Outboard Compressors and Limiters

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Outboard compressors and outboard limiters are both from the dynamic processing family and serve very similar functions to one another in the studio—reducing an audio signal's dynamic range to make the quietest bits quieter and the loudest bits louder (a compressor) and preventing an audio signal from going higher than a set point (a limiter).

Quick Facts About Audio Compressors

  • Compressors can make your audio signal much more even and level overall.
  • Compressors can be used during the recording process to keep transients from clipping—sharp snare hits, vocal consonants, or any other noise that could cause a sharp volume spike and throw off your levels.
  • Compressors can also be used in the mixing and mastering stage to the same ends (preventing clipping), but can also be used more creatively to color the sonic characteristics of an instrument and where it sits in the mix—thickening your bass or adding extra punch to your kick drum are two examples.

Quick Facts About Limiters

  • While a limiter can be used as a compressor, a compressor can't be used as a limiter and this is because of the differences with which each piece of gear handles gain.
  • A compressor smoothes out and reduces gain when the audio level goes beyond a certain threshold, while a limiter prevents the audio from going over that threshold in the first place. A limiter can do this because its ratio is 10:1 or greater—usually set to be as close to infinity:1 as possible—which means that no matter how the input signal changes, the output level will remain unaffected.
  • Because of their transparency and evenness, limiters are popular during the final mastering stages of the recording process to ensure that all of the levels are even and consistent.

Learning More About Compressors and Limiters

If you're looking for a more in-depth explanation of the differences between compressors and limiters, check out our piece called Compressor vs. Limiter: What's the Difference? In that piece, we've also provided some of our favorite curated compressor and limiter picks.