Some people use limiters early in their process. I’m not one of those people. I’ve attempted it a few times, and always found that I prefer to save limiting to the last step. Or occasionally I’ll decide things don’t need any limiting.
For me, bad limiting sounds worse than bad compression. And that’s pretty bad. Over-limited material sounds more amateur, more sonically offensive, than just about any processing mistake that people make. But as often as I hear it, I suppose it doesn’t bother other people as much as it offends me. So if my concerns seem a little dire, feel free to take this article with a grain of salt.
I remember when L1 limiters roamed the earth, unchallenged. This was the first serious look-ahead digital limiter for the masses, meaning that the detector had a head start before the gain reduction was activated. As transparent as that sounded, I found that when I pushed the gain reduction more than about 4dB, things sounded crushed and transients lost their impact. Sometimes you could push further, but 4dB was a reliable measure to avoid auditory ugliness.
This forced me to work harder at containing my mixes, finding other ways to communicate apparent loudness instead of just banging up against a limiter. And though some superior limiters followed the L1, I find that my processing for voice over, vocals, or anything else seems more powerful and vibrant when I don’t smash the living daylights out of things with a digital limiter. So I continue to use with caution.
TELL ME THE TRUTH
I believe we use good digital limiters to help increase apparent loudness without otherwise making things sound worse. So if we set the ceiling below 0dB FS, the audio won’t distort… right? Along comes the concept of intersample clipping to make things confusing (and to explain why things sometimes sound bad even if the meter doesn’t show it). Some good advice from Bob Katz, Ian Shepherd, and others has been: stay FAR below 0dB FS. Unless you’ve got a true peak meter. And I’ll take that one level up: unless you’ve got a true peak limiter!
I’ve recently started using Ozone 5, which has both true peak metering and limiting. Now I have to admit that I’m still learning how to wield the limiter well (iZotope stuff is so tweakible). As much as I appreciate knowing exactly what’s going on with the ceiling, making things sound good still requires that I listen. Limiters — just like any other audio tool — should be chosen thoughtfully, should become familiar by repeated use, and should ultimately be judged by how things sound.
Also in this Voice Processing series: