You Can Use An Old Tape Deck As A Distortion Pedal

Distorted guitars were a big part of the rock revolution last century; we try to forget about the roll. As a youth, [David Hilowitz] couldn’t afford a loud aggressive amp, a distortion pedal, or even a proper electric guitar. This experience ended up teaching him that you can use random old audio hardware as a distortion effect.

[David’s] guitar journey started when he found a classical guitar on a dumpster. He learned to play, but longed for the sound of a proper electric guitar. Family friends gifted him a solitary pickup, intending he build a guitar, but he simply duct-taped it to his steel-strung classical instead. The only thing he lacked was an amp. He made do with an old stereo system and a record pre-amp. With his his faux-electric guitar plugged into the microphone input, he was blessed with a rudimentary but pleasant distortion that filled his heart with joy.

[David] goes on to explain the concepts behind distorted guitar sounds, and how his home hi-fi was able to serve as a passable starter amp when he was young and couldn’t afford better. He then goes on the hunt for more old gear at a local Goodwill store, finding a neat old tape deck that similarly produced some nice warm distorted tones. In [David’s] experience, old hi-fi gear with microphone inputs can generally do a decent job in this role, with electric guitar pickups typically overloading the preamps which expect a lower-level signal. It’s different to what you’d get from a Big Muff or Boss DS-1, but it’s a neat sound nonetheless.

We’ve looked at distortion effects before, including rolling your own and putting it into production. Video after the break.

16 thoughts on “You Can Use An Old Tape Deck As A Distortion Pedal

  1. Inre: Goodwill
    Last year I bought a RadioShack 12 band equalizer at the local Goodwill.
    It didn’t cost much and it fits right in with my 1980s era stack of component stereo.

  2. My first guitar was a kids classical one I “electrified” by gluing a small speaker on its body. The speaker would work as microphone; it had low impedance and very dark sound but managed to overload a small diy amplifier (TAA611 based or something like that, it was in the late 70s). It sounded like crap, but gave me lots of fun nonetheless.
    I also would encourage people to experiment. The guitar sounds we all like most come from an era in which guitar amplifiers and distortion pedals were built using cheap parts, often spares for radio and TV sets, so at least with distortion you can obtain great sounds with cents. Do not fall for very expensive pedals, unless they have something really special; a functionally identical replica of the original Fuzz Face can be built with less than 10 bucks.

    I’ll throw here a few hints for experimenters and guitarists.

    (from someone who is not a guitarist:^)

    – The video barely touches asymmetric clipping, and the sound in there doesn’t give it justice. It can sound fantastic, try it with a circuit built for that purpose and you won’t regret.

    – Germanium transistors and diodes are crappy parts in almost every aspect compared to silicon, but they work great in distortion pedals especially because of all their limitations.
    Also, AC128 germanium transistors sound great in those circuits because they’re germanium, not because they’re AC128s; you don’t need to spend 20 times more because they were famously used in popular pedals; leave overpriced stuff to scalpers. Parts with different gain can be used w/o problem if you reduce or boost before the pedal accordingly. remember: we’re experimenters.

    – One of the best sounding guitar amplifiers I have is a amplified computer speaker taken from a pair my cousin gave me years ago. I eliminated one speaker, swapped the remaining one with a more powerful wide bandwidth one taken from a small subwoofer system satellite, rewired the box amplifier chip as bridged and that’s it. the goal was to “build” a lab amplifier from scrap parts to test stuff in general, not strictly guitar pedals, then I tried it with a pedal I was building and was shocked by how good it sounded with a electric guitar. The secret was its plastic crappy box that cut and boosted just the right frequencies along the spectrum.

    – Class D amps are infinitely superior to everything else, but remember that you don’t want a Class D amplifier to clip as it would sound dreadful; in order to use a class D amp for distorted guitar you have to distort the sound before it enters the final stage, not within it. Also remember: we don’t want HiFi! A guitar amplifier response along the spectrum is far from being flat, or it would sound like crap; if you build one you’ll have to add an equalizer network to obtain a certain curve, and also take into account the box and speaker.

    – You are not , so your sound will never be the same, no matter how much money you throw on gear. It’s not just about the skills; there are likely millions of great unknown guitarists more skilled than the most famous ones we could name, but each of the famous ones has their own touch, and each of them was miked in very different conditions. If you like a sound, get close enough and then focus on playing, don’t waste time and money trying to emulate someone else’s sound to perfection or you’ll miss a lot of fun along the way.

    – Keep your guitar in tune on all its scale; this is always important, but especially so when playing distorted notes. Badly tuned instruments are definitely *not* cool.

  3. This is awesome. Kieth Richards recorded jumpin Jack flash and street fighting man on acoustic guitar and ran it through a tape machine to give it tape distortion. No electric guitars on those songs. A very cool effect.

    1. Many integrated stereo systems were destroyed by me in that exact same fashion. Technics cassette decks with transport locked into record mode and on pause just spin the input gain and plugged into the both mic jacks!
      Bonus points to those who managed to manipulate both the record and playback heads and utilize the deck as an echoplex!

  4. Oh Wow I thought I was unique, but as time goes on to tell the story,,, not so much.
    For instance much of that initial distorted guitar tones mastered in the studio came not from their Vox amplifiers but with their guitars direct into the mixing boards and with the gain wide open and overdriving the audio.
    Another Interesting and unique setup was the gear in use by Chicago guitarist Terry Kath. He seemingly always insisted on setting up his own kludged together rig consisting of a Scott integrated Hi-Fi amplifier and several preamps cascaded together with corresponding mess of both balanced and unbalanced interconnecting cables and requiring adapters for 1/4 phono plugs and RCA Jacks. This tone is evident on their debut Tanglewood shows.
    As for myself,,, as a goofy insecure 12 or 13 year old, I had just earned my novice license, which was so uncool… My Elmer (mentor) was a starving college student. By financial necessity a die hard homebrewer. A characteristic and a way that was very much indoctrinated and instilled upon me… I had already amassed a decent junk pile of old used and dated electronic waste to salvage the parts used to build up on my radio projects…. As I entered JR High, I was awkward and insecure to say the least. I spent the summer earning my novice ticket before my Elmer headed back east to his next semester at Kent State… His younger brother had just entered highschool as I entered junior high school and played in a rock band. As school started up I learned that ham radio was not nearly as cool as being in a rock band and playing drums or electric guitar…. Chicks dig guys that were in a rock band!
    My parents thought they were shrewd. First there was no way they were going to allow a drum kit in their household. They did finally allowed me to spend my paper route money on the electric guitar that was featured on the worn out pages of the Sears catalog. Dad finally picked it up from the Sears warehouse downtown. He came home with the cheesy plywood body SG style of electric guitar BUT no amplifier. No kidding, an electric guitar without an amp?!? What kinda cruel joke? Meanwhile mom and dad must have been smiling inward as I spent all evening alone in my room learning and practicing power chords that first evening. The next day I ditched school. An easy thing to do during the mid seventies as we were all latched key kids with no supervision during the day.
    It didn’t take more than a couple of hours to kludge together and old Pair of EL.84 powered Lafayette stereo amplifier kit that I had dumpster dived from a neighbors trash earlier that summer. (Similar to a Heathkit, it was unfinished condition and appeared that someone bit off more than they could possible chew and gave up upon it. It was old tube technology and uncool by the mid 70s standards. This was chained up with a Panasonic 8 track tape player/recorder and the speakers from our old Magnavox console and I was almost there! Still not quite enough distortion,,,, the audio circuit from an old walkie talkie was just the thing to take it over the top with fuzz enough and distortion enough to put a Big Muff on treble boost to shame…
    Oh the neighborhood suffered for multiple hours of nonstop smoke on the water riffs and every variation of thereof including a improvised take on 25 or 6 to 4 ( remember Terry Kathy’s rig?) Years later I find myself R.O.T.F.L.M.A.O. !
    My sudden drop out from ham radio to becoming a truent stoner rock guitar bad boy helped me hone my game as a chick magnet , but cost me dearly . My grandfather disinherited me from his will, since I never upgraded my novice license and I lost out on receiving his beautifully complete full Collins S Line and other gear that consisted of the ultimate dream vintage station!
    Not many years later as a young adult did I again take to study and received my ham ticket. Ham radio and kludging together gear has brought me full circle where now at just pass midlife, I have once again got my hand into amps and I get paid a pretty penny building boutique tube gear, restore vintage gear and help artists find their tone! Like most boys my age,,, yeah I used to play guitar in high school….. glory days like an Al Bundy !!!

    1. SHOULD SAY,,,,, FOR instance much of that initial “BEATLES” distorted guitar tones mastered in the studio came not from their Vox amplifiers but with their guitars direct into the mixing boards and with the gain wide open and overdriving the audio.

  5. I bought my first electric guitar before I could aford an amp, so I used to plug it into the turntable input of my hifi amp. I plugged an old speaker from a tv into the headphone output. cranck up the volume and you get a fabulous fuzzy distortion.

  6. My first audio project was a distortion unit I made from a $10 Radio Shack audio amp kit and a 12″ RS speaker with a 100K linear taper pot for volume control ( kind of). I could unplug the speaker and run it straight into my Fender amp. Total distortion. All the time. I also had a 1960’s reel tape recorder with 1/4″ input jacks. When you plugged in the guitar, it totally overloaded the input, which was probably made for a crystal mike. The fun part was watching the input meter. It was a small horizontal tube that measured signal strength by going from dark to light. The guitar always pinned it wide open.

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