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Using Limiter, Compression And Saturation

It goes against the grain a little to suggest that smashing the dynamics out of a sound with heavy limiting or saturation could actually be a good thing. Of course there are die hard purists out there that will advise against this practice at all costs, but listen to recent productions from acts such as Justice, Daft Punk, Pendulum or The Prodigy and you’ll soon realise that it is a method that can really work under the right circumstances.

Achieving a really loud and upfront sound is something that has only really been fashionable in recent years and before now has always seen as a process that was best achieved through mastering. Mastering limiters have been pushed ever harder over the last decade, to achieve the highest volumes possible. This has become known as the volume war and has spread across all genres, with producers and engineers looking to have the standout track with the loudest level.

Many engineers and producers frown upon the loudness war and hard limited masters, the argument against them being that the dynamics of a track are removed during the process and the listener is subjected to a barrage of sound with a similar signature to noise. Of course the competitive nature of the collective music industry ignores these complaints and pushes for more volume, so the mastering engineers comply.  This over zealous post production is often seen as a necessity and ignores genre or style but some artists are now using this sort of intense dynamics treatment as a creative tool, transforming not only their sound but the perception of what a ‘good’ master is.

With more and more people completing there own mastering, the process starts at the conception of a project and there is now not such a defined line in the pre and post production stages. Mastering engineers no longer have to be consulted and appeased at the end of the mixing process and many engineers are making their own rules.  To get a clearer idea of how this alternative production method can be approached let’s take a look at the techniques and processors that are often used.

Using Limiter, Compression, Saturation Topics

In the mix

As opposed to being a pure mastering technique, achieving this high pressure, upfront sound in your projects really starts during the mixing process. Traditionally a basic balance would be struck between mix elements and sensible amounts of dynamics processing would be applied as a corrective measure, the majority of extra volume would then be applied by mastering limiters.

When using dynamics processing as more of a creative process or effect, large numbers of tracks in the mix can be treated with pretty extreme levels of processing. Techniques such as parallel compression or brick wall limiting, that may normally only appear on a drum buss or on the master output, can be used on any sound.

When this style of processing is used across the board, the mix is generally denser and has a higher perceived volume. You may find that you need to use less elements to create a full, energetic track and that certain sounds have more impact. One thing is for certain, when applying heavy dynamics processing on mix elements in this way, the mastering processors don’t have to work nearly as hard to achieve high volumes.

This sort of mixing technique gives you great control over the various stages of heavy dynamics processing and means only a slight change in character after mastering, although saying that this method should really only be considered if you plan to take care of the post production duties yourself as some mastering engineers may not take kindly to receiving very heavily processed tracks.


First compression

When it comes to raising the density and perceived volume of individual sounds the use of compression is really important. There are also several other roles in which compression plays an important part here.

Let’s break down the separate areas in which compressors can be utilised here and how we can use them to attain the specialised sound we are looking for. 


General levelling

Of course this is the traditional role of compressors and there is nothing cutting edge about using them to reduce peaks in our audio, but if we are to subject our sounds to intense processing, and achieve maximum volume this is the first stage we must carry out. 

By reducing a sound peaks, we are also raising the sections of a lower volume and in turn we are creating a higher average volume overall. This processing will give you a higher perceived volume and is you first step to getting a truly ‘hot’ sound. If you are careful with the critical attack, decay and ratio settings here you can have a very minimal impact on the dynamics of a sound when using compression in this way. The last thing you want at this early stage is to remove any impact a sound may have.


Driving the input stage

Some compressors include an adjustable gain in the input stage, this is especially common in vintage emulations and analogue modelled plug-ins. This is useful do to fact the signal can be overdriven into the compression circuit creating saturation, distortion and even some early limiting effects. This process will also add often pleasing harmonics to your sound, imparting a ‘fat’ quality often associated with analogue hardware.


Side chaining

A very popular effect of using one signal in your mix to cause a compressor to reduce or ‘duck’ its level. This can be used to allow two sounds of similar frequency to live in the same space in the mix, for instance a kick drum and bass sound. This process can be really useful for allowing us to raise some elements much higher in the mix than is usually possible and therefore bringing up our overall average volume and mix density further still.


Enhancing dynamics

In most cases you would expect compressors to attenuate transient events and extreme dynamics within a sound but when coerced a compressor is just at home exaggerating these qualities. By opening the attack stage of your compressor and using reasonably low ratio settings in conjunction with the right release time, the snap of a snare or click of a stick can be much amplified, giving the impression of a harder, louder sound. 


Saturated fat

When driving sounds with high amounts of gain and adding large numbers of volume inducing processors to our project, it’s always vitality important to avoid actual clipping and unwanted digital overloads. These can occur when some plug-ins are overloaded to extreme levels or the outputs of processors are left unchecked causing actual audio channels clip and create digital distortion.

In analogue systems this sort of overload was (and still is) perfectly acceptable and is even encouraged. This is due to the very different ways digital and analogue systems handle levels clipping beyond 0db.

Unlike their digital counterparts analogue devices such as tube pre-amps or tape machines, in general react very well to being overdriven. The clipped signal causes something called saturation or soft clipping. This tends to add a very pleasing warmth to your sound and can increase its volume at the same time.

There are a few different ways you can achieve saturation effects. Driving the input stage of selected compressors as mentioned previously will work, but you can also employ a dedicated saturation or soft clipping plug-in.

URS make an excellent plug-in, simply named ‘Saturation’ that offers the sound of several modelled devices such as sought after pre-amps and even a tape machine. If this is a bit too expensive for you there are plenty of cheaper and even some free plug-ins available that produce the effect.


Limited growth

Perhaps the most common tool for increasing loudness of any signal is the classic limiter. As with a typical mastering chain it is usually a good idea to place limiters at the end of your chain of processors, this way you should avoid clipping on your individual channels and you can set the ceiling output to whatever you like.

Although a limiter is similar to a compressor in that it reduces peaks by using a gain reduction system, it is different in other ways. Most limiters do not have threshold controls, instead they usually feature an output level parameter that decides an absolute limit to the output stage.

This upper limit is then reached by driving the sound into the limiter circuit, this is usually controlled by an input level or gain trim. This sort of limiting, employing a strict output level us usually referred to as brick-wall limiting and obscene amounts of perceived volume can be achieved using it.

Limiters in this form are often reserved only for mastering purposes, with traditional tracking limiter perhaps being a little more forgiving and more closely resembling compressors but when trying to achieve maximum volume throughout the  mix these dynamics smashing, ear bleedingly loud limiters can be just the ticket.

When pushed this process certainly will decrease dynamic response and at the same time push your volume levels way up, the balance you strike between the two is entirely up to you.


Maximisers and enhancers

There are pretty large number of products floating around at the minute that claim to be capable of increasing perceived volume without adversely effecting the dynamic signature of a sound. Of course this cant be strictly true, purely for the fact that any increase in perceived volume has to occur by raising the average loudness of a signal. This very fact means the difference between high and low peaks has to become smaller and the dynamic signature will be changed.

Many of these processors are simply single or multi-band limiters in disguise and you should be pretty picky when purchasing, at least take you time to try a demo if one is available. Of course the sound may be perfect for you but bear in mind the plug-in maybe doing something that could be easily achieved using your current plug-ins and a bit of thought.

Saying all this there are some truly excellent products featuring proprietary technologies that ooze character and do an excellent job of boosting volume while at least preserving the dynamics of your audio. A few examples of these are the notorious Sonnox inflator and  Universal audio’s Precision maximiser. Both these come from very reputable companies and go some way to giving you everything in one package.

Waves, Sonalksis and TC Electronic also have excellent plug-ins in the area of limiting and loudness maximisation on offer and should all be checked out if this is an area that interests you. Whether you love or hate artificially loud recordings, it seems that the practice of pumping up our audio is something that is here for the long haul.

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