DISTORTED GUITAR IS THE sound of rock and roll, but you can use stompbox distortion for a lot more than just guitar. In the studio, because different distortion elements give different sounds (for example, germanium diodes clip at a lower voltage than silicon diodes), your favorite distortion stompbox could actually be more useful than the distortion in a software emulation.
Most modern DAWs make it easy to insert external effects, thanks to “external audio” plug-ins that insert like a standard plug-in, but patch to an audio interface’s inputs and outputs. Patch the interface output to the stompbox input, and the stompbox output to the interface input, and you’re good to go—although you’ll probably need to reduce gain going to guitar-level effects, then raise the gain coming from the effect to regain the original level.
With moderate gain, guitar stompboxes can toughen up analog drums. Add a little distortion to vintage drum machine sounds, and they’ll turn from audio sissies into turbulent filth monsters. Parallel processing can combine the natural drum sounds with the distortion, but another option is to use guitar distortion as a send effect—which is particularly useful if your drums have multiple outputs. Even a little bit of distortion can add a great edge to acoustic drums and percussion loops. Moderate distortion can also make kick drums really kick in a mix.
Distortion on bass tracks usually gives a thin sound because distortion generates lots of harmonics. As with many other effects for bass, it’s generally best to patch the distortion in parallel with the bass track. With electric bass or synth bass, split the output. Feed one output directly into an interface or amp input, and the other output through distortion into a second interface or amp input. Bass seems to sound best with relatively low-gain distortion settings, as this gives more of a deep growl that cuts well through a song, and adds an aggressive effect. Too much distortion, however, can compete with the guitar sound.
Nine Inch Nails and hardcore/ industrial groups add distortion to vocals for a dirty, disturbing effect. Guitar stompboxes are excellent for this because the “voicing” for guitar also works well with voice.
Classic tonewheel organ sounds often took advantage of over driving a rotating speaker’s preamp to create distortion. Adding stompbox distortion to synthesizer B3 sounds can give extra dirt that adds character. Keep the gain fairly low, as you don’t want a fizzy sound. Like bass and drums, a parallel connection usually gives the best results.
Many modern amp-simulator plug-ins have excellent stompbox effects. (It’s easier to emulate a stompbox’s characteristics than the more complex characteristics of a preamp, amp, and cabinet.) But, distortion was the product of experimenting, so experiment! For example, many DAWs include some kind of saturation plug-in. Although usually intended to provide relatively subtle, tube-saturation-type effects, try feeding it with as high-level a signal as possible to really crunch the sound. Now, that’s rock and roll!