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Overdrive vs Distortion – What’s the Difference?

Overdrive and distortion are words that are frequently used interchangeably. Lack of knowledge of each concept’s finer points may be the cause of this misconception. Even manufacturers may struggle to clearly distinguish between the two drive effects. Fortunately, when explaining guitar tone, clarity results in understanding. We’ll break down the key distinctions between overdrive and distortion for guitarists in this fast introduction.

The additional harmonic content that is added to the signal makes the signal louder and more forceful, which is why distorted guitar sounds so amazing. Technically speaking, because the waveforms are clipped, the initial distortion—caused by vacuum tubes running hot until they saturate—is a type of soft limiting.

A scientist or engineer would likely classify any modification of the signal as technically being “distortion” – the names we use are more about the timbre that results from manipulating the waveform. Despite the fact that as guitarists we distinguish between amp distortion or overdrive, and then fuzz pedals, distortion pedals, and overdrive pedals. The fact that distortion and overdrive pedals are essentially miniature amplifier circuits is what unites them. They simply vary in terms of how much volume they add and whether or not they use soft or firm clipping.

What is overdrive?

Our straightforward definition of an overdrive is a pedal that enhances a signal while softly clipping it. Others, on the other hand, simply refer to an overdrive pedal as any pedal that attempts to replicate the sound of a tube amplifier that has been pushed to saturation pedal. This is typically accomplished by increasing the input gain past the point at which clipping will happen, just like with a tube amp.

Contrary to a tube amp, however, overdrives frequently use extremely clean op-amps, therefore a threshold must be imposed artificially. This threshold is typically implemented using diodes in the op-feedback amp’s loop. This results in mild clipping, which is widely regarded as the most “amp-like” technique to clip a guitar signal.

Ironically, the Ibanez Tube Screamer, a pedal that, when turned up, doesn’t sound all that much like a tube amp, is the standard for overdrive. Instead, its characteristic tone is typically found in front of a tube amp with the gain of the pedal rolled back and the volume pushed up.

In reality, the pedal is driving the tube amp into saturation while adding its own EQ, a noticeable “mid bump.” It follows that some of the praise for the little Tube Screamer may be a little out of place because the amp’s saturation is typically fuller and more pleasant. If your amp is also top-notch, there’s a strong likelihood that any boost will sound great if it has enough gain and is giving your amp enough of a kick. Another crucial element to remember is that overdrives typically use soft clipping, making it easier to use them as boost pedals with the gain reduced than strong clipping distortions, as we will see.

Why choose overdrive?

An overdrive is usually a smart choice if you already enjoy the sound of your tube amp but simply want a little bit more, whether it’s more saturation, a richer tone, or greater perceived loudness.

Since an overdrive is really an amplifier circuit, as we’ve already explained, the pedal’s main effect is often to boost your guitar signal before it hits your amp’s preamp hard. Typically, the “level” control is responsible for this. Overdrives typically have a lot of volume available but less clipping than a distortion.

What is distortion?

For the purposes of this discussion, we will define distortion as any pedal that produces its clipping by a forceful clipping motion. This typically produces a sound that is significantly more saturated, square-wave, and distorted.

Hard clipping occurs when signal is selectively passed to ground using diodes, typically after the primary amplification stages and before any output buffer. Depending on how the utilized diodes are arranged, this can be done symmetrically or asymmetrically, much like with soft clipping.

As a result, distortion pedals are much more of a blunt instrument than an overdrive and likely to have a major impact on your tone. A distortion pedal’s tone is one you should make sure you’re happy with the timbre of because that’s what you’ve got to work with, unlike an overdrive which may likely respond differently to different amps.

Why choose distortion?

Distortion might be a blessing if your amplifier is a single-channel model. The saturated high-gain tones you require can be achieved by turning the amp up loud and clean while relying on a good distortion.

Overdrives have a modest gain and rely on a tube amp saturation to produce sounds with an extremely high gain. As a result, distortion is a viable option if you want high gain without a tube amp.

Finally, since overdrives work best with tube amplifiers, we’ve discovered that their drive can sound a little flat or lacking with solid-state amplifiers. As a result, we’ve tended to use pedals like the ProCo RAT with the drive turned down as an overdrive with solid-state amplifiers rather than a “true” drive pedal.