AF’s Weblog

December 22, 2010

A Guitarist’s Guide to Multiband Distortion

If you’re a guitarist and you’re not into multiband distortion…well, you should be. Just as multiband compression delivers a smoother, more transparent form of dynamics control, multiband distortion delivers a “dirty” sound like no other.

Not only does it give a smoother effect with guitar, it’s a useful tool for drums, bass, and believe it or not, program material – some people (you know who you are!) have even used it with mastering to add a distinctive, unique “edge.”

As far as I know, the first example of multiband distortion was a do-it-yourself project, the Quadrafuzz, that I wrote up in the mid-’80s for Guitar Player magazine. It remains available from PAiA Electronics (www.paia.com), and is described in the book “Do It Yourself Projects for Guitarists” (BackBeat Books, ISBN #0-87930-359-X).

I came up with the idea because I had heard hex fuzz effects with MIDI guitar, where each string was distorted individually, and liked the sound. But it was almost too clean, yet I wasn’t a fan of all the intermodulation problems with conventional distortion. Multiband distortion was the answer. However, we’ve come a long way since the mid-’80s, and now there are a number of ways to achieve this effect with software.

How it Works

Like multiband compression, the first step is to split the incoming signal into multiple frequency bands (typically three or four). These usually have variable crossover points, so each band can cover a variable frequency range. This is particularly important with drums, as it’s common to have the low band zero in on the kick and distort it a bit, while leaving higher frequencies (cymbals etc.) untouched.

Then, each band is distorted individually (incidentally, this is where major differences show up among units). Then, each band will usually have a volume control so you can adjust the relative levels among bands. For example, it’s common to pull back on the highs a bit to avoid “screech,” or boost the upper midrange so the guitar “speaks” a little better.

With guitar, you can hit a power chord and the low strings will have minimal intermodulation with the high strings, or bend a chord’s higher strings without causing beating with the lower ones.

Now let’s take a closer look at some plugins…

Rolling Your Own

You’re not constrained to dedicated plug-ins. For example, Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig has enough options to let you create your own multiband distortion. A Crossover module allows splitting a signal into two bands; placing a Split module before two Crossover modules gives the required four bands. Of course, you can go nuts with more splits and create more bands. You can then apply a variety of amp and/or distortion modules to each frequency split.

Yet another option is to copy a track in your DAW for as many times as you want bands of distortion. For each track, insert the filter and distortion plug-ins of your choice. On advantage to this approach is each band can have its own aux send controls, as well as panning. Spreading the various bands from left to right (or all around you, for surround fans!) adds yet another level of satisfying mayhem.

Here a guitar track has been “cloned” three extra times in Sonar, with each instance feeding an EQ and distortion plug-in. These have been adjusted, along with panning, to create multi-band distortion.

And Best of All….

Thanks to today’s fast computers, sound cards, and drivers, you can play guitar through plug-ins in near-real time, so you can tweak away while playing crunchy power chords that rattle the walls. Happy distorting!

To read the full detailed article see:  A Guitarist’s Guide to Multiband Distortion

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