Musicians have added to the depth and brilliance of music through sheer talent over thousands of years, culminating in adaptabilities and varied sounds brought by manipulations, including distorted bass.
To produce a distorted bass sound, the musician alters the sound of an amplified electric musical instrument through a special effect pedal, by overloading transistors and tubes in the system, or through amp modeling technology. When you clip the signal and add overtones, you end up with a compressed sound.
Read on to learn how you can achieve bass distortion and manage it in the music genre.
What is Bass Overdrive or Fuzz Bass?
Musicians also refer to bass distortion by the terms bass overdrive and fuzz bass. It is a style of playing the electric bass to produce a distorted, buzzy, overdriven sound.
By overdriving the bass signal, the player can notably change the timbre to add higher harmonics.
When you turn the gain up high enough, you create a breaking up sound, which is recognizable by its typical growling or buzzy tone.
What is Distortion?
Distortion is the unmistakable sound occurring during a sudden change in the original signal. Distortion should, however, not be confused merely with noise, which is not what you want.
Noise Versus Distortion
Distortion is the loss of clarity in sound, while noise is the addition of interference. Not every noise heard in the system can be called distortion.
We hear distortion when the sound of the original signal changes to something else. Noise is a random or external signal added to the original signal.
By way of example, noise happens when you receive a message on your mobile phone close to a speaker, and it causes a disturbance in the signal. Creating an unexpectedly loud sound into a microphone that is unable to handle the increased volume will generate a distorted audio signal.
Creating Bass Distortion
A distorted bass sound is achieved by clipping the signal and adding overtones that bring about a compressed sound.
Clipping may involve shearing away the troughs and peaks of the signal waves by simply pushing the instrument sound beyond its maximum.
You can make a distorted bass sound using a bass overdrive effect pedal or bass fuzz or by overloading a transistor preamplifier or bass amp’s tube. Using a combination of these approaches will produce an even more powerful effect.
As the times have changed, so too have the ways evolved to create bass distortion.
Effects pedals can be used, as well as rackmounts, preamplifiers, power amplifiers, and speakers. More recent evolutions include digital amplifier modeling devices and audio software (source).
How To Get A Distorted Sound From a Guitar?
Distorted guitars were happened upon while many good alternatives were available to cause the varied and desired distorted sound. With the popularization of the sound, others found many forms of circuitry to mimic the sound in a pedal format.
At first, guitar amplifiers were comparatively low-fidelity. Historically, guitar amps would produce distortion when volume or gain went beyond that of their design limit (source).
Experimenting with sounds probably began with western-swing guitarist Junior Barnard in or around 1945.
The fuzz pedal is a superior effects unit for creating distortion using a guitar. The electric guitar fuzz, distortion, or overdrive pedal produces a bass fuzz. It is typically located in the stompbox casing that connects the amp and the guitar.
Bass overdrive pedals specifically designed for the electric bass saw mass production by manufacturers starting in the 1980s. These pedals allowed musicians to keep the low fundamental pitch together with the buzzy overdrive tone.
For a happy medium between amp modeling technology and real amps, the overdriven sound of distortion pedals is generated by the high gain and tone settings.
Jimmy Hendrix popularized the Fuzz Face pedal in 1966. It was around this time that the pedal would most likely have been the first of the major fuzz pedals available on the market. A long stream of other models followed this one.
Almost every model shares one core design similarity: the pair of transistors that overdrive and boost the signal. The defining characteristic of a good fuzz pedal is its quality sound, and this distinguishes fuzz from standard distortion effects.
A downside to the use of a pedal designed specifically for the electric guitar is the loss of the lower-end bass tone when the signal is heavily clipped (source).
Playing through an amp with a distortion circuit or added tubes adds a measure of distortion when the amp is turned up.
A significant reason for the popularity of the tube amp is the harmonics it adds to the sound, which might otherwise sound like overdrive or distortion.
Tube amps around 50 watts will break up well, providing the desired crunchy and overdriven sound without overpowering high volumes.
When a driving punk-rock beat or thick funk sound is wanted, this is the answer, especially for a more subdued distortion.
It is also worth looking into making the amp distorted heavy, and whether all amps have distortion. You can learn more about solid-state amplifiers in “How Long do Solid State Amps Last?”
Amp Modeling Technology
Built-in modeling technology in the amp is the most cost-effective and easiest way to get an overdriven sound. If you use a small bass amp, it is possible to produce an overdriven sound, but the sound will likely prove lower in sound quality.
A better option, although more expensive and not as easy, is amp modeling software. It will probably work in recordings and live productions, and even be passable as the real thing.
Overdrive the Amp Speaker
Distortion will result when a speaker is not able to handle the low frequencies from the amp or when the input to that speaker is too loud. This may damage either the amp or the speaker, or both, and is seldom a good alternative.
Break the Speaker
Distortion will result from a ripped or a blown speaker. Although recorded distortions resultant from this have usually occurred accidentally, it does give rise to usable distortion sounds.
How to Get Distortion When Recording
Other than using any of the options already mentioned, the following are alternatives, some more viable than others.
Plugin or Amp Simulator
Many high-quality amp simulators and distortion plugins are available, either for free on the internet or at a cost. Any of these allow for added distortion or overdrive while recording or after recording the bass.
Use an iPhone
iPhones offer plenty of amp sim app options that do the job with the addition of an adaptor that plugs the bass into the headphone jack. Some are, in fact, already built into the GarageBand app.
Examples of Music Made with Distorted Bass Sound
Bass distortion is now an art form in music. Intentional fuzz bass by bass guitar players in punk and metal bands for both musical effect and aesthetic reasons has been a hit.
Pop, jazz, and traditional country musicians usually prefer an undistorted bass sound.
The many musical uses of distorted bass sounds, when introduced with intent, are very well received. It supplies just the right amount of attitude to lift dull sounds. With guitars, it brightens synths and similarly lends heft to drums.
The music phenomenon of distorted bass sounds began in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, distorted bass was synonymous with psychedelic music.
The earlier musicians who employed the technique include the Edgar Broughton Band, the progressive rock band known as Genesis, and the psychedelic soul and funk band, Sly and the Family Stone.
The Beatles featured a few songs using bass distortion in the 1960s, such as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Mean Mr. Mustard.”
Others in this decade include The Rolling Stones with “Under My Thumb,” and Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars” and the “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.”
The 1970s featured Frank Zappa and Mike Rutherford of Genesis, among many others.
Elvis Costello used bass distortion in the 1980s, as did Metallica with “Kill ‘Em All, “Ride the Lightning,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Orion,” and “The Thing That Should Not Be.”
The Clash also employed the technique with “Should I Stay or Should I Go”.
In the 1990s, bands and musicians using the technique include Motörhead, whose bassist and lead singer, Lemmy Kilmister, frequently played with a fuzz bass tone through overdriving his twin 100-watt Marshall stacks.
Kilmister was in good company leading up to the turn of the century with The Blackeyed Susans, Ministry, Mortician, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Radiohead all distorting bass sound.
More recently, the 2000s and 2010s saw a few acclaimed musicians and bands using distortion, including Ed Sheeran with “Don’t,” Royal Blood with “Figure It Out” and “Lights Out,” as well as songs “Things We Lost In the Fire,” and Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” (source).
While there are bass guitar players in metal and punk bands that use fuzz bass on purpose to distort their bass sound, bass players in other music genres tend to seek an undistorted bass sound.
It is important to bear in mind when making music that there is most certainly such a thing as too much distortion. Even pop vocals are now enjoying some fanfare with the use of distorted bass sounds.
Distortion has successfully added texture to vocals, dirtied up basslines, and transformed guitar sounds.