Limiters have always been one of the coolest “toys” in the studio. They’re one of the few toys you can drive past their breaking point, dial them back just a hair, and have an instantly usable, crispy tone.
There are tons of limiters out there – ranging from the mostly transparent to the gnarly, distorted aggression most might mistake for an overdrive or distortion. They’re one of the most commonly used dynamic processors, holding their own against EQs and compressors in almost every modern session.
Sadly, most engineers aren’t using these amazing processors to their full potential. A lot choose to go with presets or maxed out settings. The first approach ends up sounding canned; presets are a great starting point, but they shouldn’t make up the majority of your final product’s sonic imprint. Maxing out your settings can be equally tiring on a listener that’s hearing your mix for the first time. When you overcook your track in a mix, it’s a lot like overcooking in the kitchen: dry and flavorless.
Finding The Right Tool For The Job
First and foremost – choose the right plugin for your specific situation. If you’ve already got a dozen limiter plugins, have you already explored what they’re capable of? If not, that’s where you need to start.
If your selection isn’t as eclectic or you’ve made a habit of making poor decisions in the past, you can say with confidence that a limiter is exactly what you need. At that point, you should dive into some demos and use cases to make sure you’re picking the right limiter for the job. Ask yourself: are you looking for a clone of a specific piece of hardware, or are you looking for something with lots of flexibility and features?
When you’re looking for your first limiter, I tend to recommend something flexible like Finality. It’s got a lot of options built right into the plugin, and gives you a good foundation to learn what you like and dislike about certain limiters.
Brand New to Dynamic Processing?
If you’re stuck in the default plugins realm and want to take a headfirst dive into other plugins, a limiter alone might be a bit underwhelming for your first addition. Bundles are a great way to save some money while getting up and running quickly with a lot of tools that will add to your mixes as soon as you enable them.
Know Your Limiter Like The Back of Your Hand
Just like any new plugin, I strongly recommend putting your limiter through its paces when you first get it. Open a track you’re intimately familiar with (an old classic or a recent piece of work both work fine). Then throw your limiter on various tracks – you don’t have to save anything, you’re just trying it out.
Personally, I like to start with vocals. Because of the complexity and dynamism of a good vocal performance, it’s usually pretty easy to narrow down where a limiter is going to shine and where it might fall short.
If the limiter has a nice, punchy mid-range, I might move on to testing on guitars or snare. When it’s a little boomier or bass-heavy, I might try the kick or bass tracks. Each limiter is going to have its high points – trust your ears to guide you through the testing process.
Weather The Extremes
Don’t be shy with a new limiter – you know what it’s made to do and you should be doing everything you can to test the extremes. Try making a transparent setting with minimal limiting to see how it colors the sound without affecting dynamics. Drive it harder than you ever would in a real-world scenario. The goal isn’t to make something that sounds good in this scenario – it’s to learn what your limiter can do.
Finding The Right Balance
Are you a note taker? If not, you might want to become one. Those with inconsistent work schedules are likely to forget a lot of what they liked about a new limiter before they ever get to use it in a mix.
It’s not that we don’t want to use it; it’s just that breaking old habits is hard, especially when you're short on time and your schedule is always changing. A new limiter isn’t going to be the first thing on your mind unless you use it right away. It’s easy to fall back into using that stock 1176 clone when you’re looking for a quick limiter after a few weeks away from your DAW.
But if you write down your thoughts after trying out that new limiter, laying out what you liked, what you didn’t like & where you’d like to test it out more, you’re more likely to recall that note than you would be to recall that “thought” from your first use.
Nobody wants to waste money on a plugin that they don’t use. Hopefully, you’ve done your homework ahead of time, found the right limiter for the job at hand, and picked up a tool that you’re going to be able to use in mixes for years to come.
Dive In Head First!
With a firm understanding of what your limiter can do, it’s up to you to ultimately decide what it will do. I can’t tell you how much gain reduction to apply or where you should set your Attack and Release because every track in every mix is going to be different. Trust your ears, your instincts, and your experience.
Ready to start making smarter plugin purchases? Come join the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum where thousands of engineers and producers are already sharing their experiences with all of our plugins!