Peak Clipping: An Alternative to Limiting?

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When it comes to dynamic processing, limiters are some of the most popular studio tools engineers and mixers have at their disposal. Their similarities to other forms of compression are readily apparent – they take the peaks of an incoming signal and attenuate them proportionately to the ratio that’s been set.

And there have been some real legends in the limiter space… hardware like the 1176 have seen revision after revision come and go. Each new release offered something unique yet similar – an ability to create powerful, full sounds while maintaining a distinct color that no other revision seemed to offer.

With so many options out there, you might think that limiters have enough variety to cover all the bases, but even still, I want to take a moment today to talk about some of their competition – specifically peak clippers. I think by the time we’re done; you just might agree that these lesser-known plugins will give any limiter a run for their money in the right scenario! 

What Is Peak Clipping?

Just like limiting acts as a more aggressive form of compression than traditional limiters, peak clippers act as a more aggressive form of limiting than many limiters.

I say this because in terms of apparent aggression, peak clippers take the cake. They work specifically on the transients of a signal and literally chop them off, fold them under, and create saturation that results in a fuller, thicker sound.

It’s one of the main reasons people love this type of processing so much.

Unlike digital clipping where a stray peak might cause the DAW to distort, peak clipping identifies peaks at a lower threshold and cuts them off in a far more harmonic way. The foldback created is part of that signature peak clipping sound that you can’t get through any other process. 

When to Use Peak Clipping

Peak clipping isn’t right for every scenario. As a matter of fact, I would venture a guess that it’s far too aggressive for a lot of dynamic control uses. For me, peak clipping is as much about coloring a sound and making adjustments that change its character than any amount of dynamic control. If you want to do that, stick to a more general form of compression.

But if you’re someone who’s looking to create the same type of breathing or pumping as you might on a limiter while pushing the signal even harder, a peak clipper might be worth your time.

The best example I can offer here is a drum kit, where you’re often trying to get each hit to cut through the densest of mixes and doing so usually requires full, punchy drums. With a peak clipper on each drum track (or at least the important ones), you’re going to be able to craft a thick sound without drastically changing the way you mix. And if it’s too harsh? Tighten it up a bit with EQ and see how you feel from there. 

Other Peak Clipper Uses

Drums are really just the start of where peak clippers become useful and could easily replace the limiters you often find elsewhere in your mix. Guitars and bass tracks that seem to be lacking in harmonic density can be sweetened almost instantly. Using peak clipping, they can sound edgier and even brighter to some extent. Beyond that, even vocals and acoustic instruments can use the processing of a peak clipper to help them shine through the mix.

Don’t hesitate – if you’ve got a session where you think a peak clipper might serve the song better than a limiter, give it a go! Both plugins are easy to dial in, so changing back if it doesn’t feel right should be a quick and easy decision to make! 

Where Peak Clipping Should Fall in Your Workflow

I like to think that whether I’m working with a compressor, limiter, or peak clipper, they all fit in generally the same vicinity in my workflow. That’s all to say, there aren’t any hard and fast rules, but there are some general principles that can be followed. If you’re looking to replace your limiters with peak clippers, pay attention closely.

The two most common places for peak clippers today are at the front of the signal chain or just below the end. Both make sense, though they serve different purposes.

If you’re trying to maintain loudness while also taking control, the front of the chain is the place to go. Here, most mixers aren’t completely tied to the sounds they’re working with just yet, which is a great opportunity to shake things up.

Inversely, the end of the signal chain gives you that last bit of harmonic saturation to really fill things in and make them sound larger than life. In my eyes, neither option is wrong or right.

But what do you have to say? Drop a line in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook and let us know where your peak clippers get used!

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