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Compressor vs Limiter | Which One is Best? | Expert Music Production 101

Compressor vs Limiter, which one is better? In this article, we discuss the differences between the two.

Introduction

Music producers use a wide variety of tools when mixing and mastering a track. Those tools and techniques can shape the sound and tone of a recording, including instruments, software, and hardware. The goal of music production is to create a high-quality, professional-sounding recording that accurately captures the artist’s vision and creativity. In this article, we’ll be discussing two of the most popular types of plugins.

Compressor

A compressor is a dynamic audio processing tool used to control the dynamic range of an audio signal. It reduces the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a sound or a mix, making the audio more balanced and polished. Also, a compressor works by automatically reducing the volume of a signal that exceeds a set threshold, helping to control peaks and prevent clipping or distortion. It then allows you to increase the overall level of the signal by raising the gain, effectively bringing up the quieter parts of the audio without letting the louder parts clip.

Compressors have several parameters that can be adjusted, including threshold, ratio, attack, release, and makeup gain:

  1. Threshold: This sets the level at which the compressor starts reducing the volume. Any part of the audio signal that exceeds the threshold will be compressed.
  2. Ratio: This determines the amount of gain reduction applied to the signal above the threshold. For example, a 2:1 ratio means that for every 2 dB the input level exceeds the threshold, the output level will only increase by 1 dB.
  3. Attack: This controls how quickly the compressor reacts to signals that exceed the threshold. A shorter attack time will result in faster compression, while a longer attack time will allow more of the initial transient to pass through uncompressed.
  4. Release: This determines how quickly the compressor stops reducing the gain after the signal falls below the threshold. A shorter release time will result in quicker recovery to the original level, while a longer release time will result in a slower recovery.
  5. Makeup gain: This allows you to increase the overall level of the signal after compression to compensate for the reduced gain caused by the compressor.

Compressors are used for a variety of purposes in music production, including:

  1. Dynamic control: Compressors are used to control the dynamic range of an audio signal, ensuring that the loudest parts of the audio don’t clip or distort, and the softer parts are brought up to an audible level.
  2. Tone shaping: Compressors can be used to shape the tone of an audio signal by emphasizing or reducing certain frequency ranges. For example, a compressor with a sidechain EQ can be used to tame harsh frequencies in a vocal recording.
  3. Glueing a mix: Compressors are used in mix bus or master bus processing to “glue” a mix together by controlling the dynamics of the overall mix. This helps to create a cohesive and polished sound.
  4. Adding sustain to instruments: Compressors are used on instruments such as guitars, bass, and vocals to add sustain and control the level of the instrument, making it sound more polished and professional.
  5. Creative effects: Compressors can be used creatively to achieve special effects, such as “pumping” or “breathing” effects, where the volume of a sound is intentionally exaggerated for stylistic purposes.

Like EQ, using a compressor effectively requires a trained ear and experience, as it can significantly impact the dynamics and overall sound of a recording. Understanding the parameters and their interaction is crucial in achieving the desired result. Properly using a compressor in music production can result in a balanced mix with controlled dynamics and enhanced tonal characteristics, while improper use can lead to an overly compressed or unnatural sound.

Limiter

A limiter is a type of dynamic range processor used in music production and audio engineering to prevent audio signals from exceeding a certain level, also known as the “ceiling”. A limiter works by automatically reducing the gain (volume) of an audio signal that exceeds the specified threshold, ensuring that the signal does not clip or distort.

In essence, a limiter is like a compressor with an extremely high ratio, often in the range of 10:1 or higher. Unlike a compressor, which typically applies gain reduction to a signal gradually, a limiter applies the gain reduction instantly and forcefully, resulting in a more extreme form of dynamic range compression.

A limiter is typically used in music production and mastering to prevent clipping and ensure that the audio signal does not exceed a certain level, which can cause distortion and other unwanted artifacts. This is particularly important in commercial music production, where the final mix is often played on a wide range of playback systems, from small earbuds to large sound systems, and must sound consistent and polished across all of them.

Limiter thresholds are usually set to a level just below the maximum peak level of the signal, so that the limiter only engages when the signal reaches its maximum level, preventing any clipping or distortion. This allows the mastering engineer to increase the overall level of the mix without causing distortion or other unwanted artifacts.

It’s important to use limiters judiciously and not rely on them as a solution for every dynamic range issue. Overuse of limiters can result in an over-compressed and unnatural sound, which can be fatiguing to listen to over long periods of time. Additionally, limiters can affect the transient response of a mix, reducing the impact and punch of percussive elements such as drums.

In summary, a limiter is a powerful tool used in music production and mastering to prevent clipping and ensure that the audio signal does not exceed a certain level. It is particularly important in commercial music production, where the final mix must sound consistent and polished across a wide range of playback systems. It’s important to use limiters judiciously and not rely on them as a solution for every dynamic range issue, as overuse can result in an over-compressed and unnatural sound.

Compressor vs Limiter

Compressors and limiters are two dynamic processing tools used in music production to control the levels of an audio signal. While they share some similarities, they serve different purposes and have different settings and characteristics.

A compressor works by reducing the dynamic range of an audio signal, which means it reduces the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the sound. This is done by setting a threshold level, above which the compressor kicks in and reduces the gain (volume) of the signal. The amount of gain reduction is determined by the ratio setting, which controls how much the signal is reduced above the threshold. Compressors are commonly used to even out the levels of a performance, such as a vocal or a bass guitar, making the quieter parts louder and the louder parts quieter. They can also be used to add sustain to a guitar or bring out the attack of a drum.

A limiter, on the other hand, is a more extreme form of compression that is designed to prevent a signal from going above a certain level, or “ceiling.” This is done by setting the threshold very close to the maximum level of the signal, and applying a very high ratio of gain reduction, typically 10:1 or higher. The result is that any part of the signal that exceeds the threshold is heavily compressed, preventing the signal from clipping or distorting. Limiters are commonly used in mastering to increase the overall level of a mix while preventing clipping and distortion.

The main difference between a compressor and a limiter is the amount of gain reduction they apply and the purpose for which they are used. Compressors are used for more subtle level control and dynamic shaping, while limiters are used for more extreme level control and to prevent clipping and distortion. However, there are some settings on compressors, such as a high ratio and a low threshold, that can make them function like limiters.

Essentially, compressor and a limiter are both important tools in music production and audio engineering for controlling the levels of an audio signal. Compressors are used for dynamic shaping and subtle level control, while limiters are used for extreme level control and preventing clipping and distortion. The choice of which tool to use depends on the specific application and the desired outcome.

Music Production Techniques

Here are the most common music production techniques:

1. Layering: This refers to the technique of adding multiple layers of sounds or instruments on top of each other to create a rich and complex sound. This technique can be used to add depth, texture, and complexity to a track, and to create a unique and original sound.

Layering can involve combining different samples, synthesizer presets, or recordings of real instruments to create a more complex and nuanced sound. Each layer may contribute a different element to the overall sound, such as a different frequency range, rhythm, or texture. The layers can be blended together using mixing techniques such as EQ, compression, and reverb.

Layering can be used in various genres of music, such as hip hop, rock, and pop, to create unique and memorable sounds. However, it’s important to use layering judiciously and not overdo it, as too many layers can create a cluttered and confusing sound. A skilled producer will know how to balance the different layers and use them to enhance the overall sound of the track.

2. Sampling: This involves taking a small section of a pre-recorded sound or song and using it in a new composition.

3. Sidechaining: This is a technique used in music production where the output of one sound source (usually a kick drum or bassline) is used to control the processing of another sound source (such as a synth or pad). This is achieved by routing the side chain signal (the output of the kick drum or bassline) to a compressor or other effect applied to the secondary sound source. The compressor then responds to the level of the side chain signal, reducing the volume of the secondary sound source whenever the side chain signal is present, creating a pumping or ducking effect.

Its commonly used in electronic dance music (EDM) to create a rhythmic pulsing effect between the kick drum and bassline. It can also be used to make room for vocals in a mix by ducking the level of the instruments whenever the vocals are present, allowing the vocals to cut through the mix more clearly. Side chaining can be achieved through various plugins and software tools, and is an important technique to master for any producer or engineer working with electronic or dance-oriented music.

4. Automation: This involves using technology to control the levels of different tracks or effects over time, allowing for dynamic changes in the music.

5. Reverb: This is a technique that involves adding a sense of space and depth to a sound or mix, simulating the effect of sound bouncing off walls in a physical space.

6. Delay: This is a technique that involves adding a delayed repetition of a sound, creating a sense of space and depth.

7. EQ: This involves adjusting the balance of frequencies in an audio signal, helping to shape the tone, timbre, and overall sound of a recording.

8. Compression: This involves reducing the dynamic range of an audio signal, helping to balance the levels of different instruments and create a more consistent sound.

9. Pitch correction: This involves adjusting the pitch of a recording to correct off-key notes or create a desired effect.

10. Editing: This involves manipulating audio recordings, such as cutting, splicing, and rearranging sections of a track.

These are just a few examples of the many music production techniques used in the industry. Each technique can be used in a variety of ways to create unique sounds and styles, and many producers develop their own signature techniques and approaches to music production.

Additional Reading

Now that you’ve learned the difference between a compressor and a limiter, check out our other articles.

Do you also use orchestral strings or woodwinds instruments in your mixes? Read our article about the Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven and 10 of the top Woodwind VSTs.

Interested in finding a solid midi controller for music production? Read our article about the 6 of the best midi controllers. Also, here are 9 of the best microphones for musicians and 9 great headphones for music production.

Breve Music Studios publishes music to Spotify, YouTube Music, Amazon Music and more. Follow our pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube.

Listen to our ensembles: Breve Orchestra, Breve Music Ensemble, Breve Low Brass Ensemble, Breve Woodwind Ensemble, and Jermaine Harris on Spotify.






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