I have to admit it: I never really liked the idea of plugging a synth into a top guitar distortion pedal. Lots of folks have done it in varying contexts. But every time I busted out the Boss Super Overdrive that’s been with me since 1983, something didn’t feel right. But then I heard a couple of records that turned me around. First I heard Orgy’s searing cover of the New Order classic, “Blue Monday.” Not too adventurous as cover versions go, but it had this great distorted bass guitar/synth/I-don’t-what-it-is that sure sounded mean.
Then I discovered the band Deadsy, who used a similar sound, stripped and naked, all over their debut disc, Commencement. This was really killing me. Both Orgy and Deadsy were primarily produced and recorded at the same studio; these guys all seemed to know each other. To cut a long story short, I befriended one the guitarists in Deadsy, and I had my answer. The sound I was hearing wasn’t a guitar or bass, but in fact a Roland JP-8080 synthpatched into a Boss Hyperfuzz pedal. Actually, two of ’em, for stereo. My friend Carlton was controlling all this with a Z-Tar MIDI controller for a sort of futuristic guitar vibe, which I later experienced myself when I filled in on a handful of live shows.
Since then I’ve made a practice of using this big, growling tone in a number of production styles. What’s great is that sounds sort of like power chords, but it’s deeper, darker, and fuzzier, so it’s nice for filling in the space between bass and electric guitar. Of course there are a ton of ways to distort a synth, but I’ve found some really neat ones, and some secrets along the way that I’ll share. Aren’t you lucky?
Let’s make the synth patch. This is simple, and as long as you’ve got a virtual synth with two oscillators, just about anything will do the job. Select sawtooth waveforms on both oscillators. We’ll make the first oscillator the “root” note, and then set the interval on the second oscillator a perfect fifth up; this is equivalent to seven half-steps up. The filter should be the standard lowpass variety. Cutoff frequency will need to be really low, so the distortion doesn’t sound like a total buzz saw, but it’s best to play with the setting once you set up the distortion. The same goes for the resonance setting. We don’t want any filter envelope, so make sure the filter envelope intensity is zeroed out. The amplitude envelope should be a straight on-off affair; attack at zero, decay at zero, sustain full up and release almost zero.
Now we have a relatively dull one-finger power chord patch. Here’s where you’ll want to plug this guy into a distortiondevice. Now, the fuzzbox of choice can make all the difference between blah and blazam, so choose your weapon carefully, rock soldier. What I’ve found is that the best sounding fuzzboxes usually don’t live inside a computer. And the more extreme, the better. Overdrive or tube screamer-type stomp boxes are usually intended for guitarists to beef up their tone a bit when plugging into an already distorted guitar amp–not what we’re after here. Fuzz boxes aren’t meant to preserve the natural tone of the $4,000 Les Paul you just got, they’re meant to destroy it. The aforementioned Boss Hyperfuzz is such a device, and it sounds great for power chord synth mayhem. I’ve found most octave-fuzz devices sound really awesome in this setting. The venerable ProCo Rat makes a neat synthdistorter too. And my secret weapon: the Danelectro French Toast octave-fuzz. Super cheap, super noisy. Sounds amazing with the octave switch on!
When using stomp boxes, keep in mind that their inputs are designed for electric guitars, which have meager output, so turn things down real quiet. Remember to experiment with the synth’s filter cutoff and resonance controls; you’ll be amazed at how dark the filter can get and still achieve great fuzz tones. Another neat trick: Plug the fuzzbox into a real amp or an amp simulator. No crazy gain settings; use a moderate crunch, such as on Fender Twin or Bassman models. And finally, try some stereo chorusing or doubling to widen up your wall of fuzz; always at the end of the chain; chorus plugged into distortion is bad ugly, not good ugly. Until next month, rattle those fillings with the rawk!