As I was in need for a really good limiter, I made some quick tests to find out which are the ones that can be trusted in various, often very hard situations. With very hard I mean 8–12dB of gain reduction. I know you probably raising your eyebrows and say stop right there, no one wants to drive a limiter that hard, but unfortunately in the real world there are some situations where you really need that capability. For example during a live broadcast or in some peculiar situation when you fold down a 5.1 or 7.1 mix into stereo. I don’t say that it always happen, but it does sometimes, and we can argue over the case for long weeks on different forums, the fact remains, you need high-quality tools to solve this problem.
With most limiters, even a small amount of gain reduction has detrimental effects on audio. Usually you notice this with as tiny as 2–3dB of reduction, and these types tend to break up around 5dB of reduction. In this case break up means they almost completely destroy your mix.
I had no time for a thorough test, so I decided to load up a session which contains music, dialogue, effects, sudden volume changes and very dynamic material.
First contender: TC electronic System 6000 limiter
We have multiple System 6000 units here, and while I really like the multiband compressor in it, I felt that the limiter side lacks clarity, and breaks up quite easily. To test this, I started with our default settings.
With 1–3dB of reduction it was ok, but I could clearly heard the nasty limiter sound at 5dB and it completely killed the mix around 6–7dB of gain reduction. While generally I think TC electronic makes great products, this limiter left me unimpressed. Even after tweaking, I couldn’t achieve a setting that was clean enough for my taste.
System 6000 Brickwall2
After the disappointment I decided that it is not a fair game, as in our default setup, the limiter is just an attached thing, but if I use the Brickwall2, that is a real limiter programme with its own engine.
And it is pretty obvious from the very first moment that this limiter is very different. I could easily limit 6–8dB without really serious damage. I heard some coloration, minimal nastiness of the limiter, but it was totally usable. However if you go over this line, it breaks up very fast. In my test at 10dB of reduction it just killed everything.
This experience gave me the idea to test a few native plugins. We can find many argument on the net that these boxes (digital outboards) still kill all the native plugins. So, let’s see what happened.
Sonnox Dynamics built-in limiter
First I fired up the Sonnox Dynamics with the Limiter section engaged. At first I absolutely hated what I heard even at 5–6dB of gain reduction. It was dulling the whole mix, destroying the dynamics. After some minor parameter tweak, it was able to perform a bit better than the TC Brickwall2. In my experience it handled the dynamics better. Somehow it just did not hurt the mix too much. Effect tails were preserved better and the stereo picture remained more authentic to the original one.
I only tried the limiter section of it. To be honest it was the first surprise. I could easily limit 10–12dB and it was still reasonable sounding even with quite demanding material. It only reached the real nasty limiter sound at around 14dB of reduction, which is pretty dramatic to be honest.
It is a spectacular set and forget limiter that can handle very complex mixes with ease. Even when it starts to work hard it leave very little sonic footprint. Can be safely abused, one of my favourites.
The very last contender is Avid’s ProLimiter, which has a very nice metering built-in. I started with some easy part to see how it behaves at low reduction values, but it was so clear that I immediately decided to push it much harder.
I could easily limit 10–14dB without destroying everything. With careful tweaking, even 16, yes, 16dB was acceptable. Obviously at that reduction rate I could clearly heard the limiter working, but still, it somehow managed to sound like a limited version of the original.
Up to 6–9dB reduction it preserves the air and spaciousness of the mix very well, taming the transients carefully so it leaves very little imprint on the mix. Being a true peak limiter, if I had to choose only one, this would be my first choice.
Take this tiny test as a personal experience of mine. This was NOT a scientific test! Due to copyright reasons I could not post any samples.
For me the most interesting thing is how easily the native plugins killed the hardware version. It is even more revealing if you compare the price/performance ratio. I know it’s not truly a fair comparison, but still, if you think about it, with the native versions you have many channels of quality limiting for a much lower price. In my opinion, the external box is always better sentiment is dead and unfounded. Native become ubiquitous, which is the best thing could happen to this industry, as now we have many extremely talented developer producing better and better plugins.