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In the analog era of recording it wasn't necessary to create distortion - distortion was inbuilt into the recording process, particularly so with the analog tape recorder. But even then, creative engineers would push the boundaries and record at levels high enough to create distortion that would probably have made the equipments' designers weep.
When digital audio came into practical professional use in the 1980s, one common complaint was that it sounded 'too clean' and lacked the depth and character of analog. This was precisely because it lacked the distortion of analog. From a point where 1% distortion was considered clean in analog recording, suddenly we moved to distortion levels less than 0.1% throughout the digital signal chain.
So the challenge then became to create distortion where practically none existed. And where the ear had become used to, and liked, the natural sound of analog distortion, the engineer had to carefully craft distortion in digital recordings by a variety of means in order to sound good. Or learn to love the unlovely sound of pure digital audio.
Fast forward to the present day and there is no shortage of plug-ins to create distortion of all types. But still the challenge is for it to sound good.
A recent issue of Sound on Sound magazine had an interesting reader's question, which asked how to get good hip-hop kick and snare sounds through clipping, because when he tried it it sounded "horrible". Yes indeed, it certainly can.
Sound on Sound's response pointed the reader towards the limiter plug-in called Limiter No6 from Vladislav Goncharov otherwise known as VladG. And the great thing is that it's free!
Limiter No6 has several stages of processing including compression, limiting, HF limiting, clipping and protection. And for today I'll power up just the clipper section.
My starting point is a loop created by software instrument Strike, which used to be a Pro Tools-only plug-in but is now available in a variety of formats. Strike is capable of creating a wide range of realistic drum sounds, and offers a wide range of patterns and variations. However, I don't think that it's unfair to say that Strike can be a bit bland. Realistic yes, exciting no. But a sound that starts off fairly plain and ordinary can be much more receptive to processing than one that already has character built in. My opinion of Strike is of course purely personal and clearly you should judge it for yourself. But here is my starting point for this tutorial - the raw output from Strike using one of the preset kits and patterns...
As I said, it's nice but plain - a prime candidate for some fun with processing. Let's take a close look at the main controls of Limiter No6's clipper...
The lamp in the center shows that the clipper is active and varies a little in brightness according to the signal level, which is handy. Then we have two main controls and a meter. The gain and threshold controls are somewhat interactive. The threshold control sets the level at which clipping kicks in, which in theory should be enough in itself. However if you're not getting enough audible clipping, then the gain control provides a ton of extra 'oomph' to the signal.
It is worth noting that the meter is calibrated from 0 dB down to only -3 dB. This should be taken as a clear indication that 3 dB of clipping is probably enough for any purpose.
At the settings shown above, you'll hardly hear any difference. So let's try settings that you will hear clearly. It's louder than the previous example so you might want to turn your monitors down. And I seem to have broken the -3 dB barrier, bashing the needle against the end stop. Oh well, it's all in the sake of art...
As I always say, so forgive me for repeating myself if you've heard it before, there's a strong tendency for anything that is louder to seem to be better. Of course it's possible to adjust the levels for a better comparison. But if you adjusted the levels every time you changed some parameter in a plug-in, you would never get your project finished. A wise engineer will learn to mentally filter out the level difference and judge only the sound texture.
Having said that, the sound is distinctly different. To my mind it is more exciting, and more usable in the context of a typical mix. Don't take my opinion as fact though - judge for yourself according to your own tastes.
The settings in this example and the resulting sound texture seem about right to me. Of course it is possible to go to a more extreme position (listen to the sound texture and mentally filter out any level difference - videos hosted on YouTube can be a little unpredictable in level, as I am not the only person to have found)...
For the above example the threshold was -9 dB and the gain +12 dB. Limiter No6 can go further, but this is far enough for me for today. That's why I kept it short.
I could conclude at this point that even just using the clipper of Limiter No6, I can achieve sounds that I like and would find useful. But I can't resist going a stage further...
Even though Limiter No6 has a compression section, it is ahead of the clipper and I fancied compressing the clipped output. So I hooked up the Waves CLA76 which is a personal favorite of mine (but please make your own judgment). And after some playing around with the controls I felt I had achieved a good result. But first here's a version that is only compressed with no clipping from Limiter No6...
That is quite nice in itself, but here is the sound of clipping followed by compression...
Now I find that very pleasing. It has taken a clean but ordinary drum sound and made it into something with a certain sense of excitement about it, but not over the top. If you want 'over the top', then believe me that the Limiter No6 is certainly capable of delivering it for you.
Now, back to the issue of level difference. Although it's a great skill to be able to train your 'engineer's ear' to ignore level differences when comparing processed with unprocessed, for the purpose of this tutorial I thought I would put together a comparison clip. In this clip, the audio alternates between unprocessed and clipped+compressed, but I have tweaked the levels to what I feel is subjective similarity...
So there you have it - you might like it or not like it, but Limiter No6 clearly has a lot to offer that you can tweak to your own personal audio nirvana.