Use (Mix) Some Common Distortion Effects on a Percussion

A distortion effect on percussions

We can use distortion effects on our percussions to make them more personal. However, using a distortion effect on a percussion can be hard since the resulted sound can easily become an unusable noise. Moreover, we need to place an equalizer after using one or more distortion effects, at least most of the time.

How to use (mix) common distortion effects on a percussion? We can commonly use distortion effects on our percussion with the following six steps:

  1. Place a tape saturation effect after our percussion.
  2. Optionally, place an overdrive, a distortion, or a clipper distortion effect before the tape saturation.
  3. Configure the distortion effect(s) like you want them to sound, but set the tape saturation to a subtle effect.
  4. Place after the tape saturation effect an equalizer.
  5. Set the equalizer on these settings:
    • Set the high-pass filter on a frequency from 30 Hz to 300 Hz, with a 12 dB per octave slope, Q 0.7. The value depends on how much sub-bass, bass, and low midrange we want in our percussion.
    • the low-pass filter: 15000 Hz, with a 12 dB per octave slope, Q 0.7
  6. Optionally, reconfigure the equalizer by changing the high-pass filter to a higher value/the low-pass filter to a lower value. This reconfiguration depends on the percussion used, and on which elements the percussion will be played together with simultaneously.

This post explains first some things to keep in mind while reading this post, and then how some common distortion effects work. After that, this post explains how we can use distortion effects, and gives a practical and common equalization method. At last, this post gives the most common method in distorting and equalizing a percussion and gives some related questions.

Things to Keep in Mind

This section explains some things that you should keep in my mind while reading this post.

In this post is a distortion effect, an audio distortion effect. Such an effect is the alteration of an audio signal that makes the audio signal noisier, which can be hearable. Furthermore, such alteration is usually unwanted, but here we use it as a musical effect.

I used the term harmonic here in this post, which means here a sound wave. So when something adds harmonics to a sound, we can see it as adding new sound waves.

A percussion is in this post a percussion musical instrument. We can make such instruments sound by striking or scraping them by hand or a beater, or strike them against another percussion. However, it is more common to use a digital version of a percussion and we most of the time don’t know for 100% sure how someone made it.

For example, all drums are percussions.

An example of a percussion set

How Some Common Distortion Effects Work

This section explains the most common distortion effects used on percussions, with the why and how to use these effects.

Some distortion effects work by making audio clipping. Such clipping means that the audio volume of the sound is too high, so the audio hits a sort of a ceiling.

When audio is clipping, then on the parts where it clips, it also compresses the sound. So when our distortion effect is clipping, then we have also added compression to the sound.

As good as every distortion effect tool has its own set of knobs. Companies can give these distortion tools extra knobs or change/rename some of the knobs. However, this section explains only the most common knobs for such tools.

Overdrive, Distortion, and Clipping

The first three distortion effect types are overdrive, distortion, and clipping, which I all three like a lot. However, I don’t like the name “distortion” for a distortion effect type since it can be confusing. Also, I don’t like the name “clipping” for a distortion effect type since it can be confused with audio volume clipping.

We can use for multiple reasons the distortion effect types overdrive, distortion, and clipping. Reasons such as to rough up, adding filth, or add a little warmth to a percussion. Furthermore, the distortion effect tool can be analog or digital.

The analog version works (most of the time) in a way that it boosts the audio volume of a sound, so it starts clipping and the audio folds. This folding produces harmonics, which gives the sound a richer tone.

When the distortion effect tool is digital, like a plugin, then it can work in the same way as analog, but it doesn’t have to. It works in the way how it is programmed.

Drive Knob

With the drive knob, we can increase or decrease the distortion effect. Which means that when the effect we use is analog, then this knob controls how much of the audio volume gets boosted, with the amount of clipping.

By using the drive knob in small amounts, we can add a bit of warmth to the sound.

Tone Knob(s)

The tone knob(s) sets an equalizer with a high-pass filter, low-pass filter, or both. The classic versions of these distortion effect tools only had a low-pass filter.

We can use the low-pass filter, for example, to keep sound warm, rather than too bright by cutting high frequencies. Moreover, we can use the high-pass filter, for example, to cut the lower mid frequencies, so the sound doesn’t get there muddy.

It is common to skip this knob, and not to cut any frequencies with it, but using a separate equalizer effect after distorting is more common. A separate equalizer can have more options, and they can sound better.

A separate equalizer can control the full sound after the distortion. However, some (not all) built-in distortion equalizers can control only the distortion sound. So, the difference between the equalizers can be more than only better sound quality and more options.

Mix (Dry/Wet) Knob

Analog stompboxes (effect tools) can only be on or off. However, many plugins have a mix knob, which is sometimes called dry/wet. We can use this knob to blend the sound of the distortion effect with the original sound of the percussion.

The higher the amount of the mix knob, the more of the distortion effect sound the tool adds to the original sound percussion sound. Furthermore, that added sound makes the audio volume of the mixed sound higher.

Some plugins automatically lower the audio volume of the mixed sound when the volume becomes higher. However, in some plugins, we have to do such compensating of the volume manually.

Level and Gain Knob

Some tools have a level knob, and some tools have a gain knob, but both knobs do the same thing. We can use this knob to modify the audio volume so that we can make the volume higher or lower with it.


A bit-crusher is a distortion effect type that can produce two distinctive effects, and we can combine these effects if we want. These effects are:

  • reducing the sample-rate resolution of a sound
  • reducing the bit-rate of a sound

People often associate these two sound effects with the sound of the older analog drum machines, such as the LinnDrum and the Akai MPC60. Both these machines have a digital sound, and they use lower sample rates by which these digital sounds become tough and grainy.

When we use a bit-crusher at low settings, then we can make the sound of a percussion chunkier. Also, we then make the sound thicker, which the effect does by adding frequencies in the mid-range. Moreover, at the low settings, the highest frequencies get cut out.

Bit-rate (Resolution) Knob

The bit-rate knob is also called resolution. With this knob, we can reduce the digital bit-rate of a signal. As far as I know, this reducing is always from 24-bit (no reducing) down to 1-bit (maximal reducing).

When we have this knob set on 8-bit or lower, then the distortion effect has an added hearable background noise. Furthermore, when we have this knob set on 2-bit or lower, then the sound that we are distorting breaks up and splinter. 2-bit or lower is ideal for processing tight glitchy percussion, but in most other situations, it is not useful to use on a percussion.

Downsampling (Frequency) Knob

The downsampling knob is also called frequency, but the latter name is confusing, at least in my opinion. Furthermore, with this knob, we can reduce the sample-rate frequency of a sound. As far as I know, such reducing starts always from 44,100 Hz.

The more we reduce the sample-rate frequency, the more new harmonics the tool adds to the sound. Moreover, when we reduce the frequency enough, then the signal can break down completely.

Waveform Shape Knob

With the waveform shape knob, we can set the shape in which the tool decimates bits. The square folding is the most common and the one I almost always use. Furthermore, using square folding gives warm harmonics.

Tape Saturation

Tape saturation is a distortion effect type, which can produce the sound that we can get from making analog gear clipping. Such analog gear can be for example valve preamps and half-inch multitrack tape recorders.

Clipping from such analog gear is also known as saturation or soft-clipping. Soft-clipping is the same as clipping, but it sounds smoother than non-soft-clipping. Therefore, we can see soft-clipping as a smoother kind of the overdrive distortion effect.

We can add warmth and harmonic richness to a sound with this effect. Moreover, tape saturation can add a bit of an analog sound to a percussion.

Tape Saturation Knobs

The knobs of most tape saturation tools I know are to my opinion not worth to mention here. The reason is that these knobs look and work pretty much the same as the knobs from the overdrive, distortion, and clipping tools.a

Using Distortion Effects

We can distort a percussion in an endless amount of different ways. However, most of these ways sound too bad and are probably unusable. Here follows some information and methods on how we can distort every percussion that sounds good to the opinion of many people.

First, we have to choose which distortion effect type(s) that we want to use. I recommend selecting the types from the section “How Some Common Distortion Effects Work” from above.

When we want to choose distortion effect types, then it can help to know some common uses of them, which are:

  • A common use of the overdrive, distortion, and clipping effects is to change a sound noticeable but not extreme.
  • Producers use the bit-crusher effect commonly by setting it on a 12-bit bit-rate and leave all the other knobs off/at default. However, it is not common to use a bit-crusher on a single percussion. Section “A Bit-crusher Is Not Common on a Single Percussion” below explains why it is not common.
  • A common use of the tape saturation effect is to use it at subtle settings.
It is called order picking, you should try it sometime.

The Ordering of Distortion Effects

If we want to use more than one distortion effect on a percussion, then we have to keep in mind that the order in which we add the effects impacts the result. The sounds of the effects we use will sum up in the order that we use them.

For example, we use tape saturation as the first effect for adding a smooth analog harmonic warmth to the sound. Plus, we use overdrive as the second effect, which adds filth and roughness to a sound. Then we have a sound with a smooth tape saturation effect, but with an added filth and roughness on top of it.

If we use overdrive as the first effect and tape saturation as the second effect, then the result is pretty different. The result is a sound with an added filth and roughness, but with a smooth analog harmonic warmness over it. Most people prefer this second version of ordering distortion effects.

Stacking a Distortion Effect Type

We can stack distortion effects by adding two or more instances of the same distortion effect type after each other. Moreover, we can even add two or more instances of the same effect tool after each other.

Using two or more of the same distortion effect type after each other is not common, but we can at least consider it when:

  • The distortion effect that we use is not strong enough.
  • We want to combine different settings from one distortion effect.

If a distortion effect is not strong enough, then we can add one or more instances of the same effect behind it. By doing so, the effects stack on top of each other, which makes the resulting effect sound stronger than only one effect. However, we can also use the same effect from a different organization, if their tool has a stronger version of the effect, which can be easier to do.

When we have two or more different configurations of a distortion effect we want to use, we can add for each configuration an effect after each other.

A Bit-crusher Is Not Common on a Single Percussion

It is not so common to use a bit-crusher on a single percussion, but of course, it is possible, and there is nothing wrong it.

The most common way of using a bit-crusher is on a percussion group/bus/return/track/mixer track or something similar. We use a bit-crusher on a group (or something similar) to add one bit-crusher effect on all the percussions in that group. When there is one bit-crusher effect on these percussions, then they sound more as a whole.

A more in-depth explanation of using a bit-crusher on a group or something similar is out of the scope of this post.

A Practical and Common Equalization Method

Equalization is here an audio effect that we can make with an equalizer. Equalization is the process of adjusting frequency parts of a sound, which we can do with an equalizer. With an equalizer, we can boost or cut the energy of frequency ranges.

A general/detailed use of an equalizer is out of the scope of this post. Nevertheless, here follows a common method on how we can use an equalizer on a percussion. This method works well after one or more distortion effects, but also without such effects.

Equalization Settings

A common way of equalizing percussion is using the table below. We can use this table by adding an equalizer after the distortion effect(s), and if there are no such effects, then we can still use it. We can use this table in three steps, which are below the table.

filter typefrequency
the high-pass filter, with a 12 dB per octave slope30 Hz
the high-pass filter, with a 12 dB per octave slope200 Hz
the low-pass filter, with a 12 dB per octave slope15000 Hz

The First and Second Step

The first step, we copy the settings from the third (bottom) row to our added equalizer.

Secondly, we choose between the first and second row and then copy the settings from the chosen row. This choice depends on the percussion we use and on the situation in which we want to use the percussion. We choose for the second row if at least one of these cases is true:

  • The percussion should not have any bass in it, such as a hi-hat.
  • The producer wants to play the percussion together at the same time with at least one other element with bass in it, such as a bassline.

In some equalizers, we can set the Q (bandwidth) of the high-pass filter and the low-pass filter. Using such an equalizer is not necessary. However, if our equalizer has an option to set the Q, then we set it on 0.7, 0.71, or default.

The bass drum (kick) has bass frequencies in it, so the percussion probably does not need many of such frequencies

The Optional Third Step

The optional third step is to adjust the frequency of one or both filters to our preference. Here follow some guidelines (not rules) about adjusting the frequencies of both filters:

  • Cutting unnecessary frequencies is a good thing to do.
  • Most of the time, a 12 dB per octave slope gives the most natural results, which is nice to hear.
  • If we have chosen for the first row, then we can change the high-pass filter to 50 Hz, but not when the percussion is a bass drum (kick).
  • If we have chosen for the first row, then we don’t go lower than 30 Hz and don’t go higher than 50 Hz with the high-pass filter.
  • When we have chosen for the second row, then we don’t go lower than 150 Hz and don’t go higher than 300 Hz with the high-pass filter.
  • Don’t go lower than 10000 Hz and don’t go higher than 15000 Hz with the low-pass filter.

For example, most cymbals (such as hi-hats or shakers) can have a the high-pass filter on 300 Hz.

Some people might wonder about the max 15000 Hz with the low-pass filter, which is to remove any hissing sound from the percussion.

The Most Common Method in Distorting and Equalizing a Percussion

First, it is common to have the mix or dry/wet knob of all the distortion effects on 100%. A reason for this commonality is that many analog tools only can be on or off, so only 0% or 100%. Therefore, when we add one or more distortion effects with the explanation in this section, we set the mix or dry/wet knob(s) of these effects on 100%.

Here follows in three steps, by which the second step is optional, the most common method in distorting and equalizing a percussion:

  1. The first step, we add a tape saturation on our percussion, and we use this tape saturation at subtle settings.
  2. The optional second step is to add before the added tape saturation an overdrive, distortion, or clipping effect. Then change with the effect the sound of the percussion noticeable but not extreme. However, if we like already how the result sounds, then maybe we should not add the third effect, it is a preference.
  3. At last, we add an equalizer after the added tape saturation. Then we change the settings of this equalizer to the settings from section “Practical and Common Equalization Method.”

At this point, we have finished our percussion with added distorting and equalizing to it.

Related Questions

What is the most common distortion effect used on percussions? The most common distortion effect used on percussions is tape saturation. With this effect, we can add warmth and harmonic richness to a percussion. When we also use other distortion effects, then the most common ordering is that tape saturation comes as the last added effect.

Should a distortion effect always improve the sound of a percussion? No, not always. With a distortion effect, we change the sound of a percussion, and if it improves is an opinion. Moreover, if the percussion has already distortion on it, then adding another distortion to it can improve the sound, but it can also become too much.

By Markus Kreukniet

Markus Kreukniet is an electronic dance music (EDM) producer and founder of Passion for EDM. He wants to share his EDM knowledge with the rest of the world. Read more about Markus Kreukniet.

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