Experts Guide To Using Harmonic Distortion In Music

What exactly does harmonic distortion do to my music? Why does it sound so amazing? What plugin can give me total control over the harmonic distortion in my mix? How should I use harmonic distortion to get a musical effect?

If these are questions you want to be answered then this article is for you!

Read on to get a solid understanding of how to use harmonic distortion to inject the perfect amount of character and grit into your music in a creative, tasteful and purposeful way.


What Exactly Does Harmonic Distortion Do To Audio?

The harmonic content of a signal is what gives a sound it’s timbre. This is what makes strings sound different from a flute. Harmonic distortion adds new harmonics that are musically related to the input signal. This introduction of new harmonics changes the character and timbre of the sound, often resulting in a richer and more charismatic tone.

To illustrate this, see below how our harmonic distortion plugin IGNITE (A module in our plugin ANIMATE) introduces upper harmonics to a simple sine wave.

Harmonic distortion

IGNITE introduces odd-order harmonics which are known for enhancing the grit, and adding a rough edge to audio. This can be compared to the sound of analog tape saturation, which more often than not introduces odd-order harmonics giving the sound added depth and richness.

Listeners are drawn to these complex and interesting timbres as opposed to simple and basic sounds. It adds excitement and clarity to audio giving them more sonic information to digest.


What plugin can give me total control over the harmonic distortion in my mix? 

Many distortion plugins have limited versatility. You can slap the plugin on a channel or mix, crank it up, and possibly adjust some other sonic characteristics.

This can sound great, but being able to target specific frequencies using a high-quality all-pass filter is something that’s unique to IGNITE.

Let’s say you want your bass to have more presence in your mix, but you love how the low-frequencies are sitting in relation to the kick.

With IGNITE you could isolate the upper range of the bass (200Hz-20kHz) and only apply the harmonic distortion to those frequencies in the mid-channel. 

Distortion on a bass

You can then adjust the amount slider to dial in the perfect amount of harmonic distortion to work perfectly in the context of your whole mix.

We can see from the infographic below a visual representation of what the bass content would look like following this processing.

We can see the sonic range of the bass now extends further into the higher frequencies which would increase its clarity on smaller range systems. The low frequencies below 200Hz maintain their previous level and balance in the mix as intended.

Harmonic distortion added content

This simple but effective technique of applying harmonic distortion to specific frequencies with mid-side precision can be used to bring out guitars, synths, drums, vocals and almost anything you want in your mix.

It will give you a richer texture of sounds with which you can further sculpt using compression and EQ.

Having more creative control over the timbre of your sounds will make you an assertive and purposeful producer who knows how to put the ideas in your head into practice.


How should I use harmonic distortion to get a musical effect?

Dynamic EQ’s have become more and more popular over the past few years. Why? Because music is inherently dynamic. It’s the transients and range that move people both physically and emotionally.

Unlike many distortion plugins, IGNITE takes this into consideration and allows you to apply the distortion in the same way that you would apply a dynamic EQ.

You can adjust the threshold in IGNITE so the effects are applied only to the louder signals that surpass your set threshold. This empowers you to use frequency and stereo-specific distortion in a dynamic way like never before.

You can also adjust the attack and release of the distortion so you can fine tune how it reacts to the input audio signal.

The plugin used in this article: ANIMATE - IGNITE 

ANIMATE helps you inject life into your mixes in a precise, versatile and colorful way. With four different movement modes, each with individual frequency assignments and mid/side functionality, you’ll get your music jumping out of the speakers precisely how you want.

The IGNITE module allows you to dial in rich harmonic distortion in a dynamic way based on the input signal. Ignite can increase the perceived loudness, power and presence of a channel without the pumping effects of a compressor.


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