There is no doubt that music production is a highly complex process involving hundreds of techniques that can help enhance the overall quality of any track. Among these techniques, two of the most efficient and widely used methods are compression and limiting.
Even though they are often used interchangeably, they are different. In this blog, we will focus on what compression and limiting are, how they differ from each other, their use cases, and all the other things you need to know about these techniques to enhance your music.
If this blog is on Compression Vs Limiting, why are we reading about dynamic range first? Let us tell you that both the techniques, Compression and Limiting, are used by music producers to control the overall dynamic range of their music. This is why understanding Dynamic Range is like the fundamental of Compression and Limiting.
So, Dynamic Range is the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a recorded track. Imagine a music track with too much dynamic range, meaning some parts would be extremely loud while the rest would be too soft. If the opposite happens, a track with too little Dynamic Range will make it sound bland.
This is why Dynamic Range is an important aspect that needs to be controlled in music production. Hence, the wide use of Compression and Limiting enhances the overall flavor of the music.
Now that you understand dynamic range let us take you through Compression. Compression balances the Dynamic Range by reducing the volume of the loudest parts of a track, but Compression does not affect the softer parts of the track. Post compression, music producers notice that their music becomes more even volume level throughout.
Compression is a digital technique in which a music producer manually or using software automatically sets a threshold level, beyond which the software automatically reduces the volume level of the audio.
When the audio reaches the threshold level, the compressor attenuates the volume by a pre-fixed ratio. This ratio can vary, depending on the technician’s preference. This ratio will decide how much the volume it has to reduce.
For example, a 3:1 ratio will guide the software that for every 3 decibels (dB) that the signal will go above the pre-fixed level, the compressor will reduce the volume by 1 dB.
While volume is the primary factor in Compression, there are several other factors that a music producer might consider before applying Compression. Attack, release, and knee are some of the most common parameters.
Just like Compression, Limiting is another common dynamic range control technique. Similar to Compression, limiting works by setting a threshold level, although there is one simple difference. As the name suggests, instead of reducing the volume of the loudest parts of a track, a limiter would not allow any section of the recording to exceed the set threshold level.
For example, if the threshold is set to -8 dB, any part of the recording that exceeds -8 dB will get automatically limited to -8 dB. During recording, if a bit reaches -6dB, the limiter will instantly limit it to -10 dB.
Understanding the basics of Compression and Limiting would have cleared the difference between Compression Vs Limiting. Music producers use both techniques for two different purposes.
While, Compression is mainly used to decrease the elevated Dynamic Range of a recording, Limiting, on the other hand, is used to prevent any part of a recording from exceeding a set level in the first place. Limiting is a slightly more powerful technique by many music producers out there. At the same time, Compression is considered a more subtle technique as it is used only to even out the volume instead of limiting the recorded volume.
Music Producers worldwide commonly use Compression to make a recording sound more professional, sophisticated, and polished. Keep the following points in mind if you want to achieve a similar effect.
If you want to highlight certain instruments in your recording, Compression can be utilized by reducing the volume of other recording elements. This can help bring the audience’s focus to the part your want to highlight.
Short, high-intensity volume spikes (transients) can make your music sound rough and are only sometimes appreciated by listeners. Compression can be used to even out these spikes, enhancing the recording.
By controlling the dynamic range of a recording, music producers can create the effect of a more cohesive sounding track, which can again be achieved by using Compression correctly.
If you have ever recorded a live event, you would understand that sudden spikes in volume can create undesired clipping and distortion. Limiting can prevent these clippings and distortions by not allowing the volume of a recording to exceed the maximum level that the music producer sets.
Depending on the music producer’s choices, Limiting is often used to add a slight punch to a recording by increasing the volume of the softer parts.
While this might sound counter-intuitive, Limiting is also used to create an intentional distortion. A music producer can push the volume of a recording slightly above the limitation of their equipment.
While Limiting is an excellent feature in every music producer’s arsenal, it is also essential to understand that there are certain limitations to using this technique. In this section, we have mentioned some points a music producer should consider before berserk with a Limiter.
While we understand that Limiting can be very tempting if you want to make your recording as loud as possible, you should also consider that beyond a level, extending the limit would only create unwanted distortion and clipping. So, ensure you are staying within the prescribed limit.
In cases where a recording is already heavily compressed, music producers should avoid limiting it. Even though both techniques are used to control the Dynamic Range, both can have different effects on the recording.
If a recording is heavily compressed, limiting it might do more harm than good. So, we suggest that you figure out the outcome you want beforehand. Otherwise, you might end up with an overly squashed and lifeless recording.
Limiting is not the correct technique if you are working on tracks with many low-frequency elements in place.
Limiting might add distortion and other unwanted artefacts to the track. If you still want to use Limiting, we suggest you control the amount of limiting used in the recording.
As discussed earlier, Compression is a milder technique that broadens its use cases. Even then, there are certain limitations that rookie music producers should keep in their mind while experimenting with the technique.
Suppose you are working on a track with acoustic or other instruments with a good Dynamic Range. In that case, it is not suggested to meddle with the natural dynamic range of the recording.
The natural Dynamic Range of certain recordings can enhance the music by adding depth and human-ness. With too much compression, these elements might sound terrible and can sound artificial and digitally processed.
Just like we warned you about using a Limiter with low-frequency elements, using Compression when working with low-frequency content might create a negative effect on the low end, and you might end up with an unwanted distortion.
You have learned that Compression and Limiting are two Dynamic Range controlling techniques that are completely different from each other. While Compression is considered a milder technique, Limiting is a little harsh as it gives less control over the recording.
As mentioned, it is of immense importance that music producers should use these techniques in moderation and have a sense of control over them.
If you have read this blog thoroughly, you have learnt almost everything you need to know about Compression Vs Limiting. Beyond here, it is your journey to understand both techniques, how to use them, and, more importantly, how not to use them.