When it comes to making tracks louder, limiters and clippers are the go-to tools to get the job done. Although they sometimes get used indistinctly, they are completely different processes that when used wrongly, can ruin any mix. That is why it’s important to understand what they are and how to use them in order to get the best out of them in your sessions. Let’s start from the beginning.
The first thing we need to understand is the concept of clipping.
In the analog world, when an audio signal overloads the equipment, the signal starts getting distorted. This is because every device has a maximum level at which they can operate linearly. The moment a signal overpasses this limit, the equipment can not handle it correctly and the output waveform gets chopped, turning it into a square waveform and resulting in the addition of strong harmonic distortion. Under these conditions, we can say the signal is clipping.
It was covered in a previous article, part of the “magic” of analog audio devices is the addition of harmonics when they start saturating — also known as soft-clipping — which can enrich and thicken the sound of our tracks.
But, when we talk about digital clipping, things sound very different. When a signal clips in the digital domain, it has reached the maximum value that the computer can assign to that level. The computer cuts the waveform and starts adding unnatural anharmonic distortion through aliasing. That’s where the characteristic metallic digital clipping sound comes from and it should be avoided at all times when we are recording. When mixing, most of the time we can’t hear the digital clipping even when it’s shown in our metres. This is because most DAWs operate at 32 bit float which allows for an increased headroom during mixing.
With this concept in mind, you can probably guess what clippers are.
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