We audio professionals tend to love our source audio. There’s just something about that moment when you capture a great sound and a great performance that you don’t want to let go. Later, when we mix these tracks, we take a timid approach because if we dare push one knob too far, we’ll ruin the magic. I know, because I’ve felt this many times. However, there comes a time when a track needs dynamic processing, and choosing the right tool for the job can be almost more work than using the tool itself. And in today’s productions, it can be hard to make the dynamics of each element stand out due to the amount of mastering limiting and playback compression that’s happening everywhere. Let’s talk about some of the dynamic processors you can use to level your dynamics for the purpose of increasing volume and standing out in a busy mix without destroying the character of that magical audio you captured.
First and foremost, the most common tool for this task is the console channel compressor. Most consoles have a dynamics section built into every channel, thus it can be easy to reach up for it. Most board compressors can handle most dynamic processing tasks, and even impart some incredible sonic qualities to our sound. However, there are going to be some stubborn sounds that need more power than a board compressor can give. I find that the compressors on any SSL board are mighty powerful, but they don’t always behave exactly as you need them, and sometimes you need something that just has a different flavor. Enter the digital compressor. There are plenty of these—so many in fact, it’ll make your head spin.
I personally think one of the most powerful digital compressors is the Waves API 2500, which has the ability to go from one extreme to another, and anything in between.
You might have heard of the Waves CLA-76. (It’s great as well.) All of these can tame those peaks, even the dynamics, and allow you to raise the level of the track before pushing into the red. But what if we want to push things a little further and get a little more volume? What if we’re shooting for aggression? Try limiters!
The limiter is an amazing tool for increasing the volume in a track without destroying it’s character. How can we achieve this when a limiter limits? Well, the idea is actually very simple. A limiter can be set such that with proper attack and release settings, clamping occurs in a very predictable way, so that no stray peaks jump out from our ceiling. With that, we can set a threshold that puts a hard stopping point on our amplitude. From there, we can gain the track back up and let that volume scream. Doing this increases the RMS level of the track and will give it substantial weight. There are a lot of different characteristics of different limiters that behave in interesting ways for different sonic results. I recommend experimenting with a bunch of outboard limiters if you have the chance. But if you don’t, digital recreations of analog limiters should be your first encounter. Digital limiters aren’t always the most amazing processors, and that’s part of the reason a lot of people were very reluctant to give digital plug-ins a chance when digital recording starting becoming popular.
One of my favorite limiters is iZotope’s Ozone Vintage Limiter, which has several different algorithms to choose from along with parameters to get extremely specific. This limiter is very suitable for mastering and mixing. I use it on my master bus because I master my own mixes, and have never had a complaint yet! Sometimes though, you want limiters that are have useful functionality for mixing source material like drums, vocals, guitars or synths. For that, I’ll recommend to you my Finality limiter that I designed.
Finality was designed to be versatile, with a range of features that can change how the plug-in works with different types of sonics and dynamics. For example, the Aggro control can effect the release envelope to be more favorable for drums. The Color control adds some saturation to fatten up the sound and even further decrease the dynamic range (ultimately allowing for more RMS volume). The Auto Gain automatically makes up for the lost gain, and all of this can be used in parallel via the Mix knob.
Limiters like Finality can give you a few ways to preserve the sonic character of your tracks while allowing you to decrease the range of the dynamics for the purpose of raising volume. I hope you found this article useful; if you liked it please let me know in the comments! Thanks!
Joey Sturgis is a sought-after producer in the heavy metal genre. He knows how to make music sound larger than life, digging deeply to highlight the most optimized comic book superhero version of what each musician has to offer. The fruits of his laborious process are evident in genre-defining albums, including the best work of Asking Alexandria, Of Mice & Men, We Came As Romans, Blessthefall, and The Devil Wears Prada. Sturgis is in a unique position to figure out which tools and shortcuts will simplify the tech side and allow him to focus on the performance and music side. The biggest satisfaction of his blossoming career is sharing those tools and that knowledge. Aside from recording bands from his studio outside Detroit, Joey also owns the audio recording software companies Joey Sturgis Tones and Drumforge. Joey’s life mission has always been to help everyone, regardless of equipment, skill level etc., pursue their passion and make great sounding music.