Zen of Recording
Limiter: Mastering the Mix Raises the Roof
When I’m driving the car with family and friends, I like to let everyone be the DJ. Someone will play a song that will prompt another song’s selection by another, which leads to yet another and so on… I dunno, I guess I just love the musical awareness that comes from hearing what other folks are moved by. And what a cool exchange that is: the reciprocal sharing of things we love so much that we’ve chosen to make them a part of our lives.
The joy of listening is quite often a solitary activity, especially now, with earbuds and headphones comprising our personal listening chambers as we move through the world around us. When we happen upon an opportunity to relay our musical experiences and observations, we relish the chance. I like to think that in some small way, the time-honored craft of songwriting from way back in history is still alive, that the role of the troubadour as teller of the news of the day as well as revealer of the secrets in our hearts, is alive and well and kicking it on a streaming platform near you.
Just the other day, I had this amazing afternoon with my mom. We were making observations and telling stories about music and artists and all of our examples were, of course, blaring out of the speakers. We were just so swept up into it all, like two like-minded kids, which I guess we pretty much are. Those moments, that connection between like-minded hearts holds a sweetness that no confectioner could ever dream of, because the only thing better than the ideal music listening experience is sharing it.
So here’s a funny thing about that.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, a sort of competition developed among labels, artists, producers, and music buyers alike. They called it The Loudness Wars.
It’s a pretty basic concept, really. When singles from varying labels were being aired back-to-back on the radio (“What’s a radio?”) and broadcast elsewhere, the louder releases were often preferred because you could hear more music! For the record labels, this meant more money. So, the standing orders when it came to mastering were “Wring Every Single Decibel Out of This Thing That You Possibly Can.” Things quickly escalated into increasingly diminished returns until Metallica famously jumped the volume shark for all time with the ear-bleeder Death Magnetic in 2008. It is by far the best example of over-limiting the master output that I can think of. Feels a little bit like chipping your teeth.
The limiter is the last link in the chain. At this point things sound pretty much how you want them, except you’d like just a bit…more. The peaks at your output could actually be run through one last process, wherein all of those problematic snare hits, cymbal crashes, and other transients jumping out of the mix are detected and then imperceptibly turned down, providing just that much more headroom we can fill up again!
Streaming changed everything. A new standard was adopted with regard to the volume of digital music releases: LUFS. The acronym stands for Loudness Units Relative to Full Scale, and it essentially looks at the average volume, rather than simply focusing on peaks. Spotify, iTunes, and others quickly embraced these new standards and so, metaphorically, mastering engineers were trying to lift the ceiling with a push-broom before; now they are having to simultaneously thread a needle as well.
The best sounding (loud) masters usually employ some combination of compression, saturation, and limiting at the final stage of mastering process.
Compression glues the elements together and brings up a bit of the ambience track. Longer attack times let some of the smack or “punch” through, or faster attacks can tame “pokey” elements in your mix by attenuating them more quickly.
Saturation enhances the harmonic content of your mix, resulting in a more exciting, fatter and often more aggressive tone.
Enter Tom Frampton’s Mastering the Mix (https://www.masteringthemix.com ), with another great-sounding audio solution alongside their excellent BASSROOM, MIXROOM plugins previously covered here: LIMITER.
Like other MTM offerings, LIMITER features a simple but elegant 2D design with seemingly few features but a surprising amount of control over your audio masters.
Clicking on the “hamburger” icon at the top of the plugin shows a cornucopia of presets designed to deliver your masters in full compliance with streaming services, vinyl cutters, and CD manufacturers.
Just to the right of that is a button marked Analyze, which we’ll come back to. To the right of that is a handy A/B button, so you can progressively compare your results and hone in on exactly the right settings for the sound you’re looking for. Other icons at the upper right give access to licensing, an excellent help and support center (including a very clear and informative manual) and settings (I clicked all of the options, FYI).
The processing and workflow of LIMITER takes a very intuitive approach, in that there are inherently several inter-related tasks to consider, and making those decisions is made easier by the included presets and custom audio analysis and visual feedback the plugin provides.
After loading LIMITER into the last position on your master output chain, select and loop the loudest few measures of your song’s longest section. Clicking the “Analyze” button will then take a listen to your audio and generate some target ranges to stay within, as well as markers they specifically recommend as good starting points.
At this point, things sound pretty good, but now we’ve come to the part where we get “more.”
At the left side of the plugin’s interface are three vertical sliders: NRG, PCH, and GAIN.
NRG allows you to bring up the energy of the mix by introducing more harmonic saturation. This turns up the perceived volume in addition to adding some overall excitement.
The punch and impact of your master can be further sculpted to taste, by setting just the right attack time with the Attack knob and then slowly crank up the PCH slider. Faster times clamp down on problems, but slower times allow more transients to hit you in the gut.
After that, simply push that GAIN slider up until it’s right where you dig it.
The Release knob is helpful for those who need to tweak at that level, but I always found the “Auto” handled everything perfectly. However, the Link knob can actually pull your master forward, but at the expense of your stereo image.
The beauty of this plugin is that it puts you in the ballpark, but leaves you in the driver’s seat. This means you can get close very quickly, leaving only the fine tuning for you to determine.
I used this on vocal/acoustic recordings as well as fully produced arrangements and if you couldn’t tell already, I absolutely adore this thing. It’s clean, it’s quick, and it’s easy, and you are still the boss when it comes to the finer points. Who could ask for more?
Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter and record producer from San Diego, California. See him perform live at the Writers’ Round SD on February 16th at the Ould Sod @ 6pm