Modular Synth workflow for beginners – Visualise patch cable voltage values

Building and having a modular synth can be a bit of a hassle. And when I say a bit, I mean a lot. Not being able to see any modulation values is one thing. Then, there is the fact that you will never be able to save a general patch due to the flexible nature of the synth. Also, another drawback is that stereo is close to non existent (unless you want to buy two of the same modules), not to mention polyphony (unless you want to buy six of the same modules to get a six voice synth).

But programming, or should we say patching a modular synth is so much fun. And you get a wonderful sense of freedom.

Still this alone does not make modular so attractive, especially if you are new to synths all along. Today, I will show you one product that makes entering this very distinct domain much more easy.

Yes, I am talking about Producertools’ new product, their Patchcables with Bi-color LED built in. This is a long time coming guys, for sure somebody would have done this by now. Now there is basically no excuse for you to not build that eurorack system that you wanted. This a pre-order program for now, delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, shipping is supposed to be in March 2021.

So basically with these patch cables you will be able to see the polarity of the voltage and a rough estimation of its value. The built in LEDs will glow red or green depending if the voltage is plus or minus, so if the envelope or LFO is basically negative sloped or positive sloped. Also, the light the LEDs emit varies in intensity. You can see how it looks in the video below:

There are of course drawbacks for now, but the manufacturer said that there is minimal interference with the Eurorack Control Voltage that passes through. They even had to design their own LEDs for this.

Still, a bit of voltage does get used by the LEDs so will not reach the source.

So don’t use it with signals that require precision, like controling the pitch of oscillators with 1v/Oct signals. Best use is for non random (S&H) LFOs and Envelopes, where you can just offset/increase send voltage in order to compensate for LED consumption.

Get your own set of Patchcables with Bi-color LEDs on the Producertools website here.

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.

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.

KORG Monologue – NEW Analog Mono Synth with Aphex Twin touch

Another great update from KORG – after announcement of release of ARP Odissey for iOS – KORG has announced Monologue – their new mono synth that will be available in January for just $299.


It is available in 5 colors – so you’ll need to think a lot which one you prefer.
The keyboard has 25 keys – from E to E (not your regular C to C keyboard) – pretty reasonable decision for a synth focused on bass sound. Front panel is pretty typical for a 2 oscillators synth (except advanced sequencer and tiny display showing waveforms or menu). To build Monologue KORG took the best from Minilogue and added new sound sculpting abilities – “completely new filter, modulation, drive, and LFO can generate powerful basses and sharp leads, creating awesome mono sounds that showcase its single-voice design”.

From what we can hear on the sound demos – synth sounds amazing! Check out the video:

 

What stands this synth apart from others is advanced sequencer, waveform display and advanced microtuning developed in partnership with Aphex Twin.

In essence:

  • Analog synthesizer with all-new synthesis structure optimized for amazing monophonic sounds and sequences
  • Fully programmable, with 100 program memories (80 presets included)
  • 16-step sequencer with extensive motion sequence technology to make your sound move
  • Microtuning lets you freely create scales and alternate tonalities\
  • Oscilloscope function helps visualize the waveform in real time
  • Battery-powered for portability
  • Rugged and stylish with aluminum top panel, chassis-mounted pots, rubber-coated knobs, and real wood back panel
  • MIDI, USB MIDI, and Audio Sync for all types of in-studio and live connectivity, including direct sync with minilogue, SQ1, volca, electribe, and more
  • Five color variations that will shine on stage or in the studio