In this series of features I'll be focusing on one of the corner stones of audio production. Although most of us use a dynamics processor, in the form of a compressor or limiter, in every session it’s always good to go back to basics and reacquaint our selves with what’s going on under the hood!
In this installment we’ll be taking a first look at limiting. We have already delved into the subject of compression and limiting really is the next logical step in our journey through the subject of dynamics. Limiters are great tools for everything from avoiding clipping to adding extra volume to your mix.
The plugins I’ll be using in every installment are all from the Plugin Alliance website and are available as fully functional 14 day trials. You can download any of them to try out some of the concepts and techniques discussed in this series by clicking on the products in the right sidebar.
What Is Limiting?
Simply put a limiter is a compressor on steroids. Whilst a compressor will smoothly apply its gain reduction when signal rises over the applied threshold, limiters will not allow any gain over their threshold. A limiter is essentially a compressor with a very high ratio. Limiters usually have internally set thresholds of 20:1 or above, this is the defining difference between compressors and limiters.
This strict approach to dynamics processing is both incredibly useful and powerful. When used in conjunction with moderate amounts of gain a limiter can act as a safe guard, preventing clipping and keeping potentially unruly levels in check. When pushed most limiters are capable of inducing massive amounts of perceived volume and greatly reducing dynamic range.
To clarify - Let’s picture a limiter on the master buss of a project. By driving gain into the limiter the signal it is essentially pushed against a virtual ‘brick wall’. Any peaks are squashed and the remaining audio is brought up in level. This results in the difference between any quiet and loud parts of your track being vastly reduced. It is this effect that increases the perceived volume of the signal, even if the peak level remains the same.
It’s highly likely you’ve already got a handful of limiters at your disposal and coupled with the right technique they’re likely to be the most powerful dynamics you own. With that in mind let’s take a look at the various flavors limiters can come in and some of the scenarios where they can be put to work.
Limiters VS Maximizers
While some limiters are real all rounders others are tailor made for specific purposes. This means the typical limiter interface can range from simple to pretty complex. Every manufacturer has a different idea about what the ideal limiter should look like and some don’t even call them limiters!
If you come across a maximizer for example, it’s very likely this is just a limiter in different clothing. Maximizers are often limiters specifically intended for mastering and adding perceived volume to a signal. Regardless of the name, nine times out of ten you can rest assured these are limiters.
Limiters bundled with DAWs tend to be the ideal example of workhorse dynamics processors usable in most scenarios. With slim feature sets and simple interfaces these plugins are generally easy to grasp and a great starting point if you’re new to dynamics processing. They will often be suitable for both mastering and tracking duties.
A step up from your DAWs limiters would be something a little more refined from a third party developer. The Brainworx bx_limiter is the perfect way to explore the possibilities beyond your stock processors. It has a simple intuitive interface, awesome metering and an ‘XL’ feature for adding saturation and extra volume.
For the more seasoned user there are plenty of limiters out there that sport complex front panels and some really cool technology. The Brainworx bx_XL V2 is the perfect example of a more advanced limiter, with multi-band limiting, M/S processing and some killer visual feedback this is truly a top notch mastering processor.
From Tracking To Mastering
Regardless of which limiter you opt for it’s worth remembering that these plugins can be used for any job during the production process. A mastering limiter can be applied to your drum buss and a stock limiter can be used for mastering, there really are no limits here.
Limiting is ideal for everything from adding some much needed control at the end of a vocal chain to slamming a synth bass patch. Get to know the limiters in your collection and you’ll be able to select the perfect tool for every job.
Remember that a limiters primary function is to reduce dynamic range. With this in mind tread carefully as you process, all that volume comes at a price. Push things too hard on your master buss or a critical instrument group and you could squash the life out of your mix! If you plan to use limiting as a creative effect use it sparingly across the mix and avoid limiting every instrument.
In future installments of this series we’ll be looking at other aspects of dynamics processing such as gating, multi band compression and transient design. We’ll also be looking at advanced use of compressors and limiters - so check back for more.
While you're waiting for the next one you can grab 14 day demos of the compressors featured here from the Plugin Alliance website!