How To Use A Limiter In Mastering
To sound professional, your songs should achieve commercial loudness. Making a song loud is achieved across multiple stages of the music production process, but some parts of the process are easier than others.
One of the easiest ways to make your songs louder is with a limiter. With one simple plugin, you can make your songs louder and more professional in no time.
A More Powerful Compressor
A limiter is a specialized type of compressor. Like a compressor, it is used to reduce the volume of the loudest moments in a track.
The biggest difference between limiters and compressors is the ratio of the limiter. If you’re familiar with how a compressor works, you know that a compressor’s ratio determines how much the loudest parts of the audio are reduced in volume. The higher the ratio, the more aggressive the audio is turned down.
A limiter utilizes a very high ratio, typically somewhere from 10:1 to ∞:1. At the same time, it turns up the gain, making the song louder without clipping. Cool, right?
Limiters are used to maximize your song’s loudness as the final step in the music production process.
Some limiters are more sophisticated than others, but two settings matter the most: ceiling and gain.
Ceiling (or Output Level) is the loudest level in decibels that the song is permitted to go at any time. No matter how loud the limiter makes the song, it will never be louder than this value at any point.
Gain turns up the volume of the song to its optimal level. As you turn up the gain, the song will get louder and more and more of the song’s peaks will be limited.
While limiters can have a very powerful effect on your song, they have their limits. If too much limiting is applied to your song, it will sound washed out and harsh. Finding a balance of loudness and sound quality is critical.
Achieving Commercial Loudness
Using a limiter may seem complicated at first, but it can be pretty easy if you take it one step at a time.
Step 1: Set the Ceiling Level
In most cases, you can set the same ceiling level for any song, since the ceiling has the same job every time: avoid clipping. However, there is much debate about what the best ceiling value is.
Whether your limiter has True Peak monitoring or not, converting a song file into a compressed format like MP3 has the potential to create intersample peaks, which will be louder than the ceiling level chosen in your limiter.
If you set your ceiling to 0 dB and have intersample peaks that exceed the ceiling, your song will be distorted. To avoid clipping, ceilings from -1 dB up to -0.1 dB are commonly used.
In my experience, intersample peaks rarely go more than a few tenths of a decibel over the ceiling level. Because of this, I typically set my ceiling to -0.3 dB. If you want to be more conservative, you can use a lower value like -0.6 dB or even -1 dB.
A lower ceiling value won’t make you song automatically quieter, but it is a limitation that can make it more difficult to achieve commercial loudness.
Step 2: Turn Up The Gain
Once your ceiling is set, loop the loudest part of your song. As it plays, slowly turn up the gain. As the gain increases, you will start to see a response on the gain reduction meter in your limiter. This means that the limiter is starting to reduce the volume of your song’s peaks.
The more you turn up the gain, the more gain reduction will be applied. It’s usually best not to drive gain reduction higher than 3-5 dB, but this all depends on the song in question.
Step 3: Test Your Loudness
Now it’s time to evaluate the effects of the limiter. To evaluate your song’s newfound loudness, find a reference track that has a comparable sound to yours.
Insert it as a file into your DAW, and play both songs back and forth. Listen to how they compare from a loudness perspective. If they have a similar level of loudness, then your song is loud enough!
If you want to take this comparison further, check the Integrated LUFS of both songs. The LUFS value is less important than what you perceive with your ears, but it’s another way to see how close you are to achieving commercial loudness. Ideally, your song should be within one Loudness Unit (LU) of your reference track level.
It your song still isn’t loud enough, turn up the gain a few more decibels until it matches your reference track.
Read more about measuring your song’s loudness here.
Step 4: Check The Sound
Once your song is similar to your reference track in perceived loudness and integrated LUFS, the final test is to see how the limiter has effected your song’s dynamics. Your song may be louder than it once was, but does it still sound good?
To evaluate how this new version of your song sounds, you have to remove the added loudness from the new version and compare it to the original version. Added volume will naturally sound better to your ears, so equalizing the overall volume to evaluate the change in dynamics is important.
Bounce your track with the limiter in place and put that file back into your DAW. Turn off limiting on your original song and turn down the level of the bounced track to match your original version. To find the right balance, you can compare each version’s integrated LUFS since you are comparing nearly identical songs.
Once you have these two tracks normalized, listen to them back and forth. How does the new version sound? Can you hear any differences?
If the loud version sounds the same (or at least sounds acceptable), then the limiter was able to add sufficient volume without harming the song’s sound.
If the new version of your song sounds noticeably washed out or harsh, that means there was too much dynamic range reduction. Go back to Step 2 and reduce the gain to find a more optimal balance between loudness and sound quality.
Still Not Loud Enough?
If you’ve gone through this process and still can’t achieve the right level of loudness, there are a few things you can try.
First, you might consider raising the limiter ceiling, but listen carefully to your bounced tracks to see if there is any noticeable distortion.
Another option is to accept a slight change in sound via the reduced dynamics. This isn’t uncommon to hear in louder genres, but if you can avoid it, your songs will be better off.
If none of these strategies are working, you may need to go back into the mix and do more work. Getting a louder mix is too big of a topic to cover here, but it is very important when producing commercially loud songs.
Keep Your Eye On The Prize
By using a limiter, you can quickly and easy make your songs louder. As you find your optimal settings, remember the three goals of the process:
- Make your song commercially loud
- Avoid clipping
- Maintain enough dynamic range to keep your song sounding great
Now that you understand how to apply a limiter to your tracks, go through this process for one of your songs that has already been mixed. Can you reach commercial loudness?
Using a limiter is not the only way to make your songs the best they possibly can be.
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