Dynamic processing like the one achieved by compressors, gates, expanders, and limiters is what we’ll discuss in our next tutorial. We’ll focus specifically on the limiter’s action, as it virtually prevents any sound from exceeding a certain volume threshold. This effect can also be seen as a compressor with an extremely high compression ratio. Limiters are essential to achieve loudness and commercial-sounding mixes. However, when used unproperly, they can also take away the punch and dynamics of a whole mix.

Set the limiter with the loudest section of your track

Make sure you find the loudest part of your track before you set the limiter’s threshold. This is the section where the limiter will respond more drastically. Strive to detect potential unwanted distortion or overprocessing caused by this effect as you set it.

Place limiters last in line

EQ and compressors, for example, sit first or interchangeably across the effects chain of the master bus. However, a limiter in the master bus is often set to output the maximum possible volume before causing digital distortion. If you place any effect that would increase volume after the limiter, you will likely overload the maximum digital threshold. This will trigger red lights indicating that the signal is peaking/clipping. An unbreakable “volume seal” will guard against this as you place the limiter last in the chain. 

Fix mistakes before the mastering

Process elements or groups of your track separately if issues in the mix call for it. If you try to solve this in the mastering, you run the risk of causing an unwanted impact on other instruments. For instance, if you need more high-end on your hi-hats, group them and tackle that with an EQ on the group rather than on the master bus. If you boost the high end on the master, your snare drum, percussion, and other elements will become affected as well.

Reference for consistency

Compare your master to the original mix at matching volumes and see what you gained or lost by using a limiter. Then, once you’re confident that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, listen to your master on a number of playback systems to ensure that it translates as universally as possible. Finally, compare it to recordings of music of a similar genre that have been commercially released. Reference for consistency.

Limiters push loudness of a mix, but louder doesn’t always mean better

The common impression of increased loudness is typically positive. When mixing, things initially seem to sound better, punchier, and more impressive while loud. However, with time, over-limited loud music can cause listening discomfort and tire your ears. You may also think you’ve improved things by increasing the apparent loudness when you first start limiting, but make sure you’re not actually draining the life, punch and impact out of the track in the process.