How to use clipping and distortion in mixes

Today I thought I write about something technical - I’ll share a technique that I learned from Chris Lord Age and have used successfully and developed further for my self since. 

This technique is about using intentional clipping of signals to your advantage. 

Clipping is one of the most amazing tools that I have come across while mixing. Not only can it add colour to a track, but it can also tame dynamics and make things stand out better without actually altering it too much. Clipping can range from subtle peak limiting all the way to more prominent distortion and I’d like to share a few instances in how I use clipping in my mixes for the benefit of the music:

1: Snare:

This is probably the single most amazing and coolest thing I do with the snare. I originally picked this up from CLA, but have taken his subtle approach a bit further and made it suit my own needs and style. 

Hands up if this problem sounds familiar: the snare is too quiet. You push it up until it is loud enough. But, of course, now the whole master bus is clipping, or the (drum)bus compressor is going absolutely crazy. But when you put it back to a more ‘normal’ level, it’s too quiet. What do you do???

Let me explain what’s happening here from a technical perspective: The snare usually has a very sharp transient that can become extremely loud. We don’t really pick up on this, but all the electronic stuff in our gear and DAW does. At the same time, because we don’t really hear this transient, the actual body of the snare, which is what we perceive as volume and loudness, is too quiet. So we have a snare that has a fast and loud transient that makes our meters go crazy, but a body and punch that is as much as 5-10dB below the very peak of that transient - making the snare appear quiet overall (see picture of this post for the peak LED and where the VU meter needle actually is).

The master bus (or drum bus) will of course notice this loud transient and go into red when we push the snare up, even though the body is not loud enough and we still perceive the snare being quiet. Same thing with compressors: they will notice this transient and try to clamp down on it, making it do crazy things with the song if it’s a master bus compressor, or your drum sound if it’s a drum bus compressor.

So what I like to do these days to counteract this is following: 

- I EQ my snare how I like it (usually a 10-15dB boost in the low end and a 10-15dB boost in the treble)

- Pick some kind of analogue channel strip emulation or tape emulation and drive the snare into it until it shows clipping. I usually use the Slate VMR channel strip for this, or some times a tape emulation. But really, the Logic Clip Distortion will do the trick too. What is interesting is that the LED that indicates clipping on the Neve or SSL channels will usually show clipping way before the snare level is actually in the red. This is good, it means we are taming that transient and gaining RMS level to the snare. I also notice at this time that my bus compressor is acting happier and/or that I am no longer clipping the master bus. 

There you go! Loud snare with body and punch.

2: Organs, synths, vocals:

I like to distort all of the above, when appropriate - with a more obvious setting. Some distortion can help a lot to make these instruments cut through and give them some much needed character. Especially Hammond (and other vintage) organs can benefit a lot from a bit of clipping/distortion, because it will tame it’s dynamics a bit and make it cut though more in a busy arrangement. I mixed about 3-5 songs in the last month with organs in them and I distorted them every time. I like to use the Slate VMR London Tube thing for this, or something like the Head Crusher. But again, the Logic Clip Distortion or Overdrive will do. What is interesting is that no musician/artist/band ever complained about the distortion, because I use it to actually enhance the character of the given instrument, instead of just crushing it and turning it into something else. This will take some experimentation, but once you found the way that works for you, you will love the results!

3: Bass:

A prime candidate for distortion. Most bass guitars can take a TON of distortion until it becomes noticeable. About 80% of the time simple EQ and compression settings do not help me to make the bass cut, especially in Rock mixes. I’ll use serial or parallel distortion, depending on the song and the situation. For rock I like using some parallel amp simulation or just some straight up heavy distortion to make it cut. I’ll write a separate post about mixing bass, as it can be a super tricky subject! For now let me just say that Bass can be a lot of fun to distort and I encourage you to experiment with it as much s possible. Serial and parallel distortion both work wonders!

These are just some instances where I use clipping and distortion to my advantage, and I will keep updating this post as I mix and come across new instances/ways in which I use distortion. 

Thanks for reading, and happy mixing! ;)