There are a lot of applications for recording with distortion pedals, but the most common way I’ll use them is to blow up an amp with a relatively low gain setting. With this method, the character of the guitar sound is really dependent on what the pedal is doing, and the amp is just providing the juice for the tone.
You can hear that on this Stray From The Path song, the verse tone is an orange rockerverb 50 on the clean channel, fairly low gain, and zvex distortion pedal dialed in pretty hot.
Here’s another application with the same pedal through a Vox Ac30 and a Laney Lionheart on the wolves at the gate record. The amps on these rhythm tones were set with a little higher gain, and the pedal takes it the rest of the way.
I tend to lean more on overdrive pedals for my modern sounding rhythm tones, since I have a nice collection of amps that are already giving me what I want sonically, and the extra clipping/gain from distortion pedals usually is just too much for an already high gain tone. But sometimes if I’m going for a really extreme/noisey/destructive guitar sound I’ll put a distortion pedal in front of an amp that’s already gained up. This application is great for the chaotic hardcore stuff, like the HM-2 esque tones that are popular right now. Kurt Ballou is the guru on this subject, and you can find some cool pedal shootouts he’s done with this method.
Here’s an example of that, this is the lone wolf audio left hand wrath deluxe going into a 5150 and a jcm 800 that are pretty high gain:
The left hand wrath is awesome in this application because it has a blend knob, so I can impact the guitar sound with just enough of the character without ruining the clarity from the amp tone.
As far as making records with distortion pedals, it’s pretty rare these days. Usually we are using any of these pedals as boost/compression/tone shaping tools instead of full on distortion. There is just something about the distortion from a head that always seems more pure and complete than going purely pedal gain. However, there are times when only a pedal will do. For instance, you may go straight in with a pedal for that Ministry type tone, or use a fuzz/distortion type for certain layer that can’t be achieved anywhere else or for just some over the top, never before heard blast of insanity. But 99% of the time we are using some combination of amp gain and a pedal to achieve the overall tone when stomp boxes are involved.
I think you can get some great sounds with distortion pedals. I got some great sounds with a Boss Metal Zone. That pedal still holds up today and is the main component used by Kirk Windstein from Crowbar and used for his guitar sound to this day. The Boss Heavy Metal pedal is still a favorite for real nasty tones and was popularized by Entombed and Sam Black Church.
I’ve used distortion on a lot of things, specifically vocals and synth. On synth, it can be the way to make your keys jump out over a dense mix. Sometimes it’s hard to get all the notes of an intricate chord to jump out over 4 or 5 other instruments each with 2 – 4 layers. To do that, you need to squash the dynamic range and add HARMONICS, LOADS of them, and that’s what distortion does. It can also be a great way to make a boring vocalist sound more interesting because it can be added to background layers underneath a main line to emphasize lines, which creates almost a performance dynamic and contrast throughout a song. You’ve heard me to do this on almost every album I’ve made.
I do love experimenting with distortion pedals. I usually use them doing drone guitar parts. I mostly use different ones as amp boosters. Occasionally someone will come in with something sick that sounds better than the amp head. If someone brings in a pedal, I always try it immediately. Even if it sucks, I usually try to find a cool riff or something odd to use it on. I like unique pedals that make distinct sounds which are hard to copy.
Nowadays I tend to use plugins more than pedals so I don’t have a huge array of distortion boxes. That said I LOVE distortion plugins. Decapitator, Saturn, and Futz Box are among my favorites. They’re especially handy on… well… everything. Need a synth to pop the mix? Add distortion. Drums sound lifeless? Harmonics are your friend. Bass sounds too separated from your rhythm guitars? Needs some dirt! I can’t honestly think of a single type of instrument that I haven’t used distortion on at some point.
I’ve used the Boss HM-2 several times for recording. There really isn’t a better/easier way to get the Swedish/Sunlight sound otherwise. I did try the Behringer HM300, but it really didn’t have the same quality of sound.
Otherwise, distortion pedals haven’t really offered me more than what I can do with a quality tube head. Amps like the Mesa Dual Rectifier, Peavey JSX and Revv Amplification Generator 120 provide so much gain it’s hard to justify needing a distortion pedal. The gain structure is often tighter in a distortion pedal, but I find that it just causes grief when mixing. The guitars are so compressed and full of saturated frequencies that you have to work them more to make them fit and they often sound completely un-natural afterwards.
Hmm, hard to tell, where does overdrive stop and distortion start…
I’m in the lucky position to own some nice high gain amps, so I’m usually not using a distortion pedal like I used to (to get a metal tone from a clean amp), but I’m using it to get “something different” from my amps’ high gain channels, so I’m not using as much gain from the pedal anymore but am rather using it to “add” something to an existing high gain amp tone, the Metalzone is particularly good for that since it has a very good semi-parametric EQ to shape the tone effectively…That pedal into a rectifier is killer for US type of death metal (think Cannibal Corpse).
Another classic distortion pedal that I like to use in the studio is the old MIJ Boss HM2 (although that’s technically closer to a fuzz), that pedal is awesome to add ridiculous amounts of grind and attitude to an already grinding amp (perfect for that Swedish chainsaw death metal type of tone), you’ll have to be careful if you’re using a lot of palm mutes though, the bass freqs being fed into the amp can make the low end sound quite boomy when you’re muting, depending on the position of your palm etc.
Another relatively new acquisition of mine is the Amptweaker Tight Metal Pro, an extreme versatile distortion/preamp that does old school and modern tones equally well…that one I’m using into the clean channel of an amp or even into the FX return (as a preamp).
I actually love blending a crunchy, almost AC/DC type Marshall tone with a Rat pedal through a clean Fender type amp. You get the clarity of the Marshall and the balls and sustain from the Rat.
This is interesting in how it relates to keyboards. Most keyboardists don’t use external distortion pedals or amps as a part of their rigs. It used to be a lot more popular in the Deep Purple days when Jon Lord created the distorted organ sound. He would send the organ to tube amp and then through regular speakers. This is undoubtedly where Jens and Jordan both got their influence to use distortion effects on their lead sounds too. These days most workstation keyboards have great multi-effect sections and lessen the need for external effects. But let’s forget about keyboards for a second and let me put on my producer hat. As a producer, when would I use a distortion pedal instead of an amp’s distortion? For me this depends on the music and band I’m working with. What kind of sound is the band going for? For example, if it was a black metal band, I could probably get the results I’m looking for quicker using pedals than I otherwise could on an amp. Would I ever use a distortion pedal on guitars instead of an amp on your average metal guitar recording? No probably not unless it was something the band was going for.