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Using limiting and compression to maximize track level

From: Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools

Video: Using limiting and compression to maximize track level

"I want it loud," screamed the client. A major component of the mastering process is track leveling or achieving the desired perceived loudness in a mix that compares favorably or is what's known as competitive with other mixes in that genre. Well, there are much controversies surrounding the battle for loud. Let's first look at how an engineer might achieve this and we'll address some of the considerations and concerns surrounding brickwall limiting. So before we talk about brickwall limiting and how we can make tracks loud, we need to understand headroom and average or perceive loudness and sort of what keeps our signal from being loud.

Using limiting and compression to maximize track level

"I want it loud," screamed the client. A major component of the mastering process is track leveling or achieving the desired perceived loudness in a mix that compares favorably or is what's known as competitive with other mixes in that genre. Well, there are much controversies surrounding the battle for loud. Let's first look at how an engineer might achieve this and we'll address some of the considerations and concerns surrounding brickwall limiting. So before we talk about brickwall limiting and how we can make tracks loud, we need to understand headroom and average or perceive loudness and sort of what keeps our signal from being loud.

So headroom is the dynamic range between the normal operating level and the maximum output level or clip point of a system. Now, in Pro Tools and other DAWs, this is 0 dBFS. So you see how the meter here ends at zero. dBFS stands dB Full Scale and it sort of counts from zero into negative numbers based on the bit depth, whether it's 16 or 24 bits. Now, in the analog world, this is a bit gray. In the digital world, it's very black and white.

So if you think of like a concrete ceiling and you're jumping up and down, if you hit that ceiling, it's not going to give any. Whereas in the analog world, kind of the transition between soft clipping and hard clipping, this could actually be kind of ear pleasing. In digital, it just lops off the top of your waveform, at the loudest part of your waveform if you exceed this level. Now, if we think about perceived loudness, even though our transients approach very high levels in our mix, if we play this back...

(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) So the transients are popping up here real close to zero. Now even though the transients are sitting there, the rest of our audio is much lower and what these transients are doing is it's preventing us from pushing or turning that mix up any louder. Because what happens is as soon as we raise the volume of the mix, those transients just get shaved off.

Remember, it's sort of black or white. It's there or it's not on the digital world. So if I take this fader here and I push it up, I'm just going to start getting distortion. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) So really what's happening there, really what's preventing me from making it loud is that as I push that up any louder, those transients start getting loped off. When I start loping them off enough, we actually hear digital distortion.

Now, perceived loudness is going to be the perception of how loud something is against something else. It's not how loud the transients are, but it's how loud sort of the average level of the music or the audio is sitting. Generally, it's the goal of mastering sort of match the perceived loudness with another similar track and without getting into the politics of what's loud and are things too loud. Generally what we're going to end up doing is using brickwall Limiters to protect the headroom of this system while bringing up the average level of the mix.

So again, this is where brickwall Limiters come in and the one that comes with Pro Tools is called Maxim. A brickwall Limiter or a peak clipper, its main goal is to take and raise the volume level of the mix and sort of soft-clip those transients. So you can think of it as sort of pushing a spring against a brickwall. You're compacting the coils, so I'm bringing up the average level or the fullness of the audio and that's going to raise the perceived loudness.

Now, it's literally soft- clipping the peaks or the transients. But it's doing this in a more graceful way than just pushing up the fader. Now, because it is clipping them, you can still distort the output of your brickwall Limiter. You can still get too much from it and lose all the impact of your mix. So typically, how we would use Maxim, if we started from scratch and I just insert this plug-in, so under Dynamics, you're going to see these two values, those are going to be threshold and ceiling.

Now ceiling is the maximum level that it's going to allow out of the processor. So generally, I'll set this below zero to protect that. If I'm going to be compressing it to MP3, I might set it a dB or two below zero, because the output of the MP3 is going to be a bit harder than the uncompressed signal. Once I've set this ceiling to right around -1, now I'm going to take and pull down the threshold. What this is going to do, it's going to simultaneously raise the volume of the mix and start clipping off those transients.

(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) (Male singing: Tonight I fell...) Now you can see the attenuation is measuring my gain reduction. It's sort of measuring how much that limiter is working on that signal, because a limiter is a compressor. It's not allowing anything over its threshold here.

Now you don't have an Attack setting on Maxim because it's actually looking ahead at the signals. So it's not allowing any of that Attack to get through. This is exactly what we want on a brickwall Limiter. We want to stop everything from coming out the output and clipping our mix bus. Now, you do have a release and the release control is how fast is it going to recover after it attenuates. Generally, if I'm doing light brickwall Limiting, I can leave it at the default setting of one millisecond, but as I go heavier and I turn the track up more and more by lowering the threshold, what ends up happening is the limiter is working so fast, it's actually tracing the waveform of the low frequency components in my mix and causing distortion.

If I bring this down, you're going to hear a lot of distortion. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never...) But as I brought that release up, the distortion disappeared, but you kind of really started to hear the compression with the limiting work a lot. So you're looking for a happy medium. You generally want to kind of pay attention to how it sounds. You don't want to go too loud. A track is always going to have a point where it starts getting destroyed, if you go any louder.

Now, this kind of brings up the point of how much do I want to pull down this threshold. It's important to talk about the difference between loud versus hard. Now, as you reduce those transients, your mix isn't going to sound as punchy. It's going to be loud, but you're kind of evening out the whole track. It's the difference between loud or the transients in those snare and kick hits and the rest of the mix that kind of gives it that punchiness. If I strip all that away, then I'm going to have a weak mix that's just loud.

That's generally not the goal. So you want to pick a happy medium that controls the transients and brings up the average level, but doesn't completely squash your mix. This is where a lot of engineers sort of start to disagree with the trends in limiting and mastering that a lot of people are favoring loud over a nice punchy dynamic mix that might not be as loud when played next to a commercially mastered mix that was just slammed, but it sounds a little bit better on a nicer audio system.

So, generally what I like to do is when I'm doing my own mastering, basically I'm going to get as much volume out of it until I really start hearing degradation of the dynamics or the signal. Now, a little bit of limiting, sort of packing in all the little kind of things that are popping out of the mix can be cool. But too much really destroys your mix. So I'll pull this down. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) That's probably the most I'm going to do without bringing it to a professional mastering engineer and most of the times this is close enough to a commercial level.

Some mixes can take more brickwall Limiting than others, but experiment and don't push it too far. So if you're curious as to how your track stacks up against other commercially mastered tracks, what you can do is you can actually measure the average loudness by using the plug- in included with Pro Tools under Sound Field called PhaseScope. What this is going to do if I choose the LEQ meter here, I'm going to get an average level measured over this window.

So I'll leave it at 2 seconds here and let me play back the mix. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) And again, in one of the loudest sections. (Male singing: So take me down, take me down and my feet will follow, wherever my heart goes.) (Male singing: I'm come around, I'll come around, like I always. I'll keep my feet on the ground.) Now, if you were to take other mixes and bring them into your session and use this plug-in, you could get a good idea for that specific genre, what's the average level sort of sitting around.

Like I said, this isn't sort of an end-all be-all thing that you want to rely on, but it just gives you a good idea how your mix is going to stack up to others. So in the end, I'm not going to tell you to not make your track really loud, I think, the rest of the recording community has done an excellent job as wrist-slappers. If that's what you really want, then go for it, but I just really want you to understand the rationale and repercussions behind loud masters. A well-mastered track can be competitive and still retain punch and dynamics at all playback levels.

So when mastering things myself, I tend to air on the side of caution and leave it to the professionals when I need the super squash.

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This video is part of

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Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools

77 video lessons · 9152 viewers

Brian Lee White
Author

 
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  1. 14m 50s
    1. Welcome
      1m 12s
    2. The past, present, and future of mixing
      6m 20s
    3. Strategies for mixing and mastering
      5m 38s
    4. Using the exercise files
      1m 40s
  2. 40m 24s
    1. Mixing "in the box"
      5m 9s
    2. Setting up the studio: Speakers and acoustics
      13m 12s
    3. Staying organized: Effectively prepping the mix
      10m 50s
    4. Managing system resources during mixdown
      11m 13s
  3. 41m 39s
    1. Introducing the Pro Tools Mixer
      2m 24s
    2. Understanding mixer signal flow
      3m 42s
    3. Using inserts and plug-ins
      7m 4s
    4. Working with plug-in settings
      5m 1s
    5. Using sends and creating FX returns
      6m 55s
    6. Submixing with aux tracks
      4m 30s
    7. Using groups while mixing
      3m 46s
    8. Using master faders effectively
      8m 17s
  4. 21m 11s
    1. Conceptualizing the mix and making a plan
      7m 45s
    2. Using volume and pan to balance the mix
      11m 18s
    3. Knowing when to process: Mix problems vs. mix solutions
      2m 8s
  5. 1h 3m
    1. Understanding the mechanics of sound
      3m 53s
    2. Learning the basics of EQ: Frequency-specific level control
      4m 29s
    3. Using DigiRack EQ III
      16m 3s
    4. EQ strategies in mixing: Corrective vs. creative
      7m 18s
    5. EQ workflow example 1: Kick drum
      5m 39s
    6. EQ workflow example 2: Filtering loops
      5m 10s
    7. EQ workflow example 3: The "telephone" effect
      3m 7s
    8. Mixing tips and tricks for EQ
      17m 36s
  6. 1h 15m
    1. Understanding dynamics and dynamic range
      2m 1s
    2. Working with dynamics processors
      2m 57s
    3. Using the DigiRack Dyn III compressor/limiter
      10m 6s
    4. Balancing and shaping track dynamics
      3m 19s
    5. Using gates and expanders
      9m 22s
    6. Using de-essers to eliminate sibilance
      5m 47s
    7. Dynamics workflow example 1: Vocals
      10m 0s
    8. Dynamics workflow example 2: Drums
      9m 29s
    9. Mixing tips and tricks: Dynamics
      11m 37s
    10. Building parallel or "upward" compression
      7m 53s
    11. Reviewing dynamics concerns: How much is too much?
      3m 28s
  7. 47m 48s
    1. Using time-based effects to add depth and width
      3m 22s
    2. Using DigiRack D-Verb
      14m 27s
    3. Using the DigiRack delays
      9m 18s
    4. Mixing with reverb
      7m 59s
    5. Mixing with delays
      6m 19s
    6. Mixing tips and tricks: Creating mix depth
      6m 23s
  8. 18m 8s
    1. Working with the Creative Collection
      9m 8s
    2. Building distortion and saturation
      9m 0s
  9. 37m 33s
    1. Understanding automation
      4m 10s
    2. Recording real-time automation moves
      7m 6s
    3. Viewing and editing automation
      10m 17s
    4. Automating plug-ins
      7m 36s
    5. Automation strategies for mixing
      8m 24s
  10. 29m 31s
    1. Understanding the characteristics of a great mix
      7m 2s
    2. Working to reference tracks
      4m 35s
    3. Avoiding some common pitfalls
      7m 50s
    4. Building healthy mixing habits
      3m 36s
    5. Crafting your mix from start to finish
      6m 28s
  11. 1h 5m
    1. Understanding mastering
      4m 15s
    2. Bouncing the mix
      7m 9s
    3. Working with general mastering strategies
      8m 50s
    4. Using limiting and compression to maximize track level
      10m 57s
    5. Working with multi-band compression
      7m 9s
    6. Understanding sample rate, bit depth, file formats, and dither
      7m 30s
    7. Using Pro Tools for CD track sequencing
      10m 11s
    8. Compressing audio for the web
      9m 41s
  12. 44m 51s
    1. Tips for evaluating plug-in processors
      6m 51s
    2. Using EQ plug-ins
      5m 35s
    3. Using dynamic compression plug-ins
      11m 3s
    4. Using reverb and delay plug-ins
      10m 46s
    5. Reviewing additional plug-ins
      10m 36s
  13. 57m 18s
    1. Effectively using saturation/analog style effects
      13m 40s
    2. Setting up side chains
      7m 5s
    3. Master buss processing
      5m 34s
    4. Creating and using mix templates
      6m 54s
    5. Surround mixing
      6m 22s
    6. Dealing with plug-in delay and latency
      6m 26s
    7. Drum sample replacing
      11m 17s
  14. 32s
    1. Goodbye
      32s

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