If you want to add a layer of dirt to your guitar sound, you’ll inevitably end up in the world of drive pedals.
What is the difference between boost, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz?
All these are ways of distorting an audio signal, but they all do it differently.
In this article, we are going answer exactly that, see how each works and why they yield different results.
Let’s jump right in.
How Distortion Occurs
To understand the three terms, we must first understand how distortion occurs.
In audio, natural distortion occurs when a sound becomes too loud for the device handling it to cope with.
Think of an amplifier as an example. It has to have a maximum amount it can amplify a signal, anything beyond that would start to distort.
With amplifiers, how that upper limit depends on the power rating of the specific amplifier.
There’s an important idea to keep in mind here —
In what is gain and gain staging, we looked that the gain, volume, and the difference between the two.
The maximum audio signal is not the same thing as the maximum volume. Gain is not the same thing as volume.
Have a look at those articles if you haven’t. This article builds on the concepts outlined there.
Moving on, we can amplify an audio signal safely without changing our waveform, until we hit the headroom. But if we continue to amplify the wave higher, then the top of the waves deform against that ceiling.
The higher we push, the more squashed the wave becomes, the more the audio signal distorts. This results in a buzzy, compressed sound, lost in the definition.
For a very long time, the distortion of audio signals was a very huge problem.
While that is still true, in the world of electric guitars, distortion has become desirable (somewhat of a necessity, even) where the challenge now is to form something beautiful and pleasant.
There are many devices on the market to solve this particular problem. These devices create electronic environments that promote distortion and low volume labels.
Boost vs Overdrive vs Distortion vs Fuzz
If you want to add distortion to your guitar sound, there are four different flavors to consider, especially in the world of effects pedals—
- Boost pedals
- Overdrive pedals
- Distortion pedals
- Fuzz pedals
Each one of these will add a different layer of distortion to a guitar tone.
What is Boost?
A boost pedal does exactly what you think it does, it boosts the signal from the guitar thus driving the front of your amp harder.
If all you need is for your riffs and solos to punch through the mix, a boost pedal will do just that.
Boost maintains all character of your guitar’s tone.
What is Overdrive (Soft Clipping)?
Overdrive is the most natural of the three. It simulates the effect of amplifying a signal to the point where the device can comfortably handle it any more.
Overdrive is the most subtle of the three, it emulates a tube amp being pushed past the point of its headroom.
The term overdrive refers to the concept of driving an amp over its clean capacity. When an amp starts to distort, we say it’s overdriven.
Breakup is another term that’s often used to describe that sound — a clean signal breaking up as it’s amplified too far.
To get overdrive from a pedal, we use something called soft clipping.
Soft clipping is a type of distortion effect where the amplitude of a signal is saturated along a smooth curve. This is achieved by putting clipping diodes in the feedback loop back to the operational amplifier inside our audio circuit.
It produces a rounded but cropped wave which is very similar to what we find in a loud valve amplifier.
Overdrive maintains almost all character of your guitar’s tone. It is typically used in Classic Rock and Blues styles.
What is Distortion (Hard Clipping)?
Of course, natural overdrive doesn’t break up far enough for some forms of music. Distortion has a harder, more aggressive sound. It breaks up the character of your guitar’s tone significantly.
Distortion is most commonly found in Metal, Hard Rock, and Punk — [sub]genres that require full-on saturated distortion.
Saturated distortion is achieved by running several overdriven elements into each other until we stack up enough distortion like we see in the multiple cascading preamps and amps or using hard clipping.
Hard clipping is achieved by placing our clipping diodes after the operational amplifier and connecting them to the ground. That abruptly cuts off the tops of the waves giving a much more aggressive distortion.
Some high gain amps will include hard clipping in the preamp section to access the valves and get in the levels of distortion required by players.
In both overdrive and distortion, careful design of a circuit and tone-shaping elements is made to ensure that the overdrive or distortion is natural sounding and pleasant and high quality.
An then there is fuzz!
What is Fuzz?
Fuzz is neither subtle nor polite. It offers gain in spades and has been used to devastating effect since the birth of Rock.
For the most part, the inspiration for fuzz comes from the sound of faulty amps.
Devices were created to emulate the sound of a “broken” amp without having to ruin good equipment. These were some of the earliest attempts at getting high-level distortion sounds outside of an amplifier.
Even today, circuits used to generate fuzz are usually remarkably simple, usually with only basic components. You won’t often find operational amps and clipping diodes inside fuzz equipment, although there are some exceptions.
All that does the work in fuzz amps is a couple of transistors.
Fuzz is a remarkably violent way of distorting an audio signal. The waves are amplified and then sliced until they are almost square, usually asymmetrically. This asymmetry creates a very nasty lo-fi effect which can be glitchy and harsh.
Mixing a fuzz with an overdrive can produce some very interesting sounds. But that’s not to say that fuzz can’t be used effectively on its own.
What makes a good fuzz is one of the most hotly debated topics in guitar effects.
That was a fairly brief and simplified view of the differences between boost, overdrive, distortion, and fuzz. There is a lot more history and science that goes into these differences.
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That’s it for this article.