Distortion In Music Production:The Soul Of Sonics

Edited by Gary Bromham and Austin Moore

Distortion In Music Production - Edited by Gary Bromham and Austin Moore

Review by George Shilling

This new book is part of Routledge’s Perspectives On Music Production series, which currently comprises 18 titles covering a diverse range of subjects, from the core of production and mixing to more specialist areas such as Reimagining Sample-based Hip Hop and Gender In Music Production. Most of these types of books are inevitably for the relatively recent burgeoning of music technology and production education, and generally written by academic types involved in teaching this stuff. I might sound like an old fart, but when I started in the industry in the 1980s, most leading studios discouraged any form of such education. Their philosophy was that they would train young apprentice tape operators in their particular mystical routines and procedures. And anyway, by the time you’d emerged from university you’d be too old in their eyes to be fetching burgers for clients in the middle of the night. Although I possessed a fairly advanced musical training, when it came to studio work I was drilled and trained on the job, and was lucky enough to assist many leading engineers and producers – both in-house, and the freelancers who booked in. Standards were generally very high. I may not have learned all the background theory, but I certainly picked up enough to launch a successful engineering and production career. Some of us old farts have gone over to the other side though, and even taken it as far as our old friend and interview subject Phil Harding. He undertook a PhD and his resulting book Pop Music Production: Manufactured Pop and BoyBands of the 1990s is one of the same series of publications.

Who’s JAMES?

So it is with a slight scepticism that I come to education and training. While good practice and studio techniques are something to teach and learn, some of what makes great records is not necessarily teachable. Most of your favourite records were likely made by people who learned ‘on the job’. As an assessor for the J.A.M.E.S. accreditation scheme, I have witnessed first-hand much of the practice that goes on in Higher Education in the UK. Some of this is excellent. And it is as part of that organisation I have to declare an interest, having worked in the role alongside this book’s co-editor Gary Bromham, a fellow assessor who has taken on the mantle of Co-Chair of J.A.M.E.S. And very good at it he is too. Gary is an absolute industry legend, successful both as producer and songwriter, having worked with the likes of George Michael, Sheryl Crow, Delta Goodrem, Graham Coxon, Editors and The Maccabees. He still travels the world making great records, so it is nothing short of amazing that he has the time and energy for both J.A.M.E.S. and projects like this book. His co-editor Austin Moore heads up sound engineering and production courses at Huddersfield University, where he also leads the Music and Audio Production research group. He also has a history of producing EDM and working as a studio engineer.

Feel the weight

The book itself has been beautifully produced. It’s a heavy paperback with that lovely waxy cover card, heavier, but not dissimilar to the covers of Resolution Magazine. It feels heavier than expected for its size – there are fewer than 300 pages but it weighs a ton, despite being almost exactly iPad size. Of course, being an educational book it is priced high, £43 on launch (but currently £38 on Amazon). There is also a hardback, but that's £120.

The book aims to comprehensively and definitively cover the subject matter of its title. This ranges from the history of recorded music, to the highly technical, to the practicalities, and the musicological aspects. It’s a weighty tome for sure, but much is easily understandable for anyone with a bit of studio knowledge. It is divided into four main sections each comprising three to six chapters by different authors. Before we get going there is a short Foreword from Andrew Scheps who recycles the quote that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” But, as he points out, “talk about it we must, and this book goes a very long way towards giving us the framework to talk about possibly the most important element of music production.” I’m not sure I would go quite that far, but it’s a fair point.

Part I: The Technology Of Distortion

There is an excellent History of Distortion in Music Production and this gets pretty technical, with some good explanations of different types of distortion and plenty of diagrams. Audio Software with distortion is covered next, including modelling of analogue circuits and digital distortion.

The next chapter briefly describes software guitar amp emulations before leaping into an explanation by Michel Buffa and Jerome Lebrun of their online browser-based real-time amp simulation. Interesting, but it doesn’t yet look as elegant as Amplitube or Guitar Rig, and I’m not fully understanding the advantage of sending your signal to a website and back to emulate a guitar amp.

The next chapter discusses the non-linearity of four typical types of studio compressors, then in the final chapter of the first section, Andrew Bourbon (another Huddersfield bod) goes into some details of comparisons of the subtle distortions of different mic preamps and how this low-order distortion affects recordings.

Part II: Perception and Semantics of Distortion

The first chapter in the second section is the most entertaining, and sees our host Gary discuss the semantics of distortion using quotes from many producers to try to define a lexicon of descriptors. Many of those Gary talked to are known victims of's interview series like Danton Supple and Cenzo Townshend, and it’s interesting to hear a variety of thoughts here. Perhaps missing from this are any contributions from classical and jazz recordists. One assumes that such technicians avoid distortion in any shape or form. But it would be good to know their thoughts, and perhaps their techniques for avoiding distortion…?

Lachlan Goold’s chapter covers his research and study into the sound of mixes. In his study he took a couple of finished in-the-box mixes, then substituted any plugins adding or causing distortion for clean ones. These mixes were then sent to various people (including some audio professionals) to see which they preferred and to note their comments. The results are unsurprising, and some of the validity of the study seems spurious to me, when elements of the mix include such recordings as “dirty” guitars. I may be being a little facetious, but surely they should have been replaced with clean ones too?

Finally in part 2, there is an attempt to cover the naming of different characteristics generated by distortion pedals. We’re talking Crunchy, Fizzy, Fuzzy, Creamy, Raspy and about 20 other descriptive words being applied to distortion effects, and it makes for an interesting discussion. It’s all very well trying to define and compartmentalise distortion descriptions and techniques, but sometimes in a creative environment you just want to light a joss stick and make it all sound a bit more sky-blue pink with a touch of red…!

Part III: Retrospective Perspectives of Distortion

We’re back to history lessons again here, with the Hit Hardware chapter going on to explore such subjects as the motives for using vintage gear, methods, sonics, workflows, misuse and iconicity. It’s a good read. Next is some research into comparing ‘traditional’ and software emulated distortion in the contemporary audio production workflow – the authenticity from a technical perspective, along with discussions and opinions from industry. These are from a survey – there are pie charts and graphs here. Hmmm. We are then back to guitar amps with an exploration of Kemper profiling. It’s like a review of the Kemper but presented in a very academic manner, with quotes from industry professionals. Finally there is a full and entertaining discussion of the cultural history of distortion and the ‘retro’ trend. This touches on features of human hearing, the inferiority of older yet popular designs such as the LA-2A and the reasons why audio professionals choose units that exhibit “worse” specifications than others that are available.

Part IV: Musicology of Distortion

There is a highly technical discussion of Distortion Related Compositional Structures, focussing on aspects of hard rock and heavy metal with one Metallica song analysed in some detail using some fairly esoteric techniques and language.

Next is The Distortion of Space - fascinating, but surely we are using the term ‘distortion’ fairly loosely here? Some of this is straight out of Pseuds’ Corner and possibly over-thinking things just a tad. Viz., “Sounds… are illuminations in the acoustic darkness, which gives exposure to the physical topology of the environment, given volume and occupancy through containment and architectural coercion. A figurative impression of sound is the spatial positive to the environmental spatial negative.” Blimey.

There’s a more salient and fairly long (but eminently readable) chapter on Distorting Jazz Guitar, covering the whole history of the subject, neatly broken up into easily consumable paragraphs.

There is then a chapter discussing the ‘Vocal Climax’ in the music of Led Zeppelin – it gets very technical, but discussing Plant’s ability to self-distort and adjust his timbre is oddly fascinating! Oddly, this in no way acknowledges any distortion in the recordings, but is instead all to do with the sound Percy makes, with several songs analysed.

Finally, Toby Young (no, not that one) covers The Aesthetics Of Distortion and how we perceive and interpret imperfection. There are discussions here of parallels in such areas as visual art. There’s a whole page on Magritte. Interesting stuff, but this is more of a cultural study than anything of practical help in the studio.

Edjumakational Stuff

Of course as a thoroughly well put-together educational text, each chapter is followed by a comprehensive list of references. And there’s a good Index at the back.


Of course, you don’t need to know all this stuff to make great records. Some might argue that it’s a hindrance to know too much when making ground-breaking new music. Famously, Paul McCartney doesn’t read music, and that’s not stopped him from writing some of the greatest and most popular songs of all time. Plenty of amazing records have been made by people who would be baffled by much of the information herein. Some of it certainly baffles me, and perhaps it doesn’t deserve my occasionally cheeky or obtuse criticism above. Some of that knowledge is perhaps only of interest to plugin developers and the like. And some of it is for cultural studies and how distortion relates. So you have to admire the ambition of this book’s editors. If knowledge is power, then this is a wonderfully rich and wholesome treasure of information, with some fascinating analyses and discussions.

Pros: A uniquely detailed study of distortion in music production, a (mostly) enjoyable and inspiring read for the studio professional, a diverse range of contributions and opinions.

Cons: Expensive, some sections are very academic and may have less relevance for certain readers, no contributions from the classical music world.

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