Get The Most From Your Master - Vol 3 Pt II: ‘Peak Control (How Do I Know What Will Cause Distortion In Mastering?)’

The last blog entry dealt with how to knock down peaks to allow for a loud distortion-free mixdown in mastering. The question is…how do we know when to do this or how much the peaks should be reduced?
Please try the following steps:
1. Open your mix session and place Sonalksis Free G (or any suitable gain plugin) on the master fader.
2. Push the gain up until the mix sounds distorted.
3. Back down a bit to where it sounds clean but still loud and driven.
4. Go to the beginning of the tune and listen all the way through carefully. You should be able to more easily pick out sounds that are peaking out and causing distortion or sounding bad in general.
…k, so now what?
At this point you have many options to deal with it and the more experienced you are at mixing, the easier it will be to know what the best tool is. In the last tutorial I mentioned soft clipping. That one is great on percussive elements but not on everything. Every sound is different, you really do have to experiment and use your ears above all.
Many times it’s an eq issue. Are there frequencies in the sound that are eating up headroom but not contributing anything musically? Cut them. Proper eq'ing is the path to greatness!
Maybe you’re happy with the balance of the eq'ing and it comes down to a dynamic issue. The cleanest way to reduce the peak is volume automation. But maybe it happens so many times throughout the track that it isn’t an option…

Agreed. This is when you’d reach for some sort of dynamic control. Let me break down the various methods:

• Hard Digital Clipping: Brute force attempt at removing a sharp transient peak off a sound. Good for percussion. Might add distortion to some things. Sony Inflator is an example of this in plugin form but it has a sound to it…harsh. EQ can reverse it somewhat but…

• Soft Clipping: Softer version of hard clipping. More analog-ish.

• Limiting: Think soft clipping but even softer. If you use something like FabFilter Pro-L with a long attack…that’s clipping. if you speed up the attack, that’s limiting. Limiting still can introduce distortion but it’s trying not to. For this application you want it to get in and out quickly and not affect anything but the transient peak. So, fast attack and fast release.

• Compression: Compression is the gentlest approach but probably not a solution at all. Limiting is compression at a very high ratio, compression has variable lower ratios. If you use this to tame a peak, it will affect the rest of the sound as well. Obviously a very usable tool but not the best one for transparently removing a peak most of the time.

My personal favorite has always been driving stems into analog gear for saturation but that’s not really an option for most people…or is it?

-Mike Bell @ Darkart Mastering