Overdrive is absolutely essential for many genres of music, especially rock, blues, and metal. Imagine Metallica, Nirvana, or SRV without an overdriven guitar sound- it just wouldn’t sound right! While distortion and overdrive are undoubtedly among the most popular guitar effects ever, they are also one of the hardest to get right. Many guitarists spend their entire lives chasing the tone they have in their head.
While the pedal vs amp for overdrive discussion will be had until the end of time, many players do prefer to use a stompbox distortion effect or a preamp pedal like the Carvin Audio VLD1 Legacy Drive for their dirty tones. When going this route, there are a few essential guidelines to follow when dialing in your sound. Many genres call for frequent switching between clean and dirty tones, in which case it is especially essential that you follow these five tips to keep your overall guitar sound cohesive.
- Set the pedal for unity gain. Have you ever switched on your distortion pedal for a big chorus, only to realize that your sound got lost in the mix or dropped in volume compared to your clean tone? This is because you did not set the level of your overdrive at unity gain, which, simply put, means that the signal level coming out of the pedal is the same as the one going in. Ideally, you want your guitar’s distorted sound to be the same volume as your clean tone, so turn up your pedal or preamp’s volume knob until it matches. Try to do this in a band context with the rest of your band members playing along with you. On your own, distorted sounds naturally seem louder than clean tones due to increased harmonic content, so it’s helpful to hear your tone in the overall mix. You may find that you may have to set your pedal’s overall level much higher than you think to reach unity gain with your clean tone.
- Use as little gain as possible. You would think that adding more gain would make your guitar sound more and more awesome, right? In some cases, it might, but generally speaking excessive gain can reduce the articulation and punch of your tone, especially in a band mix. A good practice to use when setting up your pedal is to set your pedal’s volume to a reasonable level, then turn up the gain until you get the desired level of overdrive. After this, you can adjust any onboard EQ (and the pedal’s volume level) accordingly. Rehearsal is the perfect place to go through this process, since what sounds good on its own may not work once your bass player or second guitarist is in the picture.
- Know your pedal before you bring it onstage. There are thousands of overdrive pedals on the market, and each and every pedal is different. Don’t buy a pedal and try to dial it in on the fly at the gig, without spending some time experimenting with it first. Like any other piece of equipment, it’s important to get familiar with its controls. And more importantly, it will be easier for you to tweak it on the fly, rather than trying to remember what each knob does at the gig. Familiarity with your gear, especially something as paramount as an overdrive pedal, is essential in a live setting when considering different venues and room acoustics.
- Try out suggested settings. Who knows your pedal better than the people who made it? Many manufacturers will include sample settings or setup ideas in the product documentation that provide a good starting point for a variety of sounds. While you do not have to abide by them, they are often a good point of reference in finding the sound you are after and understanding the capabilities of your new pedal.
- If you find a setting you like, save it. If, after following some of the tips above, you find a sound you like, remember your settings by taking a picture or making a mental note. If you want to go the extra mile, you can use a non-permanent marker to mark the proper settings or, if you don’t want to damage your pedal, use tape and draw the knob settings on there (this is a common practice with roadies).
Overdrive pedal users: have any tips for dialing in the sweet sustain? Let us know in the comments!