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

Soft clipping is an essential tool to understand. It creates incredible, warm, analog distortion, and can add character to a lot of your instrument tracks, if used correctly and understood. We use soft clipping a tonne in our production sessions, especially for drums.

In this article we're going to cover everything to you need to know about soft clipping, what it does, how it works, and what to use it for.

We'll also cover the difference between hard clipping and soft clipping, as well as limiting and clipping.

These terms can often get misinterpreted, so it's important you understand their differences and where to use them. They will help you become a better music producer/engineer.

What is Soft Clipping? (Answer)

Soft clipping is a type of distortion that saturates an audio signal and rounds off the peaks that pass 0db. This gives it a warm, analog sound, and is different to hard clipping, which sounds more digital cutting off the peaks that pass 0db off in a straight line, square wave fashion.

By using soft clipping on audio, you get more of an analog & warm distortion sound, rather than hard clipping, which will produce a harsh, digital result.

Interestingly soft clipping occurs naturally in tube based compression gear when a hot signal is run through it. Most soft clippers don't use tube anymore, but will emulate how the tubes react using code in compressor plugins, or using transistor hardware gear to mimic it.

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 &, gives us more of a harsh sounding signal, providing digital distortion.

Soft clipping on the other hand, gives us a closer result to the original sine waveform that was run through the clipper, and rounds it off in an almost sine wave fashion. This gives a softer, warmer distortion.

How Does Soft Clipping Sound? (Audio Examples)

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.

What is Soft Clipping And Hard 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.

The difference is that soft clipping will provide a gentle compression to the signal, to round off the peaks (what we call saturation), and make them sound more natural, analog, warm etc.

Hard clipping on the other hand doesn't use any compression, or gain reduction to cut the signal off. It just cuts whatever runs through it off, when it passes 0db. This therefore provides a digital click/clip & distortion sound that's harsh.

soft clipping vs hard clipping

Soft Clipping & Its Uses

Soft clipping is great for warming up a signal, while making it fatter.

Here are some ways you can use soft clipping in music production:

  1. Drums – Kick & Snare for warm, hard hitting transients.
  2. Synths – To make them sound fatter, with character, and an analog, warm sound.
  3. Mastering – To catch transients and smooth them out, preventing hard clipping artefacts.
  4. Anything that needs warmth, distortion, smoothing out.

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

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

Hard Clipping & Its Uses

soft clipping & hard clipping difference diagram

Hard clipping gives a harsh, digital distortion sound when cutting off peaks that are over 0db. It can be used for a lot of different things when making music.

Here are some examples of what you can use hard clipping for in music production:

  1. Sound design – electronic music, harsh basses and synth leads especially
  2. Mastering as a digital cut off point to stop the master from redlining. Often used as limiting rather than clipping.
  3. Harsh distortion – anything you want to add a digital distortion to.

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.

What's The Difference Between Clipping & Limiting?

A clipper is used for distortion. It will cut a signal off abruptly at 0db, adding distortion or colour doing so. Limiting is used for transparent loudness in mastering. It's a fast compressor that handles transients and limits audio past the set threshold.

With limiting you have options to choose from attack, release, lookahead, and transient controls. This allows you to control the peaks, without adding any colour to your signal. It's a very fast dynamic gain reduction processor, which will prevent your peaks from going past the limit (the set threshold). This allows for loudness, with utter transparency.

Clipping just cuts the signal off at 0db. This causes distortion. Hard clipping will add a digital distortion, as it just slices the signal off in a square wave fashion.

Soft clipping will add an analog distortion, because it slightly compresses (saturates) the signal to round off the peaks, and make it smoother.

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.

ableton live glue compressor soft clipping

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 mixing, & especially 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.

Where Can I Find A Soft Clipper?

Some DAWs will have a separate soft clipping stock plugin. For instance FL Studio does. If your DAW doesn't, look in the compression plugins. Soft clipping will often be a toggle button inside 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.

Soft Clipping Plugin Recommendations

There are many plugins for soft clipping on the market, but we'd recommend these:

  1. G-Clip (free)
  2. K-Clip
  3. Standard Clip

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.