Clipping / limiting / tape at the channel level
Before we get to today’s thought: today is Small Business Saturday. And I would like to challenge you with this thought: is this resource valuable to you? If not, frankly, why are you reading it. 🤔 So, assuming it is: I would like to ask you to seriously consider supporting the work of this small businessperson (me!) today with a paid subscription. The options are $100/yr and $10/mo. It’s intentionally a small amount of money — the idea is one of crowdsourcing, in which if enough people pitch in, it will add up to something more substantial. Importantly: if you’re of limited means, then please keep reading for free. But if you’re not of limited means, then please support the work. As with everything I do in my work life — mixing, mastering, all of it — the people who can afford to pay are the ones who cover the costs for the people who can’t pay. Thank you in advance to the people who decide to take this opportunity to support my work and to help continue to make it available to others. 🖤
For the past few days we’ve been talking about various strategies for using serial processes on the master bus, to reduce the impact of unnecessary transient information and to increase mix clarity.
Doing this sort of processing on the master bus is extremely helpful. But if you can catch some of this stuff before it gets to the master bus, even better! The more you can distribute the load of dynamics management, the better your mix will sound.
To this end, these days I find myself doing a lot of channel-level dynamics management. I’m not talking about compression, although I certainly do that also; I’m talking about limiting, clipping, and tape. In other words, the same stuff I’ve been talking about doing on the master bus!
I use these three processes not interchangeably — what I use where depends on the sound I’m going for. The point of all of them is however the same: to shave some transient information off the signal so that it can be more controlled and less unintentionally impactful on downstream dynamics processes.
Here’s how I think about it:
If I’m going for clean, then I’ll use a channel limiter. This is a lightweight class of limiter with bare-bones controls, suited for channel use (and not well suited for the complexities of master bus use). I love bx_limiter for this; you can get it for $19 on sale if you get on their mailing list and wait for a sale.
If I’m going for clean plus density, then I’ll use a clipper. I have a bunch, and I use them all frequently — each one has a bit of a different sound. Here’s a cool little free one.
If I’m going for density with a side helping of tone shaping (i.e., not clean), then I’ll use a tape-emulation plugin. And for this use case, oftentimes the most agressively tone-changing ones are the ones I prefer! I’m a huge fan of SketchCassette II for treating kick and snare drums, which is on sale for $24 as I write this (and which has one of the best user interfaces of all time).
I routinely put one of the above three processes as the last plugin on many or most of the tracks in my sessions. Pretty much always on kicks / snares / toms / overheads / percussion / basses / synth basses / guitars / vocals. You can typically shave off 2-3 dB of transient information without even noticing a change in the sound — but the cumulative impact on the master bus of having so much less of those peaks coming at it can be transformative.
Your master bus compressor will operate in a smoother and more controlled way, and your master bus limiter won’t have to work nearly as hard. The end result is effortless loudness, density, and controlled impact.
Win/win/win — jamie