You might not have heard of bitcrushing before… But you might have seen words like “downsampling” or “bit reduction”.
In a nutshell, bitcrushing reduces the quality of an audio sample by lowering its resolution and/or sample rate. This adds distortion, grit, or warmth to your sound depending on the settings.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about bitcrushing, including:
- The basic parameters you’ll find on any bitcrusher (and what they do)
- How to use bitcrushing creatively (so
- Some bitcrusher plugin options to try out
Let’s go! 👇
If you haven’t yet, make sure to take a look at our other guides on effects: Reverb, Delay, Chorus, Flanging, and Phasing.
What is Bitcrushing? 🤔
Bitcrushing is “an audio effect that produces distortion by reducing the resolution or bandwidth of digital audio data”.
Simply put, this means you are deliberately lowering the audio quality of a signal for creative purposes.
But why would you want to lower the quality of a sound?!
It’s simple – reducing the quality of a sound can add distortion, grit, and edginess to sound.
Entire genres such as Lofi Hip-Hop (which stands for “Low Fidelity”) are built around this concept.
Technology and sound quality are constantly improving. This means low-res sounds can evoke a retro and even nostalgic feeling.
For now, let’s take a look under the hood at how bitcrushing works.
A Quick Physics Lesson
Before diving deeper into bitcrushing, it’s worth doing a refresher on digital vs. analog:
An analog signal is a continuous waveform that changes smoothly over time. This means that within a given range, there are an infinite number of values the signal can take.
And on the other hand…
A digital signal on the other hand is discrete: it can only have a limited number of values.
Imagine a perfect sine wave that varies between -10 and +10 over a period of 5 seconds:
Now imagine there is only a finite number of values we can pick from to draw this sine wave: 10, 5, 0, -5, and -10.
Our sine wave would now look a bit like this:
What we’ve done here is convert a signal from analog to digital.
The more values you can pick from, the closer you’ll get to the smooth, original signal.
Similarly, the more often you pick a value, the closer you’ll also get to the original signal.
This is what bitcrushing essentially does: lowering the sample rate and the resolution to alter the sound.
Because it’s also at the loudest point for longer, it also has a similar effect to compression or limiting.
Now let’s look now at how it works inside your DAW!
The Parameters of a Bitcrusher
All bitcrusher plugins will have at least two components: sample-rate reduction and resolution reduction.
The sample-rate reduction might be called “Rate Crush”, “Downsampling” or simply “Rate” depending on the plugin…
But they all do the same thing:
Lower the number of samples used to approximate the original signal.
In the sine wave example above, we took 25 values (or samples) over a 5-second period. This means we took 5 samples per second or a sample rate of 5 Hz.
Modern DAWs typically work at a sample rate of 44.1 kHz (i.e. 44,100 samples per second). When you “downsample”, you are simply taking fewer samples per second.
This results in a lower-quality sound:
Resolution reduction on the other hand might be called “depth”, “bit depth”, “bits” or “bit crush” – again, depending on the plugin.
Without getting too technical, reducing the bit depth will essentially limit the available values to pick from.
In our sine wave example, we could only pick from 5 values: 10, 5, 0, -5, and -10.
This adds noise and fuzziness to your sound:
Now that you know how a bitcrushing plugin works, let’s look at some practical examples!
How to Use Bitcrushing Creatively? 🎛
As always, there are a million ways you can use effects.
But here are few a ideas to get you started with bitcrushing right now.
Get that LoFi sound 😎
Bitcrushing is an essential part of the LoFi sound. You can apply it to virtually anything: keys, drums, and even vocals!
Here’s another example with some bitcrushing on the vocals:
Notice that in both cases, I applied some low-pass filtering after the bitcrushing. Bitcrushing can create a lot of artifacts in the higher frequencies, so low-passing will smoothen out your sound.
Create cool transitions
Bitcrushing can also be an effective way to transition from one section of your song to the next.
For this, you will want to use some automation to gently increase the bit and rate-crush:
Increasing the bitcrush over an extended period of time is also a great way to create tension. You can then release that tension by suddenly turning off the bitcrushing:
Layer up to beef up your sound
Bitcrushing is quite a harsh effect when used on its own. This is why my preferred method is to use bitcrushing as a parallel effect.
What I will do is keep the original signal intact, and layer up a copy that I will heavily bitcrush.
This allows me to heavily distort the original signal, and then gently blend it in to create some thickness.
Check out these examples to hear it in action:
Or here, where I have layered up the choir vocal with a bitcrushed copy:
As you can see, it’s a powerful tool to add grit to any sound.
But maybe you’re not sure which bitcrushing tool you’d like to commit to…
So let’s take a look at some of the best plugins out there.
The Best Bitcrushing Plugin Choices (All Free!) 🔌
Before I leave you, let’s go over some of the best plugins out there to play with bitcrushing.
I usually cover both free and paid options…
But for once, I thought I would stick to only free plugins, given that there are so many out there!
Fruity Squeeze (FL Studio stock – Free)
FL’s Fruity Squeeze is a bit-reducing, distortion, and filtering stock plugin.
I like to use the “Squarize” amount to reduce the bit-depth of your audio. This will make your output more gritty and “squary”.
Distructor (FL Studio stock – Free)
As you can see, Distructor is not a dedicated bitcrushing unit. However, under the Distortion section, you will find a “Crusher” setting:
Increasing the “Rate Crush” will reduce the sampling frequency, adding “aliasing” noises.
Increasing the “Bit Crush” will reduce the bit depth, adding a grainy quality to the sound.
Want to find out which plugins come with FL Studio? Check out our guide here.
Ableton Live Redux (Ableton Live stock – Free)
Redux is Ableton Live’s stock bitcrushing unit. And to be honest, it makes me jealous that I don’t work with Ableton.
You have your sample rate reduction under “Rate” and your bit depth reduction under “Bits”.
You also get 2 other cool features: Jitter and Shape. “Jitter” will add some randomization to the downsampling process. This lets you get even more variations in the resulting sound.
“Shape” adds some… well it’s hard to explain in words! Have a listen for yourself:
And I haven’t even covered the filter section which works both in ‘pre’ and ‘post’ mode.
So if you’re in need of a more gritty, analog sound, make Redux your go-to!
Looking for an in-depth look at how to use Redux? Check out our YouTube below from Aden!
TAL BitCrusher (Free)
This one is a handy little bitcrushing unit when you need to add some noise to your sound.
Beyond your basic Bit Depth and Sample Rate knobs, you also have Noise control. This allows you to add some extra fuzziness to your loops:
The Sample rate knob allows you to get pretty crazy too, which can work great to build tension:
dBlue Crusher (Free)
Another nifty little plugin to have in your collection. I find that Crusher works best when I want to create really weird, glitchy effects.
Download Now (inside plugins pack)
Xfer DeltaModulator (Free)
Finally, last on our list is DeltaModulator, by the makers of Serum:
One thing I love about this one is the way in which the Bits knob combines a sort of low-pass filter. Check it out:
This example works really for turnarounds and breakdowns.
That’s it for this guide!
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of all things bitcrushing, and feel inspired to create some amazing sounds!
Did I miss out on anything? Let me know at [email protected].