We could all use less “hmm, i wonder what this is doing exactly?” and more “aha, i understand exactly what that is doing!” moments in our lives, am i right?
Well, perhaps you have everything sorted out with absolutely perfect mental clarity at all times… but nobody that i know of does. The built-in perceptual capabilities of human bodies have limitations. Consequently, methods we can use to uncover and keep track of finer layers of detail to our perceptual input than normally possible can be quite useful for stepping outside our our usual—highly subjective and somewhat amorphous—human frame of reference.
Kind of like every human being has a height value, every audio clip has a peak level value. So what can we do with that information, beyond knowing that going above 0dB usually isn’t advised? In our eternal quest for ultimate audio quality, the inclination can be inherent to record loudly—as close to 0dB—as possible, and thereafter maintain that peak level. We fear that by mixing with track levels that are too quiet, we might be losing fidelity, some harmonic detail in the saturation floor or something.
While it is true that recording analog signals as loudly as possible without signal clipping to begin with will indeed minimize noise floor, the benefits reaped by maximizing peak level for individual tracks tapers off as you get closer to zero. At what peak level are audio sources louder than they really need to be? At what level are they too quiet, that they might need to be boosted excessively later? Using an algorithm based on the energy of how sounds stack together, i devised a set of go-to ranges for peak levels based on track counts. Since peak levels can vary fairly wildly based on content, you are given minimums and maximums (instead of single target values). Juicy details ahead… Continue reading
So i set up a Limiter Tournament (using a variation on single elimination style) to decisively rank my Clipper/Limiter/Maximizer plugins against each other. Unlike with compression, which i often like to use for adding character, injecting density, and enhancing groove, my primary purpose for limiters tends to be to increase headroom by curtailing short transient peaks, leading to a consistent, clean output. For this reason, it is not so impractical for me to classify some limiters as “better” than other (unlike with compressors). This is also the reason why i am including clippers and limiters both in the same tournament. Limiters tend to pump and Clippers tend to distort, but lots of plugins have characteristics of both, and the basic purpose is the same for both: to reduce the pokiness of peaks which are so fast we don’t really hear them anyways. Maximizers? What the fuck are those? There is no consensus as different developers release things they call “maximizers” which do different things, but in general, they combine peak limiting with either low-level compression or saturation.
4 limiter/clipper/maximizer models at a time were pitted against each other in contests using HOFA BlindTest with clips gradually pushed into 35dB of limiting, gain-matched using Melda’s MAGC to be able to hear only dynamics, tone, and distortion characteristics without loudness levels affecting perception.
What does compression sound like?
What are compressors actually doing to our audio?