.
- 8 backlit beat production pads
- 4 assignable knobs and buttons
- Octave keys
- Portable design in 3 keyboard configuration sizes
- Pre-uploaded premium software
- The drum pads are not the most sensitive on the market
This USB MIDI keyboard has a portable design with 25 velocity-sensitive keys and an up/down octave switch so you can work in multiple ranges in the limited space.
For complete virtual synthesizer control on the go, the Akai Professional Mini MIDI Controller is last on this list, but not least.
A 4-way thumbstick gives you control over pitch and modulation.
Akai Professional controllers are built for customization with a built-in resolution control and arpeggiator.
Multiple design modes give composers and designers a range of options.
This keyboard controller requires no drivers, making it extremely portable. It’s powered by USB and backed by beat maker essentials, which are 8 backlit MPC drum pads with Note Repeat & Full Level control.
Control over virtual instruments and whatever DAW you’re using allows composers to trigger samples and take control of assignable Q-link knobs.
The Akai MIDI controller comes with different mixers, plug-ins, and pro production packages that include 1400 sounds.
Its suite is compatible with both Mac and PC and gives designers access to a wealth of design materials.
Akai Pro MPC Essentials, Air Music Tech, and SONiVOX Wobble are available for download with the Akai Professional MIDI Controller.
At a low price and a portable size, this controller is our pick for the best budget controller available.
- Modulation and control options
- 8 backlit MPC drum pads
- Downloadable software suites
- Portable size and velocity-sensitive keys
- Budget price
- Some Windows 10 incompatibility, with reports of scaling being a problem in simultaneous open programs in the Akai Professionals suite
Buying Guide for MIDI Controllers in 2020
This buying guide for the best MIDI controllers to buy in 2020 contains categories that should be compared between models to choose the best for any composer or sound designer’s needs.
These categories include features, construction, software compatibility, and cost.
MIDI Controller Features
There are many features unique to each MIDI controller in terms of design features and control.
It helps to know what kind of pitch and modulation control you need as a sound designer and what control scheme suits your work.
Some of these controllers have multiple control knobs and pitch controls, encoders, and plugins.
The Komplete Kontrol Keyboard even has an OLED display to help you use it on the go. Recording control, MIDI performance, drum pads, and rotary controls are all things to watch for.
The keys themselves should also be included in an assessment of the controller’s features since some have as few as 25 and some as many as 61.
The keys factor heavily into the MIDI controllers’ constructions as well. Whether they’re weighted or not can affect their sensitivity.
There are also touch strip-activated keys versus mechanical ones and this makes a huge difference depending on the designer’s preference.
Some of these controllers are portable, or USB 2.0 bus-powered.
If you like designing while you travel, it’s essential to find a sturdy MIDI controller keyboard that works on its own power or a long-lasting charge, with sturdy keys, and probably a shorter length.
Backlit knobs and controls can also be a concern when evaluating a MIDI controller’s design.
Control wheels, knobs, pitch controls, and pads differ between controllers so it pays to know what design features you prefer or what compositions you plan on manipulating before choosing a MIDI controller.
MIDI controllers are not always compatible with both Mac and PC. Designers that prefer one system over another need to know which controllers will work on their system.
Many of them also feature compatibility with various software suites, including ProTools and synergy with Ableton Live.
Downloadable sound packages and essential tools are available as software plugins on many MIDI controllers.
Those who want to work with specific suites can use this to guide their buying choices.
Designers that prefer a multifunctional design tool in their MIDI controller should research the software requirements and compatibility for their chosen brand of keyboard.
The cost of these MIDI controllers varies wildly, from just over a hundred dollars to nearly a thousand. Since the range is so great, music producers need to know the features they need for their work.
Often, a design suite, an extra range of keys, or a control knob can make a difference of hundreds of dollars in the finished MIDI controller model.
MIDI controllers differ by construction and this affects functionality.
Some have 25 keys with octave up/down switches and some are full 61-key keyboards.
Some are touch-sensitive, velocity controlled, weighted, or semi-weighted. Knobs, controls, drum pads, and other physical features can dramatically differentiate your MIDI controller of choice as a design tool.
Some also come with production packages, including software suites, extensions, protocols, and integration with common DAWs and sound controllers, including the Ableton Live program.
Those who want to manage their sound design suites from one controller should check for compatibility with their intended software suites, including basic compatibility with Windows, PC, or iOS devices.
Portability also makes a difference, as some designers may want to set up a high-tech home studio while others will prefer to take their design tool with them in transit.
Our pick for the best overall MIDI controller keyboard for 2020 is the Novation Launchkey Mini-Key MIDI Keyboard.
For its Ableton Live support, portable construction, and multifaceted controls (8 rotary knobs, 16 RBG pads, and more), the Novation MIDI Keyboard is an intuitive all-purpose MIDI controller.
Its low price and 3-year manufacturer’s warranty round out an enticing package.
Regardless of which MIDI controller you choose, design features, software compatibility, portability, and other controls make a huge difference in how sound designers and music composers can use it.
Use this series of reviews and this buying guide to choose between the MIDI controllers listed here or any that you find on the market.
Logic Pro X comes with a lot of different amazing stock plugins. You can create a hit record with everything that comes by default.
For music production or for mixing vocals, you can do it all using an array of well crafted plugins that will help you define your sound like the pros.
This is a plugin that a lot of people overlook including myself until recently, you can slap this bad boy on any sound you’d like to be panned differently and to sit a little wider in the mix.
You can either choose to have a delay on the right or on the left. This doesn’t work too good with instruments that are typically known to hit directly in the middle (Kicks, snares for example) but it works wonders on FX like risers.
It helps give life to instruments or voices.
You can also use them on open hats and percussion as well.
I recommend trying it out and seeing how it influences your mix and finding how it fits perfectly to your taste. It’s very easy to use, only has two knobs and the job is done very quick. Great simple interface to work with on this plugin.
This plugin is fantastic for adding a bit of distortion to anything you’d like. I personally like to use it on kicks and snares to add a little grit. What’s important to keep in mind is that less is more. Always.
Play around with the mix knob as it will become your best friend to achieve the best results possible to have a powerful sound but that doesn’t sound too distorted either.
Try adjusting the down sampling along with the resolution to find the best balance to enhance your sound.
Rather simple plugin to use as well and quick to get what you need out of it.
The default EQ that comes with logic has a very transparent sound, is incredibly easy to get by on, and is visually engaging.
It’s a go to for easy adjustments on any track.
What makes this EQ special is it’s simplicity and visually appealing look. It demands very low CPU usage and therefore makes it a favourite for applying in whichever situation.
Logic comes with it’s own built in Pitch Correction, also known as Autotune.
It’s very easy to use and only requires to adjust two knobs, one to put in the key of the song, the other is to adjust the power of the autotune applied.
It can achieve great results and can sound very robotic if needed.
This is a plugin I use just about in every mix. From vocals to transitions to hi hats, it works literally everywhere.
What’s amazing about this plugin is that you get to adjust each side individually to generate very interesting rhythms that compliment each other.
By default the left side comes at 1/4 and the right side is at 1/8. I tend to leave it as it and play with the feedback to fit my taste for that particular track.
You can play around with this plugin on hi hats to make intricate patterns that make tracks very bouncy. To make this plugin even better, the creators made sure to include a built in filter for each side.
So you get to filter high or low frequencies left and right and really craft a sound that is unique. One of my favorite stock plugins by far.
The tremolo is another interesting plugin that can be used for many different situations. It works well to add movement in a song.
It pans the sound left and right continuously, and can be very fluid or extremely rapid, depending on the speed.
Putting a tremolo on instruments help it stand out in the mix, and always be in motion.
The exciter is another tool that comes with Logic Pro’s arsenal that can be used virtually anywhere.
This plugin can enhance pleasant harmonics or if needed more prominent distortion, but when used in little amounts it can tremendously boost a whole track.
This plugin works well in the mixing stage as well when wanting to add some extra harmonics on a master bus.
You can use it on a piano to give a little more grit and power, it works very well with guitars as well. It can be applied on vocals as well to make them stand out more in a mix.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.