Sunday, July 3, 2016

Should I put a limiter on each single track when I mix?

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
The topic of today is tricky, since everyone has a different opinion about it, and it is linked to our general Limiter article.

As we know a Limiter is a compressor with a ratio that can go from 20:1 to infinite, and its main purpose is to set a threshold above which no sound peak can pass (unlike what happens with a compressor, that lets part of the sound to pass, but attenuated in volume).

The initial purpose of a limiter was to be set as a last plugin of the master chain, in post fader position, during the Mastering Phase, to prevent any part of the final track to exceed a certain ceiling and distorting, but more and more mix engineers are lately starting to set a limiter in the end of each track (after having already compressed it), to reduce the headroom to the minimum and keep the mix even more stable.

The downside is that, unless you are limiting your tracks so little that is almost useless, the result can fatigue the overall mix and sometimes even be counter productive, giving you a lifleless, dynamic less sound.

So, what are the upsides, and why does many mix engineers (especially the hard rock/heavy metal ones) use this method routinely?
Because in some genres in which dynamics are not considered as important as letting each track to be heard at the same level at all times, a limiter can help us in keeping our sound as stable as possible (for example in an acoustic double kick drum track), to the point that sometimes mix engineers prefers to limit a highly dynamic track to cut the transients, and then recreate the transient with a transient shaper, just to be sure that all the peaks will be even.

Some mix engineer instead puts a limiter on each track just to shave very few decibels and add the particular coloring of that limiter to the sound, if the processor is good.

Another popular use of limiter is in the bass track, to squash it and make it more prominent, so in this case the limiter becomes a tone shaping tool, but in general some mix engineer likes the idea of stopping any clipping on dynamic tracks and keeping everything below 0db, which leads to a cleaner mix (if not overused) and prevents any odd transient to go over the threshold (as sometimes happens with bass tracks played with fingers).

My opinion is that is very easy to over limit a mix, so it should be used only on problematic tracks, such as the already mentioned bass played with fingers, acoustic guitar tracks with slap, acoustic cymbals etc, and this can be a way to avoid buss limiting, that can lead to an odd "pump" effect on the whole mix, in presence of extreme peaks of a single track.

If possible I'd use only compressors, even at higher ratios or stacking 2 compressors one after the other with lower settings to make the sound result less squashed, but in case we want a limiter also for tone shaping/coloring purposes, I'd suggest to use a Peak Limiter.

Let us know what you think!

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