Distortion vs. Overdrive vs. Saturation - differences and applications?
Citizen
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#1
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #1
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Thread Starter
Distortion vs. Overdrive vs. Saturation - differences and applications?

I'm hoping that someone can clear this up for me - there seems to be some overlap between the concepts of overdrive, distortion and saturation as effects.

Each appear to have uses as far as adding grit, edge, warmth and fatness to a sound....but whats the practical difference?



Are the terms entirely interchangable, or are there some important distinctions between the concepts?



Also, are there certain applications to which one of the three is more suitable than the other two, or can they all pretty much be used interchangably?


Finally.... are there any contexts where you might apply several instances of each in sequence, or is this complete overkill?

Thanks for your help in advance!
#2
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Citizen View Post
I'm hoping that someone can clear this up for me - there seems to be some overlap between the concepts of overdrive, distortion and saturation as effects.
When you overdrive an amplifier gain stage, you saturate the signal, and that is a form of distortion. In that particular situation, all the terms are sensible, and have distinct meanings.

However, in conversation it's never so easy. Any perturbation of a signal is a distortion. The physics behind 'tape saturation' is different from over-driving a gain stage (and there are a wide variety of amplifier designs which all have different 'overdrive' characteristics). The same term is used to describe different kinds of distortion, but both are examples of signal 'saturation' (A signal which exceeds a certain power level fixed by the design of the equipment is “saturated” ).

People use the terms interchangeably, even if there may be subtleties between the meanings. It'll drive you batty to talk with most people about these terms if you're going to be a stickler for meaning, rather than just understanding the implication. It's pretty much all colloquial nuance.
#3
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #3
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nebelfrau's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by bluegreengold View Post
When you overdrive a gain stage, you saturate the signal, and that is a form of distortion.
Wrong. Not entirely, but enough.
Overdrive & distortion: Overdrive vs. Distortion

Saturation: What Is Audio Saturation?

Too much to type so I googled it instead.

EDIT: Quoted before you typed more.
EDIT2: The second link author likes to bounce in and out of using distortion & saturation. Little confusing.
#4
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #4
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Don't forget fuzz. There's also fuzz.

Actually in this context distortion means "harmonic distortion," which is different depending on what exactly you're overdriving. Like has been mentioned, overdriving a tube is different from overdriving a diode which is different from overdriving tape which is different from saturating a transformer.

Utlimately they all result in some form of clipping of the signal, which of necessity by definition adds harmonic distortion, which of course adds the vintage warmth that guarantees a successful music career.
#5
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
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Quote
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#6
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #6
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Synthpark's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by bluegreengold View Post
When you overdrive a an amplifier gain stage, you saturate the signal, and that is a form of distortion. In that particular situation, all the terms are sensible, and have distinct meanings.
Completely right!

In practise, "saturation" is often meant to be slight distortion, like tape saturation, whereas distortion is associated with a very pronounced effect to create harmonics, and overdrive, well, I don't know (seems to be used pretty much the same as distortion). These are just terms to distinguish different guitar stomp effects from the same brand .
#7
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #7
Quote:
Originally Posted by Synthpark View Post
Completely right!

In practise, "saturation" is often meant to be slight distortion, like tape saturation, whereas distortion is associated with a very pronounced effect to create harmonics, and overdrive, well, I don't know (seems to be used pretty much the same as distortion). These are just terms to distinguish different guitar stomp effects from the same brand .
I suppose overdrive can be used in the sense of overdriving a filter input, like like pushing the filter gain in ACE or filter drive in Strobe or Cypher


Quote:
Originally Posted by Brainchild View Post
Utlimately they all result in some form of clipping of the signal, which of necessity by definition adds harmonic distortion, which of course adds the vintage warmth that guarantees a successful music career.
but then again clipping is usually used a form of limiting, I guess none of these terms are used in their literal sense
#8
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #8
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zerocrossing's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by ohmicide View Post
I suppose overdrive can be used in the sense of overdriving a filter input, like like pushing the filter gain in ACE or filter drive in Strobe or Cypher




but then again clipping is usually used a form of limiting, I guess none of these terms are used in their literal sense
"Clipping" limits a signals amplitude, but I don't think anyone would call a device that purposely adds clipping (like a fuzz box) a limiter. All types of the thing we're calling "distortion" have a compression/limiting component to them just by their nature. The point is you are pushing a signal strength past the limits of what the circuit can handle with an acceptable margin of distortion (all circuits distort always to some degree) Of course this can be simulated with software as well. Clipping just refers to the look of a wave form that's being distorted by a circuit. The peaks of the wave form look "clipped off." Usually this is attributed to a transistor design because they tend to be less forgiving and go from negligible distortion to distortion at a fixed amplitude, where a tube (valve) based system has a more gradual curve toward distortion.

Of course, audio tape can also be driven to distortion and that's what is more traditionally called "saturation" from my experience. Overdrive is what is normally referred to in the guitar world when one puts a device in front of a tube amp to push it's input into distortion. Of course, there's preamp distortion and the coveted power amp distortion as well, all things that have become "features" in the guitar amp world, but are avoided in things like audio monitors and PA systems.
#9
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by zerocrossing View Post
All types of the thing we're calling "distortion" have a compression/limiting component to them just by their nature.
not true
you can also have distortion by unlimited expanding and such, so basically distortion just means what it says : nonlinear transfer

btw the clipping you have in diode clippers and such isn't real clipping, its much softer

the various words usually discribe different behaviour on different frequencies and different amounts and shapes of distortion, but bluegreengold is basically right
#10
23rd July 2012
Old 23rd July 2012
  #10
Overdrive and distortion can be summed as - pushing a transistor or an operational amplifier far into non linear area which yields certain specific results. Luckily there are tables and graphs that come in spec. sheets, so one can easily find out how much input a certain transistor can handle (before overdrive) and how much it can be pushed at the output (before distortion). Measurement is required though, since tables are usually made under lab conditions and specs vary per part.
Citizen
Thread Starter
#11
24th July 2012
Old 24th July 2012
  #11
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Thread Starter
Wow.....so much information....I think I'm actually more confused than before.

Perhaps if someone could simply indicate the practical applications of each?

Can you simply substitute one for another to taste, or are there certain applications to which one is more suited than the other two?
#12
24th July 2012
Old 24th July 2012
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zerocrossing's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by memristor View Post
not true
you can also have distortion by unlimited expanding and such, so basically distortion just means what it says : nonlinear transfer

btw the clipping you have in diode clippers and such isn't real clipping, its much softer

the various words usually discribe different behaviour on different frequencies and different amounts and shapes of distortion, but bluegreengold is basically right
Right, but read what I wrote. The OP obviously isn't talking about that type of distortion. Obviously no recording is ever a perfect 1:1 of the original sound, thus distortion, but it makes no sense to talk about that in this context.
#13
24th July 2012
Old 24th July 2012
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I have an Otari 5050 for sale, recently fully serviced, in SoCal if anyone's interested
#14
24th July 2012
Old 24th July 2012
  #14
Quote:
Originally Posted by Citizen View Post
Can you simply substitute one for another to taste, or are there certain applications to which one is more suited than the other two?
TBH I'm not sure why this worries you so much. Are you designing an A/D converter or something?

If you're just making music then why bother?

Just use whatever sounds best for you.
Citizen
Thread Starter
#15
25th July 2012
Old 25th July 2012
  #15
Gear nut
 

Thread Starter
Cool - doesn't really bother me all that much - just wondered if there is a logic behind using one over the other within the context of electronic music production.

If its all pretty much subjective, then thats cool - just thought it would be good to get some pointers.

Thanks guys.
#16
25th July 2012
Old 25th July 2012
  #16
Quote:
Originally Posted by Citizen View Post
Cool - doesn't really bother me all that much - just wondered if there is a logic behind using one over the other within the context of electronic music production.
You don't think <insert name here> knew the difference or cared about it, when creating his last hit.

OR

It is not pilot's job to know how each part of his air-plane works.

etc...

If you worry about where to use each the best of each - there's no such thing. Though, overdrive is maybe more suitable for bass (louder than life bass guitar), distortion for mid range (percussion, 303 lines, etc.). Disobey at own will.
#17
25th July 2012
Old 25th July 2012
  #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Don Solaris View Post
It is not pilot's job to know how each part of his air-plane works.

etc...

If you worry about where to use each the best of each - there's no such thing.

Yes, it is exactly his job to know what each crucial component of his plane does.
Same goes for car racing pilots, a ships captain, a surgeon. A graphic artist. A photographer.
A guy running a grocery store.

I think an "electronic musician" should know the theory, workings and terminology
behind the things he is using, that is : the signal processing involved.
Otherwise he is just a monkey in a rat parcours.

I know people here will disagree, so no need to discuss that further.
I am just stating my opinion on the matter.

anyway, back on topic :

The different kinds of distortion differ in the harmonics they produce,
mainly even/odd and fall of of higher harmonics.
This has basically depends the symmetry of the distortion function,
and the fourier series of the function. ( It's smoothness if you will )
You can also have distortion that boosts/adds a certain harmonic more
and so on.

Then you sometimes have additional filtering, so the signal that gets
in and out will have more emphasis/distortion on certain frequency ranges,
while othres are more or less unaltered.

Then you have dynamic distortion, where the distortion depends not
just on the momentary signal level but also on the past of the signal,
or rather the internal state of the distorting element, which
is determined by what went in before.
#18
25th July 2012
Old 25th July 2012
  #18
Quote:
Originally Posted by memristor View Post
Yes, it is exactly his job to know what each crucial component of his plane does.
Same goes for car racing pilots, a ships captain, a surgeon. A graphic artist. A photographer.
A guy running a grocery store.

I think an "electronic musician" should know the theory, workings and terminology
behind the things he is using, that is : the signal processing involved.
Otherwise he is just a monkey in a rat parcours.
It is not his job to know how a distortion unit works. His job is to know how to use it.

Do you know how distortion unit works? Don't think so.
#19
25th July 2012
Old 25th July 2012
  #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Don Solaris View Post
It is not his job to know how a distortion unit works. His job is to know how to use it.

Do you know how distortion unit works? Don't think so.
Sure, on an abstract level, why not ? Not on a detailed parts design level, I am not an EE.

But basically, sure I do know how distortion units work, they (usually) have a gain stage/transistor followed by a diode clipper, some may have additional filter stages, usually just a simple one-pole lp & hp in series ( for the classic V shape spectrum and simple tone control ) before the gain stage.
I could implement one in DSP, ( but couldnt build one from parts from scratch out of the blue since I dont even know what voltage levels are used as inputs ) but thats not the point I wanted to make.
And I wonder ( but no need to discuss it ) why you state I wouldnt know without even knowing me but knowing very well that there are people with electronics and dsp background on this board.

This says a lot, not so much about you or me but your expectations towards members of this board.

I am not saying you should be able to do this, construct your own and such. Or program your own code or whatever, or explain it to a university physics class. Not at all.

But for the pilot and so on the job is not just to know how to use it, but a little bit more.
A car pilot maybe isnt a mechanic or an engIneer, but he knows much more about his car then : when I push that pedal it goes "wooooosh",
also a few things about invisible components and how they basically work.
Or for the airplane pilot, when there is a technical problem, she does know what it implies. She has to know, has to have an understanding of that.
A dentist does not just know how to stop a bleeding but also WHY this works, ( or doesnt work, in some cases ). She has to know. Even her assistent does.

It's like :
"what's the difference between waveform, pulse wave square wave ?"
or "what's the difference between filters ?"

But I didnt want to argue about that. As I said, I know people will disagree, and I guess we could both forsee a long fruitless discussion about that.
No need for that.
And I do think people who want to be "electronic musicians" should be encouraged to learn more about what they are doing, technically, or rather : on a signal level.
And I think an "electronic musician" should know as much about these things as he is capable of, and never cease to learn in this regard.

I mean the increasing "how do I sound like x" questions on boards like these where x is a preset simple square wave sound on a cheesy mainstream hit track speak for them selves.
#20
25th July 2012
Old 25th July 2012
  #20
Quote:
Originally Posted by memristor View Post
But I didnt want to argue about that. As I said, I know people will disagree, and I guess we could both forsee a long fruitless discussion about that.
In reality, they don't even care. :o)

Be it as big as Vangelis or popular as Srillex, they don't worry on how a distortion unit actually works. Their interest is how it performs and what they can do with it in their music.

For studio engineer it is how the unit behaves in a setup with other gear, what are the output levels, what is the input impedance, etc.

For a constructor it comes interesting on how someone set a voltage offset for the input amp in distortion unit, how the buffer works or what is the exact slope of the used op amp. But that's three steps away from a musician, my friend. Same can be said for airlines pilot, etc.

Yes, there are exceptions, though.
#21
26th July 2012
Old 26th July 2012
  #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Don Solaris View Post
In reality, they don't even care. :o)

Be it as big as Vangelis or popular as Srillex, they don't worry on how a distortion unit actually works. Their interest is how it performs and what they can do with it in their music.

For studio engineer it is how the unit behaves in a setup with other gear, what are the output levels, what is the input impedance, etc.

For a constructor it comes interesting on how someone set a voltage offset for the input amp in distortion unit, how the buffer works or what is the exact slope of the used op amp. But that's three steps away from a musician, my friend. Same can be said for airlines pilot, etc.

Yes, there are exceptions, though.

haha, true, no one cares (except for me in my 5 minutes of madness)

anyway I think you are developing a sound bank for the Blofeld, right ?

Wouldn't it be nice if the manual would be a little bit more descriptive about the drive curves ?
I am aware that you dont need to know for your sound design, and even if you would know it
wouldnt help or improve any of the sounds, so I guess you are right in a way

still I think the info is missing and it's unsatisfactory that you have to guess
especially the "OSC1 mod" - is it a modulated clipper ? maybe

the others are more or less clear from the names, but who really knows what the difference
in Pickup 1 & 2 is ?
Having done pickup modeling myself I assume it's a 1D and 2D model ( like in guitar vs EP ) but who knows ?

Or the sine shaper, is it a clipping sine shape or a repeating sine ?
I assume the latter but thats just a guess from the sound

Or, which curve corresponds to the drive used in the Qs, if any ?

The curves are what set the Blofeld apart from the Q so wouldnt it be nice to know ?

I admit that knowing doesnt make a difference for sound creation and most people don't care
so maybe I am mixing things up here, maybe it even gets in the way of sound creation if you know too much ..
but let's not forget that the industry is full of made-up fantasy buzz words to fool people which wouldnt work if people know more about these things

And then, a violonist knows what the hairs of the bow are made of,
and a guitarist knows what kind of wood will be used on his handcrafted one-off model he just payed in advance.

so, this is a board about gear but we shouldnt care too much what the gear actually does and how it works ?
funny
#22
26th July 2012
Old 26th July 2012
  #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by memristor View Post

Wouldn't it be nice if the manual would be a little bit more descriptive about the drive curves ?
No not really. Most of the great distortion effects were made by experimentation, luck and building off of older designs. The creators were playing around, tweaking components rather than knobs, but it was still the ears and mind of the experimenter that guided the process. Having a picture of a 'drive curve' of the final circuit offers nothing tangible for the music maker, nor the designer. It would only maybe satisfy an analytically minded techno enthusiasts curiosity.
#23
26th July 2012
Old 26th July 2012
  #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bluegreengold View Post
No not really. Most of the great distortion effects were made by experimentation, luck and building off of older designs. The creators were playing around, tweaking components rather than knobs, but it was still the ears and mind of the experimenter that guided the process. Having a picture of a 'drive curve' of the final circuit offers nothing tangible for the music maker, nor the designer. It would only maybe satisfy an analytically minded techno enthusiasts curiosity.
thats only half of the truth, more of a myth and maybe more true today than it used to be :
effect pedals were usually designed as low cost, that is : with as littel parts and labour,
as possible, and the sound is determined by that, and also basic component flaws.

same with pick up distortion, pick ups were not designed to distort.
an e-pianos sound is determined to a great deal by pick-up distortion,
all the regular harmonics are created by that and only by that
So, if it sounds anything remotely "like a piano" thats due to the pick up, but :
that was not the design rationale behind it.
The rationale was to build a cheap instrument, as cheap as possible,
built like a toy actually, that can be amplified.
Similar thing for Hammonds and the like.

also I didnt say there should be images of the curve, but a word about what it actually is
if this really doesnt matter than why didnt they choose to call the curve "Peter" or "Mary" in the menue ?
The "OSC1 mod" is obviously influenced by OSC1's waveshape, if you dont know how, and what effect this
will have depending on the waveshape, you will have to compare 8579, in words eight-thousand-five-hundred-seventy-nine
settings (times 128, more than a million) to get an idea of how a certain combination sounds like
- you didnt do that, did you ? and you are not going to do that, cause this will take you
roughly a month or more if you do it 27-7

and thats where the musician becomes an ape in the lab where he
randomly chooses a random parameter setting he doesnt understand hoping that randomly it will please him
#24
27th July 2012
Old 27th July 2012
  #24
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Saturation I'm thinking tape compression.

Distortion I think of guitar pedals -- lots of different types.

Overdrive I think of bad rock music.

(Does that help?)
#25
27th July 2012
Old 27th July 2012
  #25
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Acid Mitch's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Don Solaris View Post
You don't think <insert name here> knew the difference or cared about it, when creating his last hit.
.
Most of the best musicians I've met are clueless about how thing's work.
Some of them dont even know much about how to connect things up properly.
Inner workings , technical details and such like are definitely for engineers.
#26
27th July 2012
Old 27th July 2012
  #26
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Acid Mitch's Avatar
 

To me, overdrive is like a straight boost.
With basic distortion often there is fixed eq/filtering going on to give things like scooped mids or more pronounced change in the high end than the rest of the frequency spectrum or whatever.
With a good overdive and eq you can emulate alot of distortion pedals.
#27
27th July 2012
Old 27th July 2012
  #27
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Acid Mitch View Post
With a good overdive and eq you can emulate alot of distortion pedals.
Exactly. If you really wanna open up your dirt pedal(s)/unit(s), slap an eq before and/or after the pedal(s)/unit(s).
#28
31st May 2013
Old 31st May 2013
  #28
Gear Head
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by nebelfrau View Post
Wrong. Not entirely, but enough.
Overdrive & distortion: Overdrive vs. Distortion

Saturation: What Is Audio Saturation?

Too much to type so I googled it instead.

EDIT: Quoted before you typed more.
EDIT2: The second link author likes to bounce in and out of using distortion & saturation. Little confusing.

For the hell of it--I don't see where he was wrong at all. In fact, in some spots he was almost verbatim with the article..

and BTW this thread is f---m hysterical. lol OP--I Hope that cleared thing up.
#29
31st May 2013
Old 31st May 2013
  #29
Gear Head
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Don Solaris View Post
You don't think <insert name here> knew the difference or cared about it, when creating his last hit.

OR

It is not pilot's job to know how each part of his air-plane works.

etc...

If you worry about where to use each the best of each - there's no such thing. Though, overdrive is maybe more suitable for bass (louder than life bass guitar), distortion for mid range (percussion, 303 lines, etc.). Disobey at own will.
I don't know. In the case of a pilot, I would feel better if he had some knowledge of the plane parts. I cant articulate exactly why on a practical level, but I would just like to think he has a passion for flying I guess
#30
31st May 2013
Old 31st May 2013
  #30
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We all have to "abbreviate", filter or reduce the world into something manageable. you can say "why use a computer if you don't know how to program it" or "why use a hammer if you don't know how to make one". At some point you have to prioritize and only spend time on what matters most. in this regard as a musician who uses electronic tools, you need not know exactly how the circuits work, just how you can use the tools themselves to express your creative energy.

That said, a good knowledge of audio engineering, EE,instrument repair, acoustics, etc. can all be helpful in artistic expression of music, just not necessary.
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