Does distortion make things sound better?

Stepping aside from the subjective vs objective vs measurement debate happening elsewhere, I wanted to take a different perspective.

My day job is recording and mixing jazz.

Before I became a sound engineer - I was an audiophile - and a lot of what I now do challenges some of the simple minded purity I espoused when I was only an audiophile.

I now constantly add distortion when I’m mixing music.

  • EQ to make singers and instruments sound better
  • Compressors to make things sound better - and to sit better in a mix
  • EQ to stop masking preventing you clearly hearing two instruments playing at the same time (eg bass drum / double (upright) bass)
  • Saturation to improve the sound of some types of electric guitars and vocals
  • Saturation to add higher harmonics to low bass instruments so they can be heard on small speakers.
  • Reverb to add a sense of space

These are all standard tools of the trade - and if used well make a piece of music sound better. And if used well - it will make close mic’d instruments (which don’t really sound natural) blend together in a semblance of what you might hear live.

So perhaps distortion is good :slight_smile:

I have three sets of monitors in the studio

  • PMC two.two.6 / two.two.sub.1 (active with Hypex amps, fed vis AES (they have DSP based crossovers))
  • Rogers Studio 1 fed by a recently serviced ex BBC Quad 521f from an RME DAC
  • Auratone 5c fed by a small Auratone class D amp also from an RME DAC

The room is somewhat treated - and the PMCs are in the best spot - with the sub crossover and the DSP tuned to match the roon. The Rogers are in corners because of room size limitations. The tweeters don’t have a perfect line of site to the listening position!

The PMCs are no doubt much more accurate - and generally I find if I get something to sound good on the PMCs - it will sound good (but different) on other systems.

The Rogers are much less accurate - but on some tracks they just sound beautiful - their slightly warm upper bass (they don’t have much low bass) and the extra bass from the room positioning - and the character of the mids and upper mids can sometimes really enhance a track.

I wouldn’t dare mix with them as a primary reference - because I’d end up with a mix that was wrong on other speakers.

The Auratones rarely sound great - but it’s good to check a mix sounds OK on them - because they represent how many listeners will hear your music!

Mix engineers talk about this a lot - they want a system that will translate - ie when they have a mix that sounds good on their main system - it will also sound good elsewhere.

My assumption has always been that the accuracy of the PMCs and room adjustment makes them good for mixing.

But there is no doubt that the Rogers can sometimes sound shockingly good.

I has a mastering engineer visit yesterday - he loves Reggae - and he played me some of the tracks he’s mastered. They had that fantastic reggae dub bass. I expected the Rogers to sound bad on this - but actually they sounded better than the PMCs on some tracks. The lack of the bottom octave wasn’t really an issue - the warmer upper bass compensated - and something further up added what sounded like more dynamics on the snare. My friend said he thinks passive monitors have more dynamics (which I doubt) - but we were definitely both hearing the same thing!

So I thinking what I’m saying is:-

  1. Distortion can sound good - otherwise mix engineers wouldn’t add it
  2. Even with a finished mix - sometimes less than perfect systems can make a track sound better than on a neutral system - although probably not consistently.

I would be interested in other people’s experiences.


Interesting to hear about the multiple sets of loudspeakers.

Do you have thoughts about Toole’s “circle of confusion”?

I hasn’t seen that - thanks. I should buy Floyd Toole’s book and read his paper (now ordered!).

It’s certainly true - but I don’t think it’s the whole story. 60s Jazz records don’t sound like modern Jazz records - and quite a lot of that is changing tastes (although some is changing technology and techniques).

I also don’t completely agree with Sean Olive about making adjustments for small speakers. Small amounts of saturation on a bass is barely perceptible on good monitors - but makes a lot of difference on a small speaker or phone - hard to say that this is misguided and counterproductive.

If what you are saying is that audio engineering can make things sound better, then yes, it can.

A recording can’t be a good recording without some thought and deliberateness to what you are doing to make the product sound pleasing, albeit in a subjective way. Even microphones, mike placement, and room choices contribute to this in what are otherwise “direct to tape/file” recordings.

To label these as distortions is intellectually interesting, but perhaps disingenuous. In general conversation, music listeners consider distortions to be whatever the mind feels “negatively impact” the audio chain, making the term “distortion” somewhat tautological. So, sure, some people might consider one or more of your bullets to fall into this category, and others will not think of those transformations as negative. That’s the subjective part of the hobby for you.

I guess my thought had two parts:-

  1. Distortion isn’t always bad - because it is used for good during the production process.
  2. The perfect reproduction system might not produce the best result for a particular track.

My mastering friend says the ideal way to hear the Reggae tracks he works on is on a sound system, although clearly he can’t normally master with that in mind!

Of course the ‘imperfect’ response of my Rogers which helped the track we were listening to - doesn’t work in most cases!

One of the points @Bill_Janssen raised is perhaps key here - because there is no ‘reference system’ across studios - it’s hard to know how your system at home will compare to what the artists were hearing in the studio or concert hall.

To me, that answer is easy. I always assume that “It won’t and probably never will”. A person’s ears, the playback room, speaker and amplification each add up to a unique and potentially different sounding environment.

So I agree, but that starts to raise a difficult question when we think about measurements and what we’re aiming for.

What I want from a ADC / DAC is to get back exactly what went in.

But with other components it’s perhaps more complicated.

At work I want something that corresponds well to how my target clients will listen, and shows up problems.

At home I want to maximise my enjoyment of my chosen music. This might or might not be the same thing.

My hypothesis would be a non-neutral system will affect tracks in an unpredictable way - and so a fairly neutral system will do better overall.

But sometimes a system like my Rogers one might excel…

Why would that be, since aberrations in ADCs/DACs are minuscule compared to speakers?
So, far more care should be taken to choose most neutral speakers, no?

The point has been made before, that producing and listening to music are two fundamentally different disciplines.

As you stated yourself, any fixed set of aberrations from neutral will likely narrow the universality of a music reproduction system, unless one only wants to perpetually listen to their reference tracks …

So, anyone feeling the need for postproduction to better enjoy their music would be better advised to utilize some free of charge software digital audio workstation with respective plugins to loop their digital music data through and twiddle away to their hearts content.

I did use Stereo Tool from Thimeo which is a broadcasting tool. With a bunch of included modules it does all those things like limiter, compressor, expander, enhancer, EQ, bass treatment etc. in multiband automatically in realtime. I used it with Media Monkey before I switched to Roon for not fiddeling around anymore with the Media Monkey interface and signal path.

You end up directly in the loudness race with this tool, but I think it gives the best sound signature with everything, old or new. It seems, whatever mistake a sound engineer had made, Stereo Tool does correct it.

I still use Media Monkey to rip my CD’s, then I sometimes try the sound with Stereo Tool like in former days, and then I wish I would have this tool in Roon too, not being concerned about the loudness race in any way:) If I would be a DJ I would always use it.

I have a paid version of it, but there is a free version which does many of its magic, if you would try it, I would be interested what you think about it.