It’s probably common knowledge that a significant number of tech people – electronics engineers/designers to computer programmers/software engineers – found their way into the electronics arena by way of an interest and/or passion for music. I would bet, at least five large ($0.05), that at least half of Electronic Design readers play, have played, or at least tried to play a musical instrument, most likely the electric guitar. I would even go so far as to bet another two big ones ($0.02) that at least one reader has smashed a guitar or three.
Assuming I’m correct, it is quite curious that you don’t see too many articles or product announcements geared towards music-electronics design. Oh, there is the rare event or so, such as Gibson’s high-tech, microprocessor-driven Firebird X guitar debut, but little, if any, in terms of design. Naturally, the literal design and building of an actual instrument would be out of place, i.e., how to select woods, cut parts, sculpt, paint, finish, etc. However, there is a wealth of opportunities out there for imaginative electronics designers.
One golden opportunity in the realm of guitar processing electronics is the distortion pedal, a.k.a, fuzz box and/or overdrive pedal. For those who don’t know, this device essentially takes a clean audio signal from an electric guitar and distorts it, anywhere from a mild clipping of the signal to a near perfect square wave. It can also amplify the input signal, acting like a volume booster.
Again for the uninitiated, one may ask why someone would want to distort clean signals. Well, simply put, guitar players crave this effect and are willing to spend millions of dollars each year in the quest for the nirvana of distortion pedals. If you peruse the pages of any of the popular guitar magazines – Guitar Player, Guitar World, and others – you will see numerous ads for these devices and even more numerous product reviews for emerging ones. These pubs also feature annual and biannual roundups of distortion pedals that hit the market each year. Roughly and conservatively estimated, at least 100 unique square-wave wranglers hit the streets each year. That’s more than cell phones, computers, iWhatevers, and most semiconductors.
More importantly to note, the companies that deliver these unique designs are no one-hit wonders. Their products do sell quite well. Some are large and have been around for a while and others are small and young and neither disappear overnight. For a very small sampling of current distortion-box offerings, just pay a quick visit to any music reatailer's website.
So what’s the big attraction to these sometimes expensive sound shapers? Hardcore guitar players religiously seek two goals: first to emulate the sounds, tonal attributes of the established players they admire and second and most importantly to create a personal signature sound of their own. And, obviously, these are goals that are never completely achieved.
Hey, you can’t question science, distortion is distortion. Why would anyone want it? Many reasons. First, these devices make the guitar sustain and sing like a violin or cello or saxophone. Second, there are many different ways to create distortion and each has a unique sonic quality. For example, simply delivering a pre-distorted signal to the power amp’s input will have a different quality and tone than if you were to overdrive the input, causing the actual power amp to distort. That’s just two ways to create guitar distortion and there are endless approaches to both of those methods. Another point, two different guitarists can use the same device and produce totally different, completely divergent results, and all at the same settings.
Surely this is a fad, and like most trends will fade away? Well, it certainly has been accelerating since someone recorded the sound of a guitar being played through a speaker with a rip in the cone, circa 1959. At the very least, future generations of guitar players will be more than just eager to try any new distortion-type device.
This eternal quest for the big distortion (The Big D) can be rationalized via two easy-to-realize phenomena: physiological decay and psycho-acoustical dismay. On the physiological side, human hearing naturally diminishes, particularly in the higher frequency spectrum, over time. Overall hearing ability is diminished by high sound-pressure levels and damaged by various types of distortion. High volumes and distortion are no strangers to performing musicians in general. Couple that with the damage being done by ear buds operating at their maximum SPL and you have hearing in a constant evolution of decay. Therefore, every six months to a year, those guitarists are getting tired of the sound of their distortion devices because they don’t sound the same as when they first got them. They actually do sound just as good, but the players just can’t hear it as well anymore. Therefore, it’s off to the Internet or the local music store to TRY & BUY what’s new.
On the psycho-acoustical end, these sound shaping devices may sound great in a studio but not on stage, and vice versa, or they become finicky in every location and every situation. In essence, some days they sound good and some days they sound like number two. And the quest begins again.
So exactly what does this mean to the electronics designer? Look at it this way, distortion pedals are and will be in high demand for many years to come and beyond. If you get laid off or if you just want to make a lot of extra money, you can design a really cool and/or bizarre distortion pedal. You never know, you may just become the next great distortionist. I’d bet 10 large on that one.