Q: What is the difference between a clipper and a limiter?
A clipper cuts an audio signal at a certain level, causing distortion & saturation. A Limiter cuts off the audio at a certain level too, but is more transparent. It limits the audio to a certain db level, and allows for peaks to be preserved when pushing the gain of a signal.
A clipper is something you'd commonly use for a distortion effect, for instance, soft clipping is extremely useful on drums. Hard clipping is also great for gritty, electronic sound design.
A limiter is something that would be more commonly used in a mastering situation, after all production and mixing is complete. A limiter allows you to push your music to commercial volumes more transparently.
It preserves the peaks of your audio signal & had help you to get up to those pesky streaming volume standards.
What Is A Limiter?
A limiter is an audio effect that limits (in the name eh?) the peaks of your audio signal at a level you set.
The most common use of limiting is, mastering. It's usually the last audio effect in the master chain. You rarely want to use a limiter in any other instance than mastering, but there are some good examples we'll include later in this article.
In modern music, you want your track to be as loud as possible. Limiting allows you to transparently push the volume of your track without affecting the peaks like a clipper would.
This means you can *most of the time* get your track(s) to commercial volume while preventing unwanted distortion or artefacts.
A limiter is essentially a compressor plugin with an extremely high ratio and very fast attack times. If you want anything really loud, without distortion – use a limiter.
You can use limiters in the sound design process to keep things sounding loud, use them on vocals and also for mastering. The most common use is mastering, but don't be afraid to try them out on anything that sounds low in volume.
What Is A Clipper?
A clipper is an audio effect that cuts off the audio in a straight line fashion. The entire purpose of a clipper is to add distortion & harmonic saturation to your sound.
Clippers are great for sound design & adding crunch to your sound. A good example is adding soft clipping to your Kick Drum. It saturates the Kick Drum & adds harmonics that make the Kick sound more beefy than it actually is.
Soft clipping, clips your audio signal's peaks at 0db, but instead of a straight line clip it applies a slight compression & saturation & rounds off the peaks. This gives it a warmer, more analog sound as opposed to hard clipping, which gives a digital, harsh sound.
If you want to learn more about soft clipping, check out our what is soft clipping guide.
Hard clipping is another form of clipping (mentioned above).
This is where your audio signal's peaks are cut off in a straight line fashion. For instance, if we have a sine wave, it would cut the peaks off and make that sine wave more like a square wave – unlike soft clipping which rounds the signal off.
Hard clipping is amazing for harsh bass sound design and digital distortion that adds artefacts to your audio.
How To Use A Limiter
Limiters are some of the most useful utilities in your arsenal. They can be used as, both a mixing and mastering processing tool, or as an effect.
Limiters are all about making the louder parts less loud, while making the quiet bits louder. Limiters are very transparent, especially if you're using a high quality one, so you can crank them over +10dB, without hearing any distortion or unwanted harmonic content.
For this reason, Limiters are used in mastering.
As previously mentioned, Limiters are usually the last thing in a mastering chain. A well set up limiter is like the stretcher for a painting, it helps the whole piece hold together.
You can also use limiters in mixing, when you have tracks that are sounding dead and quiet, to introduce some energy into the sound.
Lastly, using Limiters as an effect can also lead to cool results. Pushing the gain to higher values and lowering the peak level will start to introduce a lot of nice harmonic content in your audio.
Limiters are awesome, and will be useful whenever you want to make something louder and more energetic.
How To Use A Clipper
Unlike limiters, Clippers are mostly used as effects for sound design. Putting a clipper on your master bus for instance, wouldn't really work.
Clippers are like Limiters, but turned to very high values, they introduce tonnes of harmonic content and distortion to your signal.
Great for adding saturation to 808's, or clipping your drums, to give them more of a digital attack.
Soft Clipping modes are great for more subtle saturation, resulting in a more smooth, and natural distortion. Hard clipping on the other hand will introduce a lot of digital noise artefacts and hard digital distortion.
While Hard clipping is more situational, it can be just the thing you need to achieve a rough and digital sound, that a lot of modern hyper pop and electronic music is well known for.
Soft clipping is awesome on sub-bass, introducing higher order harmonics, which can make your bass stand out in your mix way more.
Clipping is way more situational than a Limiter, but their sound is unmistakable and characteristic.
Limiters and Clippers are both incredibly useful audio processing tools. The difference between them can be quite confusing however, seeing that in terms of functionality, they essentially do the same thing.
That being said, Clippers and Limiters are entirely different beasts, and used for completely different purposes. Knowing the difference between their function is important, when you want to use either.
Hopefully we managed to clear that up for you, so you can start to introduce limiters and clippers in your mixes with more confidence than before.
Toms is a music producer & DJ, born and raised in Post Soviet Latvia. Currently based in Brighton, Toms has had over 6 years of experience with all things production and in that time, he's done a tonne of cool stuff! He's played multiple festivals, had experience in the field with mixing & mastering and even become a freelance journalist in the music industry.
Toms currently creates music under the alias Sovereign. Producing music that's intimate and subtle, while full of edge and energy, the young producer combines the artistic sounds of Trip Hop artists like Massive Attack, with the energy and youthfulness of producers like Flume, Jamie XX and Yaeji. You can check his stuff on Soundcloud.