What To Watch For When Using Peak Clipper Plugins
Peak clipping can feel like the seventh wonder of the world when it works in a mix. There’s very little effort that goes into the peak clipping process, with many peak clippers having a primary “Amount” knob and a few other parameters to really help dial it in. Yet with that minimal amount of input from the mixer, peak clippers manage to create huge, punchy sounding elements with ease.
But like with anything that comes super easily, there’s a catch: you can push a peak clipper too far very easily if you’re not cautious with your approach. Overdoing peak clipping in your mix won’t have the same, harsh results as actually clipping your DAW’s output. Despite that reprieve, that’s not an excuse to do it – peak clipping should be applied the same way you’d apply any other dynamic processor: intentionally and under your control.
So what exactly should you be watching for when using peak clipper plugins in your mix?
Can You Still Peak with a Peak Clipper?
Despite the intent of peak clipping plugins, there’s still a strong chance that you’ll clip your output if you’re not cautious! Most of the time, this has more to do with the incoming signal than anything else.
Tracking engineers think they need to record everything hot, but in modern mixing, more headroom is better so long as there’s plenty of dynamic range between your peaks and your noise floor.
Tracking at lower levels allows you to push your peak clippers a bit harder. By leaving that extra headroom, you’re able to drive your signal into the peak clipper more aggressively and even boost the output a bit. That’s a much better situation to be in than someone who’s already up against the red in their meter and looking to squeeze just a bit more perceived loudness out of their sound.
If you do find yourself in a predicament where your signal is too hot going into your peak clipper, just look at your gain staging. If the plugin before the clipper has an output level, bring it down until the clipper has the right amount of headroom for what you’re trying to accomplish.
And if your peak clipper is the first plugin in your chain, look to options like Clip Gain or a Trim plugin to take a little off the top before you hit your processor.
Peak clippers are generally used for two things: taming transients and creating harmonic distortion (saturation). By driving your signal hard into a peak clipper, you can create some thick sounds – especially with percussive instruments. As great as that might sound, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Saturation is one of the most pleasing sounds to listeners because it creates a feeling of warmth and depth. But our job as the mixer is to do that while maintaining balance – something you’re going to struggle with if there’s too much saturation in your session.
While there’s no red herring on this one that will tell you that you’ve gone too far, oversaturation in a mix can make it difficult to find space in the frequency spectrum for all your instruments. If you’re finding that a snare that you peak clipped is taking up too much of the spectrum and no amount of EQ seems to be able to fix it, you’ll probably want to back off of that clipper plugin a bit. Share the space, leverage just enough saturation to keep things interesting, and you’ll be golden!
Sounding Too Aggressive
I’m super guilty of this one…
Plugins that work on the transients of our drums can be a ton of fun to experiment with. The drive that we’re able to get out of them is unlike anything else – fuzz, overdrive, and distortion are in a completely different space harmonically than peak clippers and limiters. But even with lighter amounts of peak clipping, the effect can be too aggressive and apparent for certain styles.
When you run into this situation, you might think to remove the plugin and try a different approach, but I’d suggest trying this instead…
Rather than swapping out the plugin for another compressor or EQ, consider using the Mix knob in your plugin for a parallel effect. By blending in the unprocessed audio with the peak clipped audio, I’ve been able to get some amazing results out of JST Clip and other plugins in my collection – give it a try yourself!
Clipping Goes Beyond Drums
Peak clippers are amazing on drum tracks for creating extra body and punch with each hit, but that’s just the start of their usefulness in the studio. Mixers are using them on everything from synths to vocals and everything in between.
One instrument that we experiment on pretty frequently is bass, which benefits from the parallel approach we just discussed more than just about any other sound. If you’re interested in learning why, check out our section on Crafting a Two-Part Bass Tone in the Basscrusher eBook – available in the JST store now!