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Limiting Versus Compressing Vocals

Treating one of the most dynamic instruments that shows up in mixes...

By Joey Sturgis May 15, 2019

Image courtesy of OpenClipart-Vectors

Most of us have compressed a vocal track once or twice; OK, maybe more like several thousand times. The human voice is probably one of the most dynamic instruments that shows up in mixes.

While many engineers like to ride the vocals, compression is still important for taming peaks and balancing out the inner-dynamics faster than our hand-controlled faders can do.

However, compression isn’t always the best answer for a vocal. Have you ever come across a vocal that was over compressed or too weak with nothing in-between? That’s where limiting can come in handy.

Limiters can react to a signal a lot quicker than compressors and can handle higher ratios. In today’s world of modern mixing with more versatile vocal productions, limiters can be an important tool for controlling the vocal dynamics properly.

Limiters are usually used to prevent a sound from going over a certain point, and they’re very good at doing that. They can also be used to increase the overall RMS loudness of a sound source, which can be quite useful on vocals in an extremely dense mix.

Screenshots of VU meters in two versions of the Finality limiter plugin from JST.

Using limiters with auto-gain, all you’ve got to do is set the attack and release appropriately and then adjust the threshold to taste. Listen carefully to make sure you’re not totally nuking the sound or imparting some sort of negative dynamic side-effect. But don’t be afraid to try some drastic settings at first.

If you’ve used compressors mostly or almost exclusively in the past, pay attention to how heavy the release and ratio are set. You might get away with a much slower attack at lower ratios, but when increasing the ratio, the signal can start sounding like a train wreck.

A limiter, on the other hand, provides the option of increasing the loudness balance of the vocal performance with limited or near-zero pumping. This allows the vocal to stay more true to it’s original sound.

If you’re dealing with several vocal layers, use a limiter to tame sections of the song where additional harmonies and backing vocals start to stack up and become too loud. A limiter with a very slow release time can allow you to effectively “duck” these sections down without making much of a fuss. Automate to taste.

I feel that attack time is less important on a dynamic processor for a vocal, because I typically want my reduction to be clamping down immediately. This is where limiters can really shine as they are typically allow settings of less than 1 millisecond (ms). Thanks to a common parameter known as look-ahead, limiters can anticipate peaks and subsequently have more time to calculate what to do with them.

The next important behavior is the limiter’s release timing. It can be set for results that go from smooth and natural to hyper and pumpy. It all depends on the limiter design, of course. Because limiters can handle higher ratios and faster timings, they can also do wonders for crazy dynamics.

I know many mix engineers who now use limiters and volume envelopes only and have completely abandoned compressors. Reaching for a different dynamic processor on your next vocal is worth trying, because we often get stuck in our habits and forget to experiment. I urge you to do some experimentation next time you’re given the opportunity to mix a vocal and see what kind of results you get.

Joey Sturgis is a producer/engineer who’s worked with Billboard charting bands like Asking Alexandria (Gold-Certified), Of Mice and Men, The Devil Wears Prada, Attila and many others. He also owns audio recording software companies Drumforge and Joey Sturgis Tones (JST), which just released the Finality limiter plugin. Find out more about it here.

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Andy says

Ummm... What compressors have you seen that don't allow fast attacks and infinity:1 ratios (making them limiters)?

What is a limiter if not a compressor with the ratio set at infinity:1?

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