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L1, L2, L3 ... Ln - towards nonsense


There's this 2007 album that is great for when we do a party at home, but it always troubles me that it sounds .. distorted. I know it's a top quality pop record so distorting is out of the question, and when I look at it, i see it is precisely limited. It's on the brink of distortion, and so it sounds.. strange


Of course it is very easy to fool a digital meter into believing your track truly has max RMS at -2.8dB, and in reality it goes to +1dB peak digital territory. But to the ear it sounds a bit silly. And to the eye... you just saw for yourself.

* * *

Now here's this 2006 album that is actually a remastered title from 1990. Again a top quality, very well known act, who wouldn't hesitate to spend on top mixing and mastering (after all it's a remaster of a great album!). Can you see a limiter involved? Barely

Peaks at precisely 0dB, and max RMS at -7.63dB.

The first thing above is a seriously punchy affair. It's all straight in your face, loud, clear, loud highs, tight lows, you know, the works. The second... well, it's been one of my favourite albums for 17 years. It's a pop record well-ahead of its time. It still gets played in clubs to this day. What can I say? The remaster stays true to the original.. possibly for a reason!

So what is this post about?

The stuff above is made by using dynamic range compression, and the title says Limiters. Like everyone else, I was very excited with Waves L1 until L2 came out, and then, while still on Windows, I tried the L2 for some time. Now that I've switched platforms, am I going back to Waves?


What is a more silly idea than a 4-band peak limiter (the L3)? Of course, a 16-band peak limiter (the L3-16). And don't you love the shorthand version - L3 Ultramaximizer - just a profile dropdown, and the rest.. who cares if it sounds loud? Let's max out everything else while the kick is on leave. Chorus in the way? Still room for some highs to boost.

The comparisons above? Note the latter part of the first screengrab. The contrast between peaks and body is the same thing I find in all my own recordings before I go back to revise them (with varying success).

I am pretty sure mixing/mastering engineers must operate within very tight timeframes so I'm ok if they go for this two birds with one stone approach - loud, in your face sound, a bit of distortion, sounds great in the club, and on an iPod, so why bother?

The point

I do use multiband compression, and brickwall limiting at the master, just like everyone else. It's a silly thing not to. But I've found that you can achieve much better results if you just switch the damn chain off for half an hour and really sculpt your mix first, starting with adjusting the levels, dividing the spectrum carefully between the instruments, boosting here, cutting there, working for coexistence but not necessarily dominant presence, and then going further. You know, like in the old days, they used to produce a pop mix, by taking care of every little detail sound-wise, not only in terms of arrangement..

I say this because I recently had to mix and master a pop record and discovered that you can really pump a record to the point of squarewaving it, but it will never sound as full as when you mix it carefully. Imagine what happens when you mix carefully and then pump the thing real loud? Most probably you come up with a waveform that looks like the first two screengrabs above. I'm pretty sure they could have mixed it even better and could have limited it less.

Please try not to go for loudness that much? Remember, clubs have their own limiters, and radios go multiband-harsh on your music. So you might as well make it reasonable to listen to, they'll take care of squaring the waves. For the time being it maybe matters if it's loud. In a year's time it's merit alone that cuts it, not loudness. I'm past distorted music. Moreso, I wouldn't want to pay for a product that sounds funny. Would you?

If more bands was the remedy we would all operate on 64-band limiters, but if you've tried 6-band compression you'd already know - it sounds silly. It really does.

While I won't agree with Waves for offering L3 and anything further, I like the subliminal messages on their site. L1 screengrab: -15.6dB threshold (completely crazy but it's a groundbreaking product, see what it can do!); L2 screengrab: -12dB threshold (still very wrong, but ARC will have it sound transparent); L3: -4.4dB threshold (as in, try to mix this thing first, this won't fix it no matter how far you go, so keep it subtle)

Keep it subtle. It's that simple. Nobody will object on loudness, but in the digital domain, it comes at an expense. Are you producing the next square wave?

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