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"Gain" vs. "Distortion": a friendly plea for term accuracy

Discussion in 'Effects [BG]' started by Testing_123, May 17, 2011.

  1. Testing_123


    Jan 23, 2011
    WMass, USA
    I seem to be wearing my Captain Terminology Stickler shorts today.

    It seems some musicians (and product manufacturers) mistakenly refer to a pedal's "gain" when they are discussing "distortion", but they're technically not the same thing.

    Gain = signal amplification
    Distortion = signal waveform alteration

    Some effects pedals can provide tons of signal gain while imparting little to no distortion (e.g. a clean boost). Other pedals can heavily distort a signal even when the pedal's output level = input level (unity gain).

    Granted, some pedals have enough signal gain to cause whatever follows it to run out of headroom and create distortion, so the terms can be related, but they're not interchangeable.

    Why is this important? When we try to use words to articulate musical concepts (such as on TalkBass), meanings can often be vague or misconstrued. When there is room to be precise in our terminology, I think we ought to strive for that precision -- it helps everybody involved in the conversation.

    I have a few ideas about how this terminology confusion came to be somewhat common, but I'm curious what others can offer on this topic.

    As the great Jimmy James (NewsRadio) once said, "I find when I have a bee in my bonnet, it helps to take my hat off." I'll take my hat off now.

    Yours in terminological accuracy,

    Capt. Stickler
  2. Bassdirty


    Jul 23, 2010

    There should be a "sticky" of maybe a TB "dictionary" that has all kinds of words and meanings used improperly almost daily -here and abroad;)

    Especially when describing tone.:rollno:

  3. blastjv


    Jan 8, 2010
    Philly Area
    While you are correct, in this day and age it's most important to understand both the correct, technical meaning AND the meaning the words have come to have, even if technically incorrect (for example, obviously many pedals have a 'gain' knob which specifically controls the amount of distortion...I'm sure that's not news to anyone here) So, to only understand the 'correct' meaning would leave one lost in the 'real' world...

    Just wanting to be clear for the new kids...

  4. alexa.


    Jan 31, 2011
    In my consideration, the people who build the pedals are "guilty" of mislabeling the controls, or even their pedals. For instance, that distortion/fuzz pedal named ODB-3 :D

    Here's to going back to the "true" definition of words! Hip hip huzzah!

    (not like it matters anyway, I don't even look when I'm dialing, I just listen :ninja:)
  5. In this example, this control is a gain control. It controls the gain of the section that feeds the clipping circuit. For this reason it does directly involve the level of distortion, but it is not technically a distortion control. A true 'distortion' knob would only affect the method of signal alteration, not the amount of signal feeding the distortion circuit.

    Not that anyone cares, as long as they can figure out what the knob does for the pedal's sound.

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