How to use a Limiter whilst Mastering Audio
The limiter is the final piece of the puzzle in music production. It’s the last plugin your music goes through before you release it to the world… This video explains how to get the best settings on your limiter for your music.
Choosing a limiter
Not all limiters are created equal. At a minimum, you want a limiter that has gain, output, attack and release parameters, as well ISP (Inter Sample Peak) mode. This will allow you to fine tune the way the limiter reacts to your audio. Using a limiter without these parameters will hold your music back from reaching it’s full potential.
Getting the perfect limiter settings
Let’s assume your mastering chain is sounding great. All thats left is the final tweaks on the limiter to get it to the perfect loudness before you release the track.
Gain, Attack and Release
Start by increasing the gain to bring the loudness of the track up to the level you’re after. To get this absolutely perfect, I look at my LUFS meters. This master will be going up on Spotify, which will normalise the track to around -14 LUFS (updated May 2017), so I want to make sure this master sits around that level. For this track it’s about 3dB of input gain.
Next, I want to make sure that my attack and release are fine tuned to suit the audio material. To get these just right, I like to boost the input gain right up to around 20dB to exaggerate the effect of the distortion. I then tweak the attack and release to minimise the distortion at this level. I then bring down the input gain by about 50% to listen to how the transients are working with these settings. If I want a bit more punch I might increase the attack, if I want smoother more controlled sound I might increase the release.
Finally, I bring the input gain back to the 3dB and I can be confident that the settings I’ve chosen will work well with my audio.
Tweaking The Parameters
The infographic below explains how the parameters of your limiter affect the distortion of the master.
- As gain increases, distortion increases.
- As release time increases, distortion decreases.
- As attack time increase, distortion increases.
The output of the limiter is often over-looked. It’s extremely important to set it correctly to avoid clipping when your music is played back through speakers. Making sure your track peaks below 0dBTP (decibels true peak) will ensure that your audio doesn't clip when transcoded to lossy file formats for streaming. I’ll turn on the ISP setting on my limiter and watch my true peak meter to ensure I don’t breach my threshold of -0.1dBTP. My limiter only has 4X oversampling whereas LEVELS has 16X oversampling, making it more accurate at detecting true peaks.
During mastering, your limiter should be used in a musical way to set the volume of your audio to it’s ideal level. Avoid smashing your song with a lot of input gain, and focus on a light setting that works perfectly with your audio.