What does a limiter do? How do I use it?

ManleyvarimuOur last blog was about basic compressor education (“The Mystical Compressor Part 1”). I thought that before I write Part 2 where I will give some advice on compressor operation, I should address limiting. The two are very closely related in function and controls. The applications, however, are very different.

A limiter is essentially a compressor that has a very high compression ratio (typically about 20:1). Where a compressor compresses the dynamic range of your song, a limiter literally limits the dynamic range. Most limiters are what they call “brick wall limiters.” This means that when the program material has reached the set ceiling the signal stops like it’s hit a brick wall. No signal can pass beyond the ceiling.

So why would we want to use a limiter?

The main reason that we use limiters is to increase the volume of the overall mix while maintaining a particular dynamic range. Most of the time when we use a limiter it’s either being used during the mastering process or on an instrument that only needs a very small dynamic range of volume. An example of this application is a bass guitar or a kick drum in certain styles of music. If you want the kick drum and baseline to be constant and steady and present through the course of the song, a limiter is a great tool for achieving this sound. I use limiters on bass tracks for hip hop and dance mixes almost every time.

Use caution! Like any other tool, the limiter can be abused. Just as a compressor can squash the dynamic range of your song leaving it underwhelming; a limiter can completely crush the life out of it. As well, just because you can make it louder does not mean that you should.

So let’s go through a typical scenario of how you would use a limiter in the mix. For me and most styles that I mix I would refrain from using a limiter until I begin mastering.

As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, we typically use the K system as our volume standard for commercial mastering here at K14 Studios. However, because of the competitive balance between loudness and dynamic range (and by request of many of my clients), I find myself using the K-12 standard more often than not. This system simply guides me to implementing a 12 dB dynamic range for my final mix. On average, I will allow for a margin between -12 dB on the RMS meter and zero dB on the peak meter. This gives me good volume with plenty of room for movement in the music.

I use Izotope Ozone 6 for a lot of my mastering tasks. I particularly like the EQ and the limiter. The limiter is very easy to use. You can set up your metering system, your ceiling and your threshold. The attack and release times are determined by predefined profiles. With these managed settings, maximizing the volume levels and RMS values becomes very intuitive and extremely effective. But how loud should I actually make my tracks?

Again, like so many things in music production, this is subjective. But leaving plenty of dynamic range to let your music breath is essential, in my opinion. No matter what style of music you’re mixing, louder will always sound better – but a squashed dynamic range will suck the life out of it. Striking a balance is essential. My advice? Find a standard that you like, use reference tracks to see what commercial mastering houses are pushing out and watch you meters!


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