Master the art of loud and clear mixes with our guide on clipper plugins. Use a clipper plugin to boost loudness, tame transients, and create fat 808s.

Have you ever wondered how to create ultra-loud mixes that still maintain their clarity? If you have, you're not alone. Producers spend years trying to figure out the secret to loud mixes. The reality is that this comes down to a combination of basic mixing techniques like setting appropriate track levels, using effective sound selection, and maximizing loudness using serial/parallel compression. However, you can further boost the loudness of your mixes while maintaining clarity using a clipper plugin. In this guide, we'll explore everything you need to know about clippers and six ways to use a clipper plugin in your mix.

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What Does a Clipper Plugin Do?

A clipper is an audio processing tool that truncates the peaks of a waveform. When the input signal breaches a predetermined threshold, the clipper "clips" or reduces the level of transients; this ensures that the output signal remains within a defined amplitude range.

The Brainworx bx_clipper is a clipper plugin that allows you to maximize the loudness of masters while avoiding the pumping effects associated with limiters. It also simplifies the process of mixing instrument buses, allowing you to tame transients without needing to rebalance group levels. Finally, it delivers unique features like Ambience mode that you can use to create gated drum synth effects. All of these mixing techniques are demonstrated in the following video.

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Hard Clipping vs. Soft Clipping

There are two types of clipping: hard clipping and soft clipping. When a signal is hard clipped, transients in the waveform are abruptly shaved down when they breach the threshold level. In comparison, there's a smooth transition between no clipping and hard clipping in a signal that's been soft clipped.

What Is a Soft Clipper Plugin?

A soft clipper plugin is a specific type of clipper that rounds off the peaks of an audio signal rather than abruptly truncating them. This results in analog-style clipping that sounds much smoother than hard digital clipping. Soft clippers are often used to add subtle saturation and warmth to a mix, making them ideal for musical applications.

The following video demonstrates bx_clipper — a soft clipper plugin with hard clipping options — applied to a variety of sound sources. It can deliver a range of hard to soft clipping effects depending on the settings used.

Why Should You Use a Clipper Plugin?

Digital clipping that occurs within your DAW typically takes the form of hard clipping. For example, if the meter on your stereo bus is constantly peaking above 0 dB, it will lead to an abrasive form of hard clipping that rarely sounds desirable.

While it's common to clip mixes to increase loudness, overdriving the level of your stereo bus is not the most ideal way of doing this. The first issue is that the clipping you hear when you engage playback in your DAW may not sound like the clipping applied when you render your audio file. Second, failing to provide your mix with sufficient headroom can result in additional distortion when you upload your mix to streaming services.

A Clipper Plugin Delivers Consistency

To elaborate on the first issue, most DAWs process audio in a 32-bit floating-point environment. This means that if an audio signal looks like it's clipping on the meters in your DAW, the information is not actually lost.

For example, you can export an audio signal that looks like it’s clipping as a 32-bit file and reimport it into your DAW. By lowering the level of the signal, it's possible to recover the seemingly lost audio content and eliminate distortion. In comparison, if you were to render a 24-bit or 16-bit file, you would not be able to recover the lost information.

Audio leaving your DAW is in a 32-bit format when you engage playback, but it's converted into 24-bit when it runs through the D/A converter in your audio interface. The important thing to note is that in this situation, clipping is applied by the D/A converter in your audio interface, not within your DAW.

Clipping is applied during the rendering processing when you render a 24-bit or 16-bit audio file from your DAW. The issue is that the clipping applied during the rendering processing can sound different than the clipping applied by your D/A converter. There's no guarantee that the version of the song you hear during playback will sound the same as the version of the song that you render.

Using a clipper plugin allows you to clip signals within your DAW, removing the discrepancy between playback clipping and rendered clipping. What you hear is what you get.

Clipper Plugins Provide Control

An advanced clipper plugin, like bx_clipper, provides plenty of controls that allow you to shape the clipping applied to your mixes. It allows you to sculpt the tone of the processing applied, independently affect the mid-side channels, and provide your mix with headroom.

bx_clipper has knee controls that allow you to apply a range of hard-to-soft clipping effects to your signal, reducing harshness while increasing loudness. Some producers who strictly work in the box are under the impression that "clipping is bad," which is understandable if they’re only familiar with the harsh sound of digital clipping. However, soft analog-style clipping can sound quite desirable. With a versatile clipper plugin at your disposal, you can reap the tonal and loudness benefits of clipping your audio without the harshness.

An image of the bx_clipper's Knee controls

bx_clipper Knee controls.

There’s a dual-mono and M/S operation mode in bx_clipper. These modes offer enhanced stereo control, allowing you to independently process the left-right and mid-side channels. If you're working with an aggressive mix, try adding some grit to the side channel with Diode mode while keeping the center channel rich and focused using FET mode. For genres like metal, drum and bass, and dubstep, this technique can lead to ultra-loud and aggressive masters.

An image of an ultra-loud preset of the bx_clipper

Ultra-loud bx_clipper preset.

bx_clipper also includes an Output knob that allows you to provide your mix with headroom; this is essential when mastering your music for streaming services. Generally, 3 dB of headroom is required when uploading loud songs; this prevents distortion from occurring when your song is transcoded.

What Is True Peak Clipping?

A digital audio waveform is composed of a series of evenly spaced amplitude values over time, visually depicted as a series of dots or steps when you zoom into a waveform in your DAW. These samples are converted into a continuous analog waveform when the signal passes through the D/A converter in your audio interface.

D/A conversion can lead to the analog waveform containing peaks that exceed the highest amplitude value found within the digital waveform. As a result, a signal that does not appear to be clipping on the meters in your DAW might get clipped by your D/A converter.

An image of an intersample peak

An intersample peak.

To avoid this issue, you’ll want to use a true peak limiter like Brainworx bx_limiter True Peak to attenuate intersample peaks. bx_limiter True Peak predicts intersample peaks that will occur during D/A conversion and applies gain reduction accordingly, preventing hardware clipping from occurring.

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Since bx_limiter is based on an analog circuit, it does not include built-in true peak protection. If bx_limiter is the last plugin in your chain, you’ll want to follow it up with a true peak meter to ensure that you provide your mix with sufficient headroom. ADPTR AUDIO’s Streamliner contains a true peak meter and allows you to audition your mix through various streaming codecs, making it an essential mastering plugin.

The Difference Between Clipping and Limiting

Both clippers and limiters prevent signals from exceeding a set threshold, but they differ in how they process audio. Clippers abruptly shave down transients, resulting in a more saturated sound. On the other hand, limiters apply a broader and less destructive form of gain reduction, aiming to provide clarity and transparency.

There's a misconception that a limiter can act like a clipper by setting a fast attack and release time. Limiter plugins do not apply gain reduction quickly enough to be considered clippers; it doesn’t matter which settings you use.

A hard clipper attenuates peaks on a sample-by-sample basis, avoiding the pumping effects that a limiter may introduce. The main pitfall of a hard clipper is that it can lead to harsh distortion, which you may not want. However, bx_clipper allows you to smooth the transition between no clipping and hard clipping, leading to warm soft clipping.

To apply soft clipping to your mix, turn up bx_clipper's Knee control. From there, it's possible to refine the processing applied by choosing between Diode mode and FET mode. Diode mode uses a narrow knee best for aggressive material, while FET mode uses a much wider knee suitable for more delicate applications.

6 Ways to Use a Clipper Plugin When Mixing

There are plenty of ways to use a clipper plugin within your mix. We’ll explore some of the most common mixing techniques that implement a clipper. These tips cover everything from creative clipper effects to mastering applications.

1. Increase the Loudness of Your Mixes

A clipper plugin is often used in combination with a limiter to enhance loudness. Shaving down the peaks of a waveform using a clipper prior to limiting the signal allows the limiter to behave more efficiently. This can help you avoid pumping effects associated with heavily limiting a signal, allowing you to turn up the loudness of songs while maintaining clarity.

The following video demonstrates how to apply soft clipping to a mix using bx_clipper. You'll see that the Output level (1.7 dB) is set to the inverse value of the Ceiling (-1.7 dB); this eliminates the headroom introduced by the plugin. If you're mastering your music for streaming services and bx_clipper is the last plugin in your chain, you'll want to leave yourself with some headroom. However, this is unnecessary if you plan to drive the signal into a limiter afterward.

2. Make Mixing Instrument Groups Easier

When it comes to mixing instrument buses, bx_clipper by Brainworx is a game-changer. One of the most challenging aspects of mixing is maintaining a balanced level across various instruments contained within a group. When the instruments within a group sum together, the combined waveforms can result in resonance that spikes the meter on your instrument bus.

You can apply a limiter to each one of your buses to deal with transients, but you may prefer to use a clipper. Many limiters require you to drive your signal into their threshold, requiring you to rebalance your group levels. With bx_clipper, you can drop the threshold (Ceiling) and avoid rebalancing group levels altogether.

On top of that, bx_clipper can add rich harmonic saturation to your groups when the input signal enters the processing range (affected by the Ceiling and Knee). Below the processing range, the signal is unaffected by saturation, leading to dynamics-dependent coloration.

3. Boost the Sustain of Drums

Boosting the sustain of drums adds depth and resonance to your percussion, enriching the overall mix. Extended sustain can make drums more prominent without overpowering other instruments, especially in genres like rock and hip-hop. This technique enhances a track's emotional intensity and rhythmic drive, making it more engaging.

To boost the sustain of drums using bx_clipper, increase the Knee and enable Auto Ceiling to use the full soft clipping range without applying hard clipping. Then, enable Auto Trim to level-match the audio and conduct an accurate A/B comparison.

4. Add Warmth to Vocals

For vocals requiring dynamics control, bx_clipper's soft clipping mode is perfect for a touch of warmth and saturation. The Auto Ceiling feature allows you to maximize the saturation applied without going overboard. For the smoothest results, select FET mode and use a large Knee value.

Consider applying bx_clipper after a vocal compressor like the Purple Audio MC77 or ACME Audio Opticom XLA-3. Use the vocal compressor to control aggressive transients (fast attack and release settings) before warming up your vocals using bx_clipper. This setup will allow bx_clipper to behave most efficiently and avoid over-the-top distortion.

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5. Create Fat and Distorted 808s

If you want to add some grit and harmonic richness to your 808s, the Diode mode, combined with the over-fold distortion provided by bx_clipper, is perfect for creating edgy distortion. You can use bx_clipper to turn a simple 808 generated from a sine wave into a filthy low-end monster. Zardonic demonstrates this mixing technique in the following video, starting at 6:38.

6. Create Gated Drum Synth Effects

bx_clipper includes an Ambience feature that solos the information lost from the clipping process. By selecting Diode mode and adjusting the level of the Knee and Ceiling, you can omit low-level sounds like hi-hats from the plugin's output. To create an 80s/90s drum synth effect, boost the Over-Fold knob to 200% and enable Auto Trim to conduct a level-matched A/B comparison.

Demo the Brainworx bx_clipper for Free

bx_clipper by Brainworx offers a range of features that make it one of the best clipper plugins for beginners and professionals. It allows you to increase the loudness of masters, choose between soft and hard clipping, as well as process your mixes in mid/side mode. To demo bx_clipper for 30 days, start a free MEGA Bundle trial today.

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