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If you want a distortion plug-in, you'll have plenty to choose from. We don't use analog tape any more, but there are analog tape plug-ins, with or without tape hiss. We do use Marshall amplifiers, when we get the chance, but a plug-in is so much more convenient.
Distortion was once considered a problem. Can you believe that? But modern digital recordings are so clean we have to have plug-ins to give us back the comforting, retro sound of the past.
But there are many kinds of distortion. Plug-ins will have to go a long way to give us the ability to emulate easily the vast range of audio artifacts of the various recording technologies.
So here is a short-list of distortions and artifacts that plug-in developers might consider giving their attention to...
Jitter - In digital audio, the clock that determines the sample rate, both on analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion, is never fully precise. On a minute scale, it speeds up and slows down, a bit like a mechanical clock with a wonky tick.
The audible manifestation is a harsh, grainy noise tending towards the high frequency end of the spectrum. Most people would say they don't like it, but if it were controllable in a jitter plug-in, who is to say what creative use it could be put to?
Glitch - Vinyl simulator plug-ins have been quite popular. Vinyl records suffer from clicks, surface noise and wow, among other things. Put through a vinyl simulator plug-in, a clean digital recording suddenly has the air of spurious 'authenticity'. So why not do the same with digital?
When digital audio systems decide not to work correctly, they do so with vigor. Vinyl clicks may be annoying - digital glitches can blow your speakers. But in a plug-in - why not? Sprinkling a few glitches throughout your track could give it an air of 1980s-ness; like the digital systems of old.
Alias - The sampling rate of a digital audio system must be at least twice the highest frequency to be captured. So audio frequencies above half the sampling rate have to be filtered out before analog-to-digital conversion. If the filter isn't perfect, or has drifted out of adjustment, then frequencies that are too high can get through. Since they cannot be properly encoded, they form 'alias' frequencies in the audio band that are musically unrelated to the signal.
If you wanted to hear aliasing, you would have difficulty these days. But in vintage digital equipment, particularly samplers, aliasing is not uncommon. Generally it doesn't sound too nice, but people used to think that about tube amplifier distortion once upon a time.
These are just three examples of distortions that could be emulated through plug-ins. There are many more, and not just in relation to digital audio.
And we wouldn't have to stick to just plug-ins...
What about a Jitter/Glitch/Alias stomp box for guitarists?