Mastering into the activated Limiter, or...last things first
This is an addition to an earlier post about mastering: Mastering for yourself.
This is going to be a brief one but if you are into doing mastering yourself or only for yourself, you will want to know about this and apply this to your workflow.
Ever heard about mixing into a bus compressor? If not, no problem, I will tackle that idea soon in an upcoming article. That is for the mixing stage though, similar principles but we are talking about the mastering stage now. Let's look into it.
One of the big parts in mastering is to make a song loud enough for whatever the final result has to be. That is dependent on the medium on which it gets released, on the style of music and the condition of the source material. To achieve the loudness you are sending the signal into a limiter to catch its peaks and reduce them to get a bit of space and to make that gain up for more loudness. Not peak level but loudness. That principle is clear, yes ?
When I wrote my "Mastering for yourself" article, I explained methods, devices and a good order of the chain and where in the chain to place the limiter, namely, at the end of your processing, after your EQ or your compressor or your stereo manipulation (etc).
!!! BUT !!!
But but but...I did not occur to me that I should also explain at what point in time to set the limiter up. Even though you put it at the end of the chain, as your last step, you still have to increase the input level of your limiter early in the mastering session. "What ? I start at the end to work backwards?" Yes, that is kind of how it works. All the tweaks that you make in mastering, during your session, you want to hear how they sound in the loud song, not necessarily in the "un-loud" song :)
First of all, that change of loudness early on in the session can reveal issues with the song that you might not hear in a quiet song...and those issues are what you are trying to find and erase. And do you really want to start all over with your tweaks after limitation/loudness applied ?
And second, you want to hear how your tweaks and changes sound on a loud song. So why would you make changes on a quiet song and then try to find out if and how they work on the loud version when you can have the loudness right away and tweak it directly ?
Let me try to show you what I mean.
1. When I master a song, what I do often is loading up a template for a mastering session, then I deactivate the devices if they aren't already but I leave the limiter on and set it to a basic amount of limitation before I do anything else or even load up a song. By now, after all the years, I know very quickly where I want it to sit and I can always slightly adjust it anyways.
2. Then I do in fact load a song :) And before the real processing begins I use the limiter and aim it towards the gain reduction and loudness that I have in mind for the song. I want a more or less rough idea of how it's going to finally sound before I start working with my complete mastering chain and I want to know how my tweaks sound when the track is where I would like it to be - loudness wise. Say your premaster comes in at about -9db or -6db peak level (which is a standard headroom in mastering and good and leaves room for the potential processing, like eq boosts etc), that is not nearly as loud as it's going to get exported. So a basic limiter input gain increase of 6db or maybe more will give a good first go. Go on from there...
3. So when the limiter is set up, then I go on to my devices, I switch them on to start the real processing and set them up. And that way I always hear how they will sound after limiting because the limiter is already on and doing its work.
*bare in mind you might have to adjust the limiter settings while you're working on your mastering chain
The problem with working the other way around (see next picture) ...
...is that you might be misjudging the song, its potential issues/weaknesses and your tweaks.
When you setup your mastering processing without having that limiter on to bring the track up to your target loudness, very likely you will actually misjudge how much bass the song has/needs, you might misjudge how much treble the song has/needs. And then the great revelation follows when you switch on your limiter to make it louder. Then you might realize "oh crap, I have to change all mastering chain setting.
You might know I don't like to give Dos and Don'ts....