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A Limiter is a compressor with a very high compression ratio and a very fast attack time, so it's able to catch the fast peaks of an audio signal. In order to understand how a Limiter works in mastering, we have to understand the composition of a typical music program first. In general, the highest peak of the source program, a song in this case, determines the maximum level that can be achieved in a digital signal. Because many of these upper peaks are very short duration, they can usually be reduced in level by several dB with minimal audible side effects.
By controlling these peaks the entire level of the program can be raised several dB resulting in a higher average signal level, that's what we use a Limiter for. Most digital Limiters used in mastering or brick wall limiters, this means that no matter what happens the signal will not exceed a certain predetermined level, and there'll be no digital overs. A brick wall limiter is usually set anywhere from -1 dB to as high as -0.1 dB, and once set the level will never go beyond. There are many popular mastering limiters that are commonly used from the waves L1 and L2 to the Universal Audio Precision Limiter to the T-racks brick wall Limiter to ones by Isotope, Massey, and many others.
By setting a Digital Limiter correctly the mastering engineer can gain at least several dB of apparent level just by the simple fact that peaks in the program are now controlled.
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