Limiters are incredibly powerful and useful tools in the studio. They are multi-purpose in the sense that they can do as much for controlling peaks as they can for raising the overall level of a track. Everything from lead vocals to bass to guitars sees a limiter at some point in the recording and mixing process.
But while all of that’s going on, there seems to be a stigma about using limiting in the mastering process that keeps many mastering engineers from using them at all (or at a minimum, reducing their utilization of these incredible processors).
Perhaps it’s the way they’re used in recording and mixing situations that’s got these professionals on edge. After all, by their very name, limiters are limiting the dynamics of a sound.
So what role do limiters play in the mastering process?
What do you think the purpose of mastering a song is?
If your answer is simply “to make it louder”, you’re not alone. But if it were that simple, throwing a limiter on the stereo track and pushing it as hard as possible would be the perfect solution, and we don’t see many engineers taking that approach (at least not the ones I’d want to work with).
More than loudness, mastering is the process of maximizing the impact of your mix. It’s not about killing all of the dynamics – it’s making them count.
The best mastering engineers tend to stay away from the loudness wars altogether. Who cares if you’ve got the loudest song if it’s just noise? The push and pull of your dynamics are half the battle.
Keeping this in mind, mastering engineers still have a use for limiters in their workflows…
Using A Mastering Limiter
Like most mastering equipment, hardware comes with a significant markup over non-mastering alternatives. We see this with EQs, compressors, and everything in between. What gives?
Well the primary reason for the markup truly does come down to quality – more expensive options usually use higher quality components for more consistent results. It also ensures your limiter is extremely accurate; some limiters will work down to 1/10th dB adjustments – a huge benefit when you’re trying to get your output as close to 0.0 dB as possible without clipping.
With limiters, all of this is especially important, as there’s a fine line between the appropriate amount of limiting and overdoing it. A song with too much limiting starts to sound “crispy” but not in a good way. It’s like over compressing your song – too much and your limiter can’t efficiently handle the entire signal passing the threshold you’ve set. You can completely destroy your mix.
So how do you avoid this pitfall?
For starters – put your limiter at the end of your chain.
By placing the limiter last, you don’t have to worry about gain staging between its output and the next part of your chain – the output is your end result. All of the other major manipulation happens prior to your limiting stage – leaving your limiter to catch the peaks it was designed to catch.
Digital Limiters In Modern Mastering
Similar to the control gained from higher quality components in hardware limiters, many mastering engineers are using plugins today because of their preciseness and flexibility. Digital accuracy has always been nearly perfect, with features like “lookahead” seeing peaks coming before they ever hit the processor.
Limiters like Finality Advanced take controls even further with additional side-chaining and auto-gain features.
The other major benefit of limiter plugins is your ability to launch multiple instances of them. For songs that demand a significant amount of limiter, you’re able to do so in stages rather than leaving all of the heavy lifting to a single limiter. While few studios are going to be able to afford multiple mastering-grade hardware limiters, a single plugin purchase can have as many instances as needed to get the right amount of control over an unruly stereo track.
All of this adds to the transparency of your limiting efforts – and that’s exactly what a mastering engineer should strive for when using a limiter on a track.
Using Limiters In Your Mix?
As we started with, limiters aren’t unique to a mastering session – far from it. They’re being used in all kinds of different ways throughout a song.
One of the most interesting uses of limiting in the studio (to me) will always be how they’re used on bass tracks. They’re able to bring a level of clarity and presence to bass that no other processor seems to be capable of.
In our eBook, Basscrusher: An Unholy Guide To Bass Tone, we go super in-depth about a limiter’s role in modern bass guitar tones, plus dozens of other processors and techniques you can use to improve your bass tone today.