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Distortion Masterclass for Ableton Suite: Part 1

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Read Time: 6 min

About Distortion

Distortion is the modification of an audio signal. The modification changes the waveform of audio. People usually avoid distortion, but in some cases it may be desirable. Musicians and mixing engineers use distortion as a musical effects, especially for guitars.

Different distortions have varying audibility levels. You can also define distortion as information either lost or added relative to the original signal.

Distorted WaveformDistorted WaveformDistorted Waveform
Waveform before and after heavy distortion
"Harmonics are probably one of the most important aspects of music—another word for them is distortion. The human ear loves to hear overtones, and the human voice can create complex harmonics."
— SOS UK, Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: David Pensado

Main Categories of Distortion

  • Linear—the change of the output signal is proportional to the input
  • Nonlinear—the change of the output signal is not proportional to the input

Sub Categories of Distortion

  • Amplitude Distortion—happens when the output amplitude is not a linear function of the input amplitude
  • Harmonic Distortion—adds overtones that are whole number multiples of a sound wave's frequencies
  • Frequency Response Distortion—happens when different frequencies are amplified by different amounts in a filter
  • Phase Distortion—the input signals are not amplified with the same phase shift, hence making some parts of the output signal out of phase with the rest of the output

Distortion Devices in Ableton

Fortunately Ableton have a number of excellent plugins for modifying the sound.

My favourites are Saturator and Overdrive. Saturator can be very complex and detailed in Waveshaping algorithm.


Ableton SaturatorAbleton SaturatorAbleton Saturator
The most versatile distortion unit in Ableton

Saturator is a versatile waveshaper effect. It can add bite, punch or warmth to the sound from soft richening to wild chaos.

The Saturator can be used in simple and complex ways. The mode depends on the selected algorithm.


Ableton OverdriveAbleton OverdriveAbleton Overdrive
Simple and hard, this is Overdrive

Overdrive is a distortion effect that is similar to classic guitar pedals used by guitarists.


Ableton ReduxAbleton ReduxAbleton Redux
Redux is excellent for bit reduction and downsampling

This effect mimics the low-resolution sound quality of older computer based systems like Ensoniq Mirage, Fairlight CMI or the Commodore-64.

Dynamic Tube

Ableton Dynamic TubeAbleton Dynamic TubeAbleton Dynamic Tube
Dynamic Tube is great for tube saturation and coloration

This effect applies tube saturation. It has an envelope follower for making dynamic tonal variations related to the signal.

Three tube models, A, B and C, provide a range of distortion characteristics known from real amplifier tubes.


Ableton AmpAbleton AmpAbleton Amp
Amp can give us many colors of amp distortion

This effect that emulates the sound and character of seven classic guitar amplifiers. Amp uses physical modelling technology.



I enhanced the kick to be louder and fatter. The soft sine curve is a gentle tool for this.

Saturator: curve type soft sine, drive 7 dB, freq 1 kHz, base 0, width 30%, depth 10, output -4.5 dB, dry wet 100%

Kick before

Kick After

I made the kick louder and fatter with Saturator


With the medium curve I distorted the peaks of the conga, so when the loudness is at maximum it overdrives the instrument.

Saturator: curve type medium, drive 0 dB, freq 1 kHz, base 8, width 80%, depth 8, output -5 dB, dry wet 100%

Conga before

Conga after


I made the tops heavier and more dense with the waveshaper. There are a lot of settings for this and I got there with experimentation.

Saturator: curve type waveshaper, drive 0 dB, freq 1 kHz, base 0, width 30%, depth 0, output 0 dB, dry wet 50%, drive 89%, curve 50%, depth 31%, lin 25%, damp 0, period 50%

Tops before

Tops after

I added heavier waveshaping to the Tops loop


This sound originally is a sine wave, but with saturator I made it very triangle wave like. I further colored the sound with a mid range EQ boost.

Saturator: curve type hard, drive 0 dB, freq 313 Hz, base 6.8, width 30%, depth 0, output -4.5 dB, dry wet 100%

EQ Three: low 0 dB, mid 3 dB, high 0 db

Bass1 before

Bass1 after


This is a higher bass sound using the Collision instrument. With overdrive I made it like a lead synth sound and coloured with a bit of EQ cut in the mids.

Overdrive: default settings with drive 63%, tone 51%, dynamics 27%, dry wet 29%

EQ Three: low 0 dB, mid -1.94 dB, high 0 dB

Tbass before

Tbass after

This Overdrive made the track to sound a bit like a synth


I further modified to reach a more metallic synth sound. It cuts through the frequency spectrum more. I enhanced the sound with more mids and highs and cut the lows with EQ.

Overdrive: default settings with smaller bandwidth, drive 80%, tone 67%, dynamics 34%, dry wet 40%

EQ Three: low -2 dB, mid 1.5 dB, high 2 dB

Tbass2 before

Tbass2 after


In this case I slightly coloured and enhanced the basic guitar tone. I enhanced the mids with a 3 dB boost with EQ.

Saturator: curve type medium, drive 2.2 dB, freq 1 kHz, base 19, width 36%, depth -6, output -2 dB, dry wet 100%

EQ Three: low 0 dB, mid 3 dB, high 0 db

Guitar1 before

Guitar1 after

I colored the Guitar1 track lightly with Saturator


I modified the guitar sound to be thinner and slightly distorted. I cut the lows and boosted the top end with EQ.

Saturator: curve type hard, drive 0 dB, freq 425 Hz, base 0, width 50%, depth 15, output -6 dB, dry wet 100%

EQ Three: low -6.3 dB, mid 0 dB, high +3 dB

Guitar2 before

Guitar2 after


This distortion reminds me of a rock sound. It got more texture and movement in the mid range. I further colored the sound with EQ.

Saturator: curve type waveshaper, drive 0 dB, freq 1 kHz, base 3.4, width 30%, depth 4.1, output -5 dB, dry wet 87%, drive 100%, curve 25.8%, depth 99%, lin 50%, damp 0, period 39.8%

EQ Three: low 4 dB, mid -2 dB, high +3 dB

Guitar3 before

Guitar3 after

I made this Guitar3 track to sound like a powerful rock lead part


In this tutorial I introduced you to distortion and using it in Ableton Live and Ableton Suite. I showed you examples on how to set parameters, and what to expect on certain instrument types. 

In the next part of the tutorial series, I'll show you more examples and effects.

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