Overdrive and distortion are commonly used effects in today’s music. Although they were first used in electric guitars, violin players have often good fun with these effects.
How overdrive changes your violin sound
In order to understand what overdrive does, you have to understand something about the nature of sound.
A violin sound is rather smooth: there are not so many sudden changes in tone compared to for example non-bowed instruments.
The sine wave is the purest tone in sound, consisting of a single frequency. Its frequency is measured in Hz (Hertz).
For example, in music, a sine wave that has a frequency of 440Hz represents the standard fundamental for musical tuning.
Overdrive is what happens if you take this sine wave and clip its extremities. The result is a more complex sound which adds partials and harmonics to the original fundamental.
Of course, a violin sound is much more complex than the simple sine wave, but the effect of overdrive is comparable: it adds extra ‘complexities’ to the pure tone, resulting in some kind of ‘dirty’ sound.
Distortion: overdrive’s big brother
Distortion is reached when the audio circuit is pushed beyond its limits. This is also called hard clipping and is based on the same principles as in the case of overdrive.
Distortion is largely comparable to overdrive, but it is more extreme. If you add distortion to a sine wave, you will get an almost rectangular wave, compared to the more delicate ‘clipping’ of overdrive.
Control your overdrive sound
Amplifying the signal (as in the case of distortion) is called adding more gain. Gain is defined as an overall boost of the signal without any tonal changes and it is expressed in decibels (dB).
Overdrive results in a smooth, slightly distorted sound, very different from distortion which makes the sound as intense as it can get.
Knowing how to control it is important if you want to get great results with these effects on an electric violin.
Good distortion gives a rough, complex sound while also keeping it smooth and clean. Bad distortion will result in a very strident sound.
The best way to get a really good distortion is by using tube amplifiers. You may be able to achieve a rather satisfying distorted sound using solid state circuits, but these are not really recommended. Obviously this all depends on the sound you are looking for.
Knowing what overdrive and distortion are does not mean you can predict what the instrument would sound like if you were to use a distortion/overdrive pedal.
The only way to make a wise choice in using effects for your violins is to experiment with different sounds.