Distortion

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The default screen of distortion and distortion volume control seen on OS

Distortion is an audio effect that was implemented in the test server in November 2021 before being fully released in its present state in January 2022. It is found under advanced settings and is typically used to give a harsher timbre to instruments. It can also be used to change one instrument to mimic another, like adding distortion to a flute to make it sound more like strings. This second use is mostly specific to Online Sequencer.

This is not to be confused with audio distortion or hard distortion caused by a sound exceeding the threshold of the speaker causing an increase in harsh harmonics. Generally speaking, hard clipping/distortion should be avoided as it is hard on the hearing and could potentially lead to hearing loss.

OS's distortion works by changing the amplitude of a signal based on a distortion function. Without distortion, signals at a low amplitude are played at a low amplitude, and high-amplitude signals are played back at a high amplitude. This can be described as a linear response to amplitude. A distortion function takes the instrument's amplitude and applies a function that modifies it to behave non-linearly.

Distortions can sound wildly different from instrument to instrument, with drum kits and 8-bit Instruments behaving especially differently from most other instruments. Also, please note that these names often are not very helpful to understand what they do so it's recommended to listen to each one and understand the effect it has on an instrument.

List of distortions

  • Limit - Clipping
  • Zest - Intense distortion that drastically affects high amplitude signals
  • Quasar - Intense distortion that amplifies quiet sounds, and changes the timbre of loud sounds
  • Styx - Similar to Quasar but usually gives more upper harmonics
  • Lucid - Similar to Tremor but results in harsher sound.
  • Tremor - Moderate distortion that gives sounds a fuzzy and gritty quality.
  • Zircon - Intense distortion that behaves unpredictably.
  • Hornet - Similar to Zircon but produces a more mellow tone that is more widely useful.
  • Shear - Subtle distortion that does not affect loud sounds but clips out the quietest of sounds. Unlike most distortion, quiet sounds are affected more than loud ones.

Distortion Technique

In music, distortion is most commonly used on guitars and drums to add power and flavor to their sounds, but nothing is stopping you from using it on each of the instruments available in Online Sequencer. In other DAWs, the gain level to a distortion or the input to its waveshaper can be changed easily. There is no option to do this in Online Sequencer (the Distort Volume setting only fades between a wet and dry signal.

Percussion

Distortion on drums is possibly the easiest way to add distortion to a sequence, as the rhythmic function of drums is not likely to be impaired by distortion. Adding shear distortion is a good way to make things sound a bit tighter and make lingering sounds like cymbals and open hi-hats cut off earlier. Quasar and Styx both add intensity to any percussion track but may also require you to lower the note velocity of the affected notes, as these distortions can be too much at times.

When using intense distortions, it may help to use such distortions only on the kick and snare and reserve another drum kit for everything else so that only the kick and snare are distorted.

Be especially careful when using distortion on 808 Drum Kit, as it can cause the toms and kick drums to become too tonal (sound as if they are playing a note rather than a drum). These notes can sound out of place to other notes playing in the song. If you are aware of which notes the drums are creating and/or match these notes to the key of your dong using detune, this tonal quality of distorted 808s can work well.

Melodic Instruments

For most of the instruments in OS, distortion can be difficult to work with. Most of the distortion presets may sound interesting with single notes but will cause chords or intervals to sound unrecognizable, or even result in static. If you want to distort an instrument, you may have to use only 1 note at a time, which only allows you to carry a melody, or arpeggiate chords. If only simple chords and consonant intervals are used, such as power chords, major chords, or an octave, the result can sound clear. In combination with reverb, distortion on some instruments will produce desirable sounds. Some notable ones are listed below.

8-bit Instruments

Using distortion on the 8-bit instruments works differently from all other instruments, due to their consistent nature and simple waveforms. Distortions usually behave similarly between the various 8-bit instruments. As with other instruments, chord progressions tend not to fare well, but monophonic melodies should work. However, by using singular chords (or arbitrary groups of notes that hardly resemble a chord), and transposing them up and down, new synth sounds can be created. Due to the consistency of 8-bit notes, transposing something will cause it to have the same timbre and different pitch. Unique timbres can be created by using parallel intervals with heavy distortion on them.