Tips for Adding Character to 808s with Distortion, Saturation & More

Hey, folks. Matthew Weiss here — weiss-sound.com, theproaudiofiles.com and mixthru.co.

I wanted to talk a little bit about 808s. This is a topic that’s going to come up a bit, and actually eventually I’m going to do an extended tutorial on specifically low end simple shape designs, like 808s or sine drops and things like that.

This one is going to be specifically about distortion on 808s, because an 808 by itself is a very, very simple sound. It’s simply an envelope with a sine that slightly distunes, and a little bit of click up front, and that’s pretty much all it is.

So here, I have this very standard sounding 808.

[808]

Right? It’s pretty much straight out of the drum machine. It’s kind of a flat sound, actually. It’s pretty unexciting.

I wanted to talk about the way we get character from an 808 and maybe what we might be thinking when we’re selecting an 808. If we have something where we’re using, like, a higher frequency punchy kind of kick above the 808 as our center kick drum, then we might want to use a very plain Jane 808, because what it’s really doing is just adding weight to the low end, and that’s its function in the arrangement.

But if we’re doing something where the 808 is meant to be featured, what we’re looking for is the characteristic of the 808. Some kind of a distortion or a texture, or something like that. So I wanted to show you a few ways you could just simply make your own if you happen to have nothing but a very simple stock 808 sound.

First one is tape distortion. So here is our before…

[808]

Here is our after.

[808 with distortion]

Right? It’s pretty similar.

[808 with and without distortion]

And the differences are going to – like, the way we setup our tape machine is going to make a few differences.

So the way I had it there was on 15 inches per second, and that ends up boosting the low end, which ultimately just raises the amplitude of the 808, but here it is on 30 inches per second.

[808]

That’s a slightly glossier sound, and you know, when we’re starting to design our genre and our tone, and everything that we want, we kind of try and think in advance, so if I was going for like, a big room sort of Pop-EDM kind of sound, I’d probably do the 30 inches per second.

[808]

And if I was going for something like a Future Bass, Festival Trap, EDM Trap kind of thing, I’d probably go for the 15 inches per second.

[808 plays]

I don’t know why. It just sounds that way to me. There’s no science to it past that.

Anyway, another one of my favorites is Decapitator. Same idea, except for it’s a little bit more assertive when you want to get into it. This is the N setting, and here is before.

[808]

And here is after.

[808 with Decapitator]

So you hear a little bit of fuzz. It’s like a little bit of breakup happening against the 808, which is nice to add a little bit of character and tone and texture in there. And again, these are the overtones. These are the harmonics that are going to make the 808 feel more present, even at a lower volume, and so when we’re trying to preserve our headroom and our total space for how loud a record can get, having these overtones present is a really important part of that.

Here’s another really cool one. It’s called Devil-Loc. Here’s a before and after.

[808 before/after distortion]

Right. It’s a much more aggressive sound, and it’s got this crunch function which can get pretty crazy.

[808 plays with crunch setting]

Right. You can pretty much go in as much as you want to, and even a little dab will do you, and this right now is set with the mix knob pretty low. It’s mostly the dry signal.

Then of course, here is an old classic, which is using a compressor or a limiter to modulate the sound.

[808 plays with limiter]

Kind of similar. It’s got a square wave-ish kind of sound to it. It’s sort of like a flexible square wave based on how long you set the release, and how deep the threshold goes, but if I set the release very, very fast, we approach almost a complete square wave.

[808 with fast release]

If I set it really, really slow…

Almost no squaring at all. So let’s try right about there.

There it is with just a little bit of buzziness.

And from there, we can take something like an EQ and reshape the harmonic distribution to fit what we’re trying to do.

[808 with EQ]

Right? I can pull up those upper tones, I can maybe attenuate some of that third-harmonic sound, which is around 150Hz, depending on the fundamental frequency of the 808, and we can get something that sounds a little bit poppier or a little bit bigger.

[808]

So yeah. I think it is important to work out the distortion characteristic of your 808 before EQing it, because how you choose to EQ it is going to be directly affected by the distortion character, and the degree in which you EQ it will be affected as well, and of course, if it’s a perfectly clean 808 and it doesn’t have that click up front, really you’re not EQing much at all, because there’s not that much there to EQ. It’s basically a sine wave. You can’t EQ a 100Hz sine wave at 400Hz and expect really anything to happen outside of maybe the slightest amount of subtle distortion.

So okay! There’s some food for thought about designing your 808s, or at least giving you some ideas of things that you can listen for when you’re designing your 808s, and of course, there’s a million different effects that you can use. These are just distortion effects, specifically, harmonic distortion effects.

You can also do things like, do distortion and chorusing, and mix effects, or you can you know, flangers, phasers, you could go nuts! You can have fun.

So experiment. Take some time with it, and then maybe EQ the results to just really fit it in the pocket.

Alright guys, until next time.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.
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