Signal Distortion

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Signal Distortion
Fields: Dynamic Systems and Other
Image Created By: Tim Patterson 2009

Signal Distortion

A tube amplifier built with the vacuum tubes intentionally exposed.

Basic Description

Electrical signals, be they analog or digital, can become distorted for multiple reasons. The distortion in this sense involves the deformation of an input signal's shape. This can occur in many ways, and cause the original signal to be altered drastically. In most cases distortion is an undesirable side effect, and many methods are used to avoid it. This page with mostly discuss audio distortion. Those who record and play music often strive to eliminate distortion because it can drastically alter the original sound, causing it to become "noisy" or "crunchy."

On the other hand, a lot of music utilizes distortion specifically for aesthetic reasons. The levels and types of distortion can be controlled and finely tuned to produce sounds predictably. Musicians and others who intentionally use distortion in this way are using it as a tool or an effect, and as such, there are many differences in opinion about what the right distortion is, and how to achieve it, for any particular case.

The electric guitar was one of the first musical instruments to have its electrical signal distorted intentionally for aesthetic reasons. Most electric guitar players today use various forms and amounts of distortion when playing. The amplifier is the main source distortion for the electric guitar player, and many varieties are available, allowing players to get different kinds of sound.

Why is it Interesting?

Signal distortion is a very common occurrence in multiple fields. Often it is treated as a problem to be avoided, and in these cases distortion needs to be understood so that it can be properly dealt with. In other cases such as music, controlled distortion as an effect is desirable and widespread. As a musician, it is important to know when and where distortion should be utilized or avoided, and how that can be accomplished. This is especially true when recording music.

Distortion Flash App

In this Flash application, you have control over two different kinds of input sound, a clean (non-distorted) guitar, and a sine wave. The controls are based on controls from real guitar amplifiers. The behaviors of these controls are (loosely) similar to their real world counterparts, and can give an idea about how distortion is controlled, what different amounts of distortion sound like, and what happens to the shape of wave forms when distorted (in this case by digital clipping).

The waveform at the bottom displays the current waveform of the sound, and the dotted line represents the threshold for maximum amplitude output. When the waveform is pushed beyond that boundary, it doesn't cross the dotted line, but rather is cut off at that line. The clipped data is lost. The 'PEAK' light will flash when the wave form is being clipped.

At maximum levels, the sounds in this app can become very loud. To avoid hurting your ears, set a relatively low computer volume before using the controls.

A More Mathematical Explanation



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