How to Use Distortion in Electronic Music Production

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VST Distortion Tutorial on Ableton Live, Mixing, Return Tracks, Boogex. Distortion is used by electronic music producers on basslines, synthesizers, drums, and even entire songs. It is a vital tool that can give your music a much rougher, louder sound. While distortion is often used during mixing, this tutorial will focus on using distortion during music production. To follow this tutorial you will need:

What Is Audio Distortion?

Audio distortion is any deformation of an audio waveform from its original state. But, when music producers talk about adding distortion to a track, they are usually referring to the types of distortion used on electric guitars. This distortion is the result of lots of different factors including pickup selection, preamp, powertube, speaker cabinet, etc. But the basic idea is this: the clean guitar signal is fed into an amplifier that boosts its volume. Then that loud signal is played by a speaker kept inside a box called a cabinet. This process turns a nice, clean guitar sound into a mean, dirty rock sound.

Who Uses Distortion?

Most electronic music producers use audio distortion. For example, Chemical Brothers make heavy use of distortion on all of their records. Here are two samples from them:

In Loops of Fury, they used quite a bit of distortion on the synthesizer-produced bassline. In Setting Sun, the producers used an incredible amount of distortion on the drums. Notice how this helps give their tracks a rock-n-roll sound.

Using Distortion In House Music

House music evolved from disco and, consequently, many flavors of house music do not use much distortion at all. For example, disco house and latin house are primarily focused on reproducing the sound of live instruments. While these genres do use distortion, it is often extremely subtle. It is most often used in mixing and not in production.

However, there are several genres of house music that heavily utilize distortion. Even the popular french touch scene is producing hard house music with the help of distortion effects. Here are two examples of popular house tracks that use a lot of distortion:

The bassline in Sound Of Violence is heavily distorted. Also, the wah guitar has quite a bit of distortion on it as well. Benni Benassi used a synthesizer to produce a bandpassed sawtooth wave. Then, Benassi added a heavy amount of distortion, compression, and reverb to produce the floor-shaking bassline in Satisfaction.

Setting Up the Audio Track

Now that you’ve heard a few artists use distortion to liven up their tracks, it is time to try it out for yourself. For this tutorial, you will be distorting a bass sample.

Click here to download a ZIP file containing the bassline.

Start your VST Host (e.g. Ableton Live) and create a new song. Then open the ZIP file and place the bassline sample on an audio track in your VST host. Make the loop repeat at least a couple times. Label the audio track if you prefer. When you are done, your VST host should look like the screenshot below.

When you press play you should hear the bassline looping. From here, you could just add Voxengo Boogex to the bass track to get a good distorted sound. However, you can get much better control over the distortion effect if you add Boogex to a return track. Read on to learn how to set it up.

Setting Up the Return Track

Return tracks allow you to blend uneffected audio with effected audio. In this case, adding Boogex to a return track instead of the bass track will allow you control exactly how much distortion is applied to the bassline.

Before you can use the distortion unit, it must be installed in your VST plugins folder. If you haven’t already done that, do that now. Next, create a new return track. After that, load Voxengo Boogex onto the return track. If you are using Ableton Live, you can click here to read a tutorial on using VST plugins with Ableton Live.

When you press play you hear that nothing has changed. Audio needs to be sent from the bassline track to the return track. So, find the bassline track and turn up its send volume. If you are not using Ableton Live, then consult the manual on your VST host’s audio routing procedures. Or, write a request on the SonicTransfer Forums. Click here to visit the SonicTransfer Forums. If you are using Ableton Live, then reference the screenshot below.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Ableton Live users should definitely try using the Utility Plugin Trick with Boogex. Click here to read about using the Utility Plugin on Return Tracks.

Using Voxengo Boogex

Boogex has some great presets, but it is also extremely tweakable. One the nicest features is the ability to compare two different Voxengo configurations at the click of a button. Click the A | B button at the top to switch between setup A and setup B. This is useful when you want to try out different groups of settings without loading up multiple instances of the plugin.

The filter graph allows you to tweak frequencies. It doesn’t work as you might expect. Move a point lower on the filter graph to boost its frequency range. You can hold shift to finely adjust the filter graph. Also, press the left and right mouse button at the same time while clicking a control point to adjust its width (a.k.a. Q value). If you give a control point a very thin width then it will boost or cut a very small frequency range.

The Pre Filter settings are useful if you need to adjust the frequencies of incoming audio before it is processed by the plugin. You probably don’t need to use the Pre Filter because your VST host provides a more powerful EQ plugin.

The Amplifer section provides four knobs that control that distortion. The Tone and Drive knobs are complementary and determine how much distortion will be added. The Dynamics knob controls the compression applied the audio. The Phase knob controls the harmonic structure of the overdrive. As usual, the best way to learn what each of these knobs provides is the experiment with them.

The Dry Pre Cab and Dry Post Cab knobs control how much uneffected audio signal is used. The Dry Pre Cab knob allows you to mix uneffected (a.k.a. dry) audio with the effected (a.k.a. wet) audio before it is sent into the speaker cabinet. The Dry Post Cab knob allows you to mix dry audio with the wet audio after it is sent out of the speaker cabinet and out the plugin.

Click the Speaker Cabinet Impulse Response button to turn on the speaker cabinet. The speaker cabinet uses WAV files that record the effect a real speaker cabinet has on the audio that it plays. These WAV files are called impulse responses. They are the same type of files used by convolution reverb to produce extremely realistic recreations of physical spaces. Boogex uses these files to allow you to get the sound of a real speaker cabinet using just the plugin. Click the left and right arrows to scroll through impulse responses or click on the impulse response name (e.g. INTERNAL: Cabinet 7 SM57) to view a list of available impulse responses.


I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on Distortion. This effect is found on almost every electronically produced music album. So, it is surely worthwhile to master it. Keep experimenting and remember that this tutorial only demonstrates the very beginning of what is possible with distortion effects. If you have any questions or comments, please click here to visit the SonicTransfer Forums.

If you had any trouble with tutorial, then click here to download the finished Ableton Live Arrangement.

For a more detailed explanation of distortion, click here to read a Distortion Primer.

Happy Producing!

Matt Sonic