Soft Clipping: Explained + How To Use It [Music Production]

Soft clipping is a type of distortion that saturates an audio signal, rounding off the peaks that pass 0db. This is different to hard clipping, which cuts the peaks that pass 0db off in a straight line, square wave fashion. By using soft clipping on audio, you get more of a analog & warm distortion sound, rather than hard clipping, which will produce a harsh, digital result.

If you take a look at how soft clipping & hard clipping affects a sine waveform, it’ll become easier to visualise and hear what’s happening.

soft clipping & hard clipping difference diagram

As you can see, hard clipping produces a result that’s very similar to a square wave &, as a result, gives us more of a harsh sounding signal.

Soft clipping, on the other hand, gives us a closer result to the original sine waveform that was run through the clipper.

Now let’s have a listen to how it affects the audio with these 2 examples.

I have absolutely slammed the beans on this effect, so you’re able to hear how it sounds on and off. You wouldn’t usually use this much distortion in a real scenario.

no clipping: original track
clipping: original track

As you can hear, it creates a warm, analog vibe that you don’t get from other types of distortion such as hard clipping, overdrive & bitcrush.

It’s more subtle than the other kinds of distortion & works well when used in the right context. It can add that extra layer of saturation that your music needs to sound gritty & imperfect.

Creating music in a computer is great.

Everything sounds so clean & clinical, & audio is a breeze to edit. But, with the advancement in audio technology, people miss the imperfections of old machines.

You and I can both agree that nothing sounds quite as great as a tape delay machine that produces warping, shifting echoes.

The hardest thing about producing music inside a computer is re-creating that warm sound people miss, & soft clipping is a form of distortion you can use to get that one step closer.

Hard Clipping vs Soft Clipping

Hard Clipping cuts off the peaks of your audio at 0 db limit. This gives a harsh sounding distortion. Soft Clipping rounds off the peaks at 0db which gives a more analog, warm sounding distortion.

soft clipping vs hard clipping cheat sheet/fact sheet

Soft Clipping & Its Uses

Soft Clipping is a type of distortion that rounds off peaks that pass a 0db limit. This gives an analog, warm sounding distortion.

We personally prefer to use soft clipping when applying distortion to audio, because it gives it more of that warm, analog sound we love.

Soft Clipping is extremely useful on drums, especially for making your Kick thicker and more hard hitting.

Hard Clipping & Its Uses

soft clipping & hard clipping difference diagram

This is a type of digital distortion that cuts the peaks of your audio off in a straight line, causing harsh artefacts to appear in your audio signal.

Hard Clipping also has its uses, but these are found more in the realm of electronic music sound design.

If you are using hard clipping, it’s because you want overly digital and distorted sounding audio to then resample, or use for creative effect. As a mixing tool, it’s not often used, but can be extremely useful on hats that you want to add extra grit to.

How To Use Soft Clipping (Tutorial)

As I said above, clipping is a great way to add grit & warmth to your tracks. But, it’s practically pointless knowing that if you have no idea how or where to use it.

In this section I’m going to give examples of where I use soft clipping in my productions to get them to have that extra edge.

Drums

Ever wanted to know how to get your drums to slap harder than life slaps you in the face when you grow up & realise half your money gets spent on boring sh*t like a new tumble drier or the water bill?

Oof, that hurts.

Well soft clipping is your new best friend when it comes to drums.

A good place to use soft clipping is on the 2 most important elements of your drum mix – the Kick & Snare.

Soft clipping these 2 elements, can really bring them forward in the mix & make them far more impactful.

So grab your soft clipper & increase the gain until you see it hitting red.

If you’re using a compressor soft clipper, you can then dial back the output gain, so you’re not just mindlessly increasing the volume of the audio & thinking it’s making it better.

Btw, if you want more information on how to get your drums to hit harder than Dad did, check out our how to mix drums guide.

Let’s have a listen to a soft clipped drum track (snare & kick) & one that isn’t so we can hear the difference.

no clipping: original track
clipping: original track

As you can hear, the soft clipped version of this signal sound much fuller, and impactful that the un-soft clipped take.

The difference that the soft clipping effect has on drums is phenomenal & shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to creating hard hitting drum hits that you can feel in your gut.

Mastering

Soft clipping in mastering can be a useful tool when you’re trying to get that pushed, distorted sound.

Coming from an EDM background, I always wondered how music producers got their tracks to sound so exceptionally loud & clean.

By soft clipping, you can achieve a similar result &, soft clipping the master is a technique used by tonnes of professional producers.

Soft clipping catches the unwanted hard clipping/digital transients of your track before being put into a limiter. It then rounds them off, so that your limiter hits into the red a lot less.

It also adds a subtle layer of distortion/saturation to the sound -which can make or break a track.

This can sound exceptionally good when used correctly & I’d recommend you play around with it yourself.

Grab a waveform & put a soft clipper before your limiter. Play around with the settings on the soft clipper & see how it affects the sound.

If you’re trying to hit a high RMS in your waveform, then using a soft clipper can bring you much closer to that result.

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Where Can I Find A Soft Clipper?

If you don’t know where your soft clipping plugin would be located inside your DAW, check your stock compressors.

Stock compressors usually come with distortion/clipping options that you can play around with to get different results.

If you just want soft clipping, don’t touch the threshold & just pump the makeup gain up until you see the soft clipper reacting to the audio signal.

This will successfully round of any transients & give you a nice, warm distortion sound.

If you don’t have stock soft clipping plugins, or you want more control over transients – I’d recommend grabbing a 3rd party plugin.

Summary

Soft clipping is a type of distortion that saturates an audio signal, by rounding off the peaks that push past 0db. This gives your audio a lovely warm, analog sound to it, rather than hard clipping, which can cause harsh, digital distortion.

Soft clipping is great for using on drums to get them to slap through a mix.