The Beginner’s Guide To Advanced Limiting

Limiting isn’t a new process for engineers. Even before the first idea of a limiter came into existence, engineers were saturating tape and pushing consoles to their max – limiting their audio signals without even knowing it.

Did it happen all of the time? Not at first, but as we started to see bigger and better limiters hit the industry, there was no turning back.

Fast-forward to today, and just using a limiter isn’t enough. What previously sufficed as a cure for dull vocals and overly dynamic bass guitars is now just a part of a plug-in stack or chain on a track.

This is where the concepts of advanced limiting come into play. Where should your limiter land in the chain? How does your limiter affect the plugins that follow it? What parameters should your limiter have to save you from wasting additional processing power on a track?

Starting At The Source

A lot of engineers tend to lean toward a bit of limiting on the way into their DAW (particularly on vocals). This can be a decent practice to add some grit or edge to the source upfront. It can take an inexperienced singer and give them some subtle motivation when they hear the bite of their voice coming back through their headphones.

It’s not just a trick for the singer though.

An instrument being limited on the way in can handle further processing a bit better. By using a limiter upfront, you’ve “limited” the unnecessary peaks that can make a track hard to tame using tools like EQ or compression.

The one warning I’d add to limiting at the source is to be subtle about it. If you start limiting too much from the start, it’s hard to add some of those dynamics back in later – especially if you’re printing the limiter to the track. Over time, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t and develop your own taste for limiter settings in addition to the amount you’re applying.

Just save yourself a headache and ease into it – limiting can be overdone pretty easily if you jump in with both feet.

Where to Put Your Limiter

Sticking a limiter at the top or bottom of your chain are both pretty common approaches to limiting. Up front, you’re basically getting the same benefits as recording with a limiter on the source track. Tamed transients are easier to work with, and can play nicer with some of the down-stream plugins.

Placing a limiter at the end of a stack will act similarly, but really glues together any dynamics that occurred (either from the source or as a result of the plugins you added). A limiter at the end can make it easier to build a static mix, since everything should be relatively tamed and balanced.

Okay, Where Else?

A limiter can actually achieve a lot of benefits in pre/post situations. For example, stacking EQ/Limiter/EQ can give your some great flexibility without frequencies getting too unruly. Two great approaches using that combo include:

1. Boosting frequencies on EQ #1, limiting, then cutting with EQ #2
2. Surgical EQ (narrow bands, big boosts/cuts), limiting, then wider bands with subtle amounts on EQ #2

Think of the limiter as your crowd control in both of these scenarios. They’re letting you treat everything as much or little as you need to, while maintaining a balanced, focused sound between steps.

Do More In The Limiter

Limiters don’t have to be limited when it comes to features.

The old school guys love their one- or two-knob setups, but it doesn’t have to end there. The new standard for limiters includes feature sets that engineers would’ve killed for in the early days. Now, instead of an input and output control, you’ve got dozens of knobs, buttons, and switches all working to give you more functionality.

Settings like “Look Ahead” can give you more responsive and accurate limiting than you’ll ever get from hardware. Gain and release controls let you dial in different settings that you used to handle with overly complicated plugin stacks that were hard to document and replicate.

Now, you can find parameters that work for you and save them as a preset for quick recall in your next session.

Finally (and this is a big finally), we’re starting to see a big increase in Mix controls right within the limiters. For some of us that are big into parallel processing, this is a huge time saver over the old process of duplicating or bussing tracks.

You’re no longer stuck applying the full limiter effect to your vocals or snare, but can instead do a 50/50 split without leaving the limiter window. It’s not the desired effect in every scenario, but being able to dial in some of the unprocessed track when you’ve pushed the limiter too hard is a pretty sweet alternative to tweaking/resetting all of your limiter’s settings.

How are you limiting?

If you’re not using your limiter for more than its in and out knobs, you’re missing out. With as much flexibility we have in the box, it’s amazing how long it’s taken for “modeling” plugins to catch up with the improvements that can be made.

Whether you’re placing your limiter at the top or bottom of your stack (or anywhere in between) having some added control is always good when you’re trying to save time and effort in a mix.

Do you have other tricks to get your limiter to play nice with the rest of your workflow? Share it with the rest of us over on the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum.