Mastering: How to Set a Limiter | Soundways

Why Use Limiting?

Limiters are used to control transients and increase the overall level of a recording.  The average level of mastered recordings has been increasing since the 1980's.  This trend is often referred to as the "Loudness Wars."  For modern pop recordings to meet acceptable commerical standards, digital peak limiting must be used.  

Limiting will change the sound of a recording.  Reducing transients can cause things to become dull.  Overuse of limiting will result in a thin, harsh recording that lacks dynamics.  The goal of a mastering engineer is to apply a necessary amount of peak limiting in the most transparent way possible.  Here are some tips for setting limiters.

Tip #1:  Identify the Loudest Section

To set a limiter, first identify the loudest section of a song.  This is the part where the limiter will react most drastically.  It is best to check for distortion in this area.  

Once you've found the loudest part of the song, insert a limiter of your choice on your master bus and listen to your recording.  

Tip #2:  Use Reveal's Distortion Listening


Next, place Reveal on your master bus.  This should be at the end of your mastering chain.  It is important to use Reveal's Distortion Listening mode when adjusting the threshold, attack, and release settings.

Distortion Listening mode is an old mastering trick.  This provides engineers with a convenient way to listen to the side channels of a recording.  When setting a limiter, an engineer must listen for any distortion artifacts that could be created.  Listening to only the side channels causes distortion to become more apparent.  Using Distortion Listening engineers will be able to precisely identify the point of distortion and maximize levels without sacrificing quality.  

Tip #3:  Set the Threshold or Input Gain

Most limiters have similar features.  One difference is that some limiters have an adjustable threshold and others have an input gain knob.  These essentially perform the same function.  To reduce transients and increase the overall level of a recording, adjust the threshold or input gain until some gain reduction occurs.  1dB - 3dB of gain reduction is common for transparent limiting.  More aggressive settings will be needed for certain styles of music.

Be sure to use Reveal's Distortion Listening as quality control when adjusting the amount of gain reduction.  Turn on Distortion Listening as you increase the amount of gain reduction.  If you hear distortion, you will know that you have gone too far.  Lower the amount of gain reduction until the distortion is no longer present.  This workflow ensures that engineers make the most precise adjustments possible.  

Tip #4:  Adjust the Attack and Release

The attack and release settings of a limiter can have a large impact on the sound.  Limiters are used to reduce the highest transient peaks and have much faster attack times than a typical compressor.  Use a fast attack time to control the transients in a quick, transparent manner.  Adjust the attack until the transients are reduced without becoming overly dull.

Fast release settings will cause the limiter to stop reacting very quickly.  This can cause pumping and distortion artifacts.  Slow release settings will cause the song to lose dynamics and become lifeless.  Instead, use moderate release times when limiting.  This will reduce any audible effects of compression while controlling transients.  Using these tips you will be able to maximize the level of your recordings without diminishing the quality.