How To Dial In An Overdriven Guitar Tone

Regardless of your stance on the overdrive pedal vs amp debate, one thing is certain: overdriven guitar tones are some of the most common sounds in music. In some genres, they’re as basic as a little bit of breakup while others push them into full-on saturation and distortion. Overdriven guitars have been around for decades and their use in popular music isn’t stopping any time soon.

So naturally as a recording engineer or mixer, you might need to know a thing or two about how to dial in an overdriven guitar tone for your mix. Even if you’re not the one playing the guitar part, it’s going to be your responsibility at some point.

Let’s take a look at one of the most common examples: reamping a DI track.

In some cases, the recorded guitar part just doesn’t cut it. Whether due to poor microphone placement, lackluster gear, or a myriad of other issues, we sometimes need to start from square one using a DI signal. Assuming one has been recorded alongside the original part, you’re in luck – everything you need to take it from DI to mix-ready is right here in this guide.

Level Matching & Unity Gain

To start shaping your overdriven tone, you’ll want to start by matching your levels, just as you would with most other elements in a mix. Only this time, you’ll be matching levels between clean and overdriven parts. 

The idea here is to keep your overdriven guitars in the same ballpark as your cleans. The overdrive itself is going to give you a tonal boost and rarely requires additional volume to help it cut through more than any other track.

For pedal users, this concept is known as setting the pedal to “unity gain” where there’s no discernable volume increase when the pedal is engaged vs disengaged. This means you can stomp that pedal on and off as much as you want without pulling the listener’s attention away from the song because of inconsistent volume.

While setting pedals and driven amp tones to unity gain is a best practice, we’re fortunate in the digital audio realm that correcting this problem after the fact isn’t too difficult. Even a live-tracked guitar that wasn’t set up correctly can be fixed with some basic volume automation or compression assuming the signal hasn’t clipped. Catching it early on just saves you from fixing it in the mix later on.

Determine the Type & Amount

There are tons of different overdrives out there ranging from slight boosts to distortions and fuzzes. Each one has its own characteristic so choosing the right fit for your song is going to depend on your ear and the other instrumentation in the mix.

On the softer end of the spectrum are your boosts that do little more than push your signal a bit hotter into your amp. From there, you get overdrives that focus more on boosted mids and presence. These are the most common overdrives associated with a generic overdriven tone and are often stacked with other pedals to create a two-stage overdrive.

From there, you start to get into medium overdrives where the full signal starts to break up, not just the loudest parts. These pedals tend to get crunchier the harder they’re pushed but still remain relatively tight when notes are left to ring out.

On the deepest ends of the spectrum are the fuzzes, plexis, and high gain options that really start to scream. These overdrives tend to sound extremely distorted, even at their lowest settings.

All of these pedals have a range of tones available, but their purpose is the same: to push your signal harder into breakup. Find one that has the sound you like, then sweep the gain to see the range it has available. A great overdrive should hit at least a few of these categories for you with ease or do at least one of them extremely well to the point where it’s the perfect fit for your song. 

Your Pedal Doesn’t Have To Do All The Work

While overdrives came about because of the need to push guitars harder into breakup, they don’t need to be the only way you get there. Often, great overdriven tone is a combination of both the pedal and the amp working together to produce a rich, full sound. An overdriven tone that relies solely on the pedal with a clean amp setting is really missing the point in most cases.

If you’ve got a great sounding amp that might have a bit of crunch on its own, don’t be afraid to use that as the basis of your overdriven sound. The pedal can help push the signal a bit harder, but sometimes it’s not even needed. Just look at this example from Gene Wong using Toneforge Ben Bruce:

As you can see, the Gain knob in Gene’s session is already cranked up pretty high – the overdrive just gives it that little extra bite he was looking for to help it sit right where he wanted it in the mix.

Forge Your Tone 

Great guitar tone doesn’t happen overnight and even the best guitarists might not fit perfectly into a mix without a bit of massaging in the box. To help you get there quicker, we’ve developed Toneforge Bootcamp – the ultimate crash course in tone matching and exploration to help you get any guitar tone you can dream up.

Check it out here.