Ask any bedroom producer what the quickest way is to make a mix louder, and nine times out of ten, the reply will be: “a limiter.”
As ubiquitous as the answer is, they are actually right. Limiters do indeed make mixes sound bigger, bolder, and louder.
But that’s not all a limiter does. This very specialized type of dynamics processor actually has a number of other useful applications for mixing and mastering.
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Limiters–Applications for Mastering
- Limiter Controls and Settings
- Using Limiters for Specific Genres
- Limiters and The Loudness Wars
- Final Thoughts
Read other mixing and recording articles:
- Proper Compression Settings for Vocals
- Proper Compression Settings for Bass
- EQ & Compression Settings for Drums
- Professional Mixing Tips
First off… What is a limiter?
Audio limiters are similar to audio compressors in that they limit the dynamic range of the signal passing through.
In fact, most compressors can be set in such a way that it performs the role of a limiter. However, compressors typically reduce the level of a signal gradually once it exceeds a certain threshold.
In contrast, limiters clamp down on a signal with extreme prejudice, preventing any unwanted decibels from passing through.
Limiters come in both hardware and software forms, but they all perform the basic function of preventing signal peaks from exceeding a predetermined threshold. This enables you to boost the signal to optimum levels, without causing clipping or distortion.
Limiters – Applications for Mastering
Although limiters can be used during every step of the production process, they are most commonly employed during the audio mastering stage.
In a mastering scenario, limiters are typically used to increase the perceived volume of the source material, making it seem louder than it actually is.
Limiters work on the peaks of audio signals, limiting them to the level that you set it at with the threshold or output level control. Because clipping is so often caused by these peaks, clamping down on them will allow you to boost the rest of the signal considerably. This will have the effect of making the overall sound louder.
Taking it to the … Limit
But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and this is especially applicable to dynamics processors such as limiters.
With the proper and judicious use of a limiter, audio signals can become bigger, louder, and more present in a mix. Pushed too far however, and limiters can cause the source audio to become harsh and grating.
We’re all familiar with that with an unpleasant, ‘squashed’ sound quality. That’s taking it too far.
In most cases, you will want a limiter to affect the audio in a subtle and almost imperceptible manner. As with compressors, you don’t necessarily want to hear the effect on the sound as much as you want to control its dynamic range. This is why you often hear of “transparent limiting” as a desirable quality to have in a limiter.
Limiter Controls and Settings
Most limiters have similar controls as those that you would find in a typical compressor, such as:
The input gain enables you to specify how much of the signal is fed into the limiter circuit.
In general, the higher you set the input gain, the louder the overall sound will be.
It is advisable to set the input gain to where you achieve your intended output level, usually from 4 to 7dB.
The output gain essentially sets the level at which the limiter begins to affect the signal, in much the same way that a threshold setting does in a compressor.
In most cases, you will want to set this to just under 0dB FS in order to prevent clipping.
A good rule of thumb is to set the output gain from -0.02dBFS to -0.2dBFS, and adjust accordingly from there.
In general, you will want to set your attack as low as possible without squashing down on the transients.
As for release, this is often dependent on the source material and the desired effect. It is especially important to get the release time right, as having it too long will result in audible pumping and an overall decrease in level.
Set it too short, and you run the risk of introducing distortion. Many limiters actually have auto release settings that automatically determine the optimal settings for the source material.
Using Limiters for Specific Types of Music
Most type of music will benefit from a standard set of limiter settings for mastering, which make the overall sound louder without causing clipping.
However, certain types of music require specific limiter settings in order to highlight their inherent qualities or to achieve specific musical goals.
Certain types of music in which the primary goal is reproducing the natural sounds of the instruments generally require more transparent limiter settings. This applies to acoustic music, classical or orchestral music, and most types of folk music. The goal here is to simply let the natural sound of the instruments come through, with as little perceivable alteration or processing as possible.
In other types of music, such rock, hip-hop or rap music, or more aggressive styles of pop, the focus isn’t so much on preserving the natural sound of the instruments as it is about getting the music to be as loud as possible.
When mastering club-oriented music, limiters are often used to make the music cut through the sound system with sufficient energy and attitude.
Suggested Limiter Settings for Mastering Specific Genres
Here are some examples of limiter settings for specific types of music:
- Rock: 0VU: -7dBFS
- Pop: 0VU: -8dBFS
- Hip-hop/rap: -7dBFS
- Jazz: 0VU: -9dBFS
- Classical: 0VU: -18dBFS
Keep in mind that these are only suggestions on how to set your limiter when mastering specific types of music.
Rather than relying on these for all your productions, it is advisable to listen to your final masters on as many different speakers as possible. This will enable you to determine how these settings affect the loudness and impact of your mix.
Limiters and The Loudness Wars
The desire to make music stand out and be audible on as many listening environments as possible has given rise to a phenomenon known as the ‘Loudness Wars’.
This refers to the practice of using–and abusing–limiters with the goal of making music that is louder than everything else.
One of the most widely-publicized examples of this is Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” album, which many consider to be excessively limited to the point of being unlistenable.
Things have quieted down considerably since, both literally and figuratively. Some of the more level-headed factions of the audio industry have realized the utter folly of excessive limiting, citing lost dynamics, harsh, grating, and distorted mixes, and ear fatigue as some of its more obvious risks.
In any case, it would do well for all of us to realize that “louder” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”. With this realization, we will hopefully cease to use limiters as Weapons of Mass Distortion and continue to utilize them in the service of bigger, louder, and clearer mixes.
Limiters serve a number of important functions in the studio, in the mixing as well as mastering stages. With a proper understanding of what limiters are, and the good and bad that they can do, you will hopefully be able to utilize them in a way that best serves your musical goals.
If you’re looking for the right limiter to use for your mixes, take a look at some of our top picks.