the berghain column – july 2012

July’s column for Berghain’s flyer: Distortion

Edison was ready. On July 18th, 1877 he was the first to ever record a human voice (his own) – and to play it back seconds later. Reportedly he said “hello.” At the first public presentation of the Phonograph (that was the name of the new machine) a children’s song was recorded, “Mary had a little lamb.” The audience was floored: no difference whatsoever between the real thing and its recording! It seemed someone was sitting in the cone singing! Wait a minute… the sound MUST have been terrible. Zero dynamics, a hilarious frequency range and more distortion than anything else. When we encounter something new where we lack pre-existing experience we have no standards to judge by. They recognized a voice, but had no idea what distortion is supposed to be.

That something was wrong wasn’t recognized until a bit later. On one hand that made many engineers (and weirdos) work on the issue of eliminating anything that’s not supposed to be there between natural acoustics and their recorded playback (“noise”). On the other hand pretty much the opposite was enforced, too. Some guitarists accidentally dropped their amps while carrying them to gigs, resulting in broken valves and strangely bent tones with that distinctive sharp edge. When Jimi arrived on the scene, he could already get hold of that effect in the form of a commercially available pedal.

An acoustic instrument can produce sound with different degrees of distortion-like noise: overblown notes, squeaks, clatter. Synthetic signals require electronic distortion to achieve a comparable quality, otherwise they sound plain and boring. With the early, simple studio set ups this happened almost automatically: overdriven amplification, low headroom, krrrrr….. A muffled bass can be easily given the aggressive sound resembling a torn speaker membrane by adding a bit more gain to the input section.

Techno spawned its own distortion virtuosos: the muffled sounds from Detroit are legend, and that’s not since Moodymann or Theo Parrish. Reportedly Robert Hood’s early studio set up consisted of three or four pieces of gear, placed on an ironing board and connected to ONE monitor speaker (that’s probably where the project name “Monobox” came from). It was probably easier to get a distorted output from there then a clean one. With Hieroglyphic Being it’s so up front that there seems to be more distortion than signal.

Drum machines sound twice as good when distorted. No dance classic without rough overdrive. Since distortion adds a good deal of randomness, a lively, bustling sound pattern emerges. Even when the same snare sample is repeated throughout the whole track. A guitar pedal on a hihat – pure bliss. Giving each sound its own distortion is a great way of bringing nuances to electronic material. It yields way better results than the popular magnetic tape saturation which many producers employ for bringing in the dirt. That’s also the reason most DJs can’t resist to keep the level meter in the red zone: distortion just sounds awesome. By the way, New York turntablist Maria Chavez actually plays out with a set of needles that are worn out to different degrees (each distorting in a different way), using them as “pencils of sound.”

Most laptop productions fail here. They just don’t get distortion right. It’s not that there are no great plug ins available, but the production flow is not designed to integrate them efficiently. It is way easier and closer to the preset to be slick. In the end it is the DJ once more who will have to distort the PA to overcome the software slickness.

At the end of the day nothing stays clean anyway. Sometimes the greatest sound systems stand in rooms where various pieces of metal vibrate or sound waves are thrown back harshly by bare concrete walls. Jens Zimmermann once said he doesn’t put too much information into his tracks since all those room sounds from the club are added to them anyway. The clatter is just part of the experience.