Academy Dashboard Forum Production Mastering Do professional mastering engineers let their tracks clip?

  • This topic has 9 replies, 4 voices, and was last updated 3 years ago by Robert Hundt.
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    Kain Gonzalez

      Something that I don't understand when trying to master my tracks while comparing them to other songs in the same genre is that I can never get them to be the same volume without destroying the dynamics. The only option that I seem to have is to raise the volume on the master fader, which will make my track clip, but retain dynamic range. I want to say this is what professional mastering engineers do because I every single reference I have I ever pulled into my DAW clips several DB over unity. Am I right? If so, why are they letting their tracks clip? How are the tracks not distorting? Is digital clipping not as bad as I was led to believe? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

      Ken Nilsen

        Hi, Kain. My guess is that they use a "clipper" either in a hardware format, or plugin.
        It's probably "clipped" at 0.0 dB since it clips in your DAW.
        Others will probably know better.
        All the best.

        Kain Gonzalez

          What do you mean by clipped at zero? My fader says my reference tracks are clipping +4.5 db.

          Niki Pichler

            heho Kain,

            loudness is not just a thing of dynamics and mastering but also a mixing thing!

            if you have a huge dynamic range because you want to make it sound like that you cant make it as loud as a song without that range. if your mixing is on the point and you can fakely make a 3dB difference feel like 10dB you can get more loudness out of your track.

            but to your question: yes

            professionals tend to play with our brains because loudness is one of the most important things our brains compare and louder is normally better! modern systems / DAWs in particular have enough bit-depth to give you also information above 0.0dBFS which means there isnt a thing like hard clipping in the box anymore if you do it right (that is a really big IF). when you do this wrong (just one simple missstep) you will have hard clipping and your track will sound aweful!

            and thats the point: professional mixing and mastering engineers are professionals because they can use the weirdest tricks to get your song loud and clear!

            last but not least: another point could be that you judge the professional recordings wrong. most of them sound way overcompressed with little to none dynamic range. but you just know them in this state and so you like them as they are, but maybe you would like them more with a much larger dynamic range and you will never know!

            TL;DR: that are my 3 thoughts about this topic so get better at songwriting/producing/mixing helps getting louder mixes when the arrangement is well thought trough, hirering a professional mastering engineer is a must as they got the most experience on this topic and dont overjudge your own material and compare it more objectively to get a wider picture!

            cheers, Niki

            Ken Nilsen

              Which DAW do you use?
              Could there be a difference in pan law settings? (Not sure if that would cause such a big volume difference, though.)
              Are there any plugins in the reference tracks path to your main outs?

              Kain Gonzalez

                Niki, would you happen to know of any of these tricks that they use to mix and/or master their songs to make it sound louder without any hard clipping or pulling down the threshold on my master limiter? I say I want a good dynamic range, but I just want it to have enough range for it to not give you a headache when you listen to it. I know all music nowadays is really compressed, but they still don't overdo it. I basically want it to be about as loud as other music without degradation of quality.

                Niki Pichler

                  heho kain,

                  the trick is to have a nice balance in your mix. Sounds easy? It isnt... The problem is if some tracks are "too loud" to be balanced then they will compress first on your limiter and you get an overcompressed sound if you compress (or in that case limit) harder and harder.

                  my approach is to compress everything as much as needed before summing and even compress some busses slightly, before compressing again on the master bus before limiting. the problem is that each stage has to compress a bit but not much but also not too less to have no effect, and thats hard!

                  there are some tricks but there are no shortcuts on this one as everywhere.

                  one series of tricks that helped me alot is how to get drums slamming as they make a fair amount of energy for your loudness:

                  first make every track sound great to your ear on its own

                  excerpt from my inside thinking:
                  (i know many will say but what about not soloing that much... it is the first step! before you make a pile of crap you should look for your gold inside each little piece of crap to make a pile of gold. if you have your pile of gold you can put it together to a ring and then you need polish. presenting it in a nice environment in your store is the last thing you need to do! these are my mixing stages! first solo tracks, second mixing together, then change individual tracks or busses to make it sound balanced, after that polishing with my masterbus chain (thats not mastering its still mixing), last but not least is getting it loud and radioready with mastering (presenting it in the store!) every step is as important as every other to get it loud, not only mastering!)

                  second blend the drum tracks together to have a nice balance in the drums

                  then hear closely to your kick and snare and think what they need to be really fat (we are talking about rock arent we?) setup samples that have the missing parts.

                  setup verbs for your kick and snare samples to sound in the same room as your live kick and snare. (only on the samples otherwise it gets muddy and messy!)

                  sum kicks to a bus and snares to another bus and make the last moves to get the drums together on these busses for all tracks together not on individual ones.

                  i tend to get kicks with too much sustain so i normally pull up an 1176 style plugin (you can do this with any compressor it is just my favorite!) set the attack fairly slow and set the release as slow as it needs that the kick is tight and punchy (gain reduction is about 5-6 dB)

                  snares are normally too attacky and have too less sustain (verb is not working for all that sustain!) so for getting rid of the unnatural fast transients i pull up a saturation plugin and "distort" the snare as much that the transients are naturally lower but the power stays where it was (it should not sound distorted if you dont want to have a distorted snare) and pull up a transient designer (you could also do this with a stock compressor but its easier and faster with an transient designer) and boost back some of the attack so you have the total control of your transient (this mostly is the problem with mastering that you limit the crap out of your snare because the transient isnt controlled enough and then it loses punch!)

                  after that i compress the whole drum bus for a gain reduction of about 3dB just to glue all drums together to one kit

                  last but not least i dublicate the drum bus as is and compress the crap out of it on the dublicate (fastest attack fastest release and about 20-25dB of gain reduction) and then blend it in with the normal drumbus (usually the compressed one is about -10 to -15dB in relationship with the normal drums)

                  thats shortly what i do with the dynamics of my drums. i use things like that on every element of my mix so the whole mix isnt that dynamic before the mastering anymore. then you have to play with eq and verbs to change the sit of your instruments and use a bit less of the volume aspect to create depth!

                  for sure this is not a holy grail and you wont make slamming drums because you know my tricks! you have to practice practice and again practice! there are no shortcuts!

                  another thing that is crucial for loudness is the arrangement! if you compare a singer songwriter with 2 acoustics, some jazz style piano and drums with a catchy bassline and vocals to a metallica track you will never get the same loudness feeling altough the singer songwriter song could be technically as loud as the metallica track. there are so many tricks how additional producing can change the felt loudness of a song!

                  i think i am overdoing it again xD i could write for hours and hours about this but i have to go to work now ^^

                  hope my wall of text is helping you out! if somebody has questions you can add me on facebook (you will find me in the plapa groups, name is Niki Pichler) and ask me things per messenger. (beaware of timezones i am from austria (europe) and i have a full time job so it can take a bit until i reply!)

                  cheers, Niki

                  Kain Gonzalez

                    Thanks Niki! I'll try this on my next mix! By the way, would you know how to get heavily distorted guitars to sound punchier? I feel like the electric guitars in my metal mixes always sound flabby and don't stand out. Would you use a transient designer or compression for that?

                    Niki Pichler

                      Heho Kain,

                      i normally dont compress electric guitars, but when i do then just a little but nothing to get it more "punchy". i think the key is the amp settings and a nice mic setup.

                      For that try this:


                      if you use a virtual amp try to play with the amp settings.

                      if nothing helps and you wanna have more grit on the guitars, just blend a clean guitar which plays the same (if you have the DI from your guitar just take this) to the heavies or record an acoustic which plays the same.

                      cheers, Niki

                      Robert Hundt

                        Hey Kain

                        I feel like your actual question has not been answered. I hope I have't just skipped it while flying through the answers.
                        I work as a mastering engineer since 2009 (Berlin/Germany, so I hope i'm gonna make sense) and I would like to give you some insight into digital audio and I want to try shine some light on your question.

                        So you are asking whether or not mastering engineers would let their masters exceed 0dbFS to have a louder master, compared to amateur mastering people.
                        The answer has to be "Hard no!" and then I want to add "At least not intentionally" 😉

                        I sincerely hope I'll be easy to undestand.
                        About the capacity of an audio file:
                        0dbFS is the upper limit of the digital capacity of an audio file. If peaks exceed 0dbFS during the export of a typical audio file, it will result in clipping, which during playback after will be heard as digital distortion.

                        To visualize that clipping, imagine it as peaks getting clipped (imagine a nail clipper, if you want) of at the top because they exceed the capacity.
                        If you picture a waveform, zoom into a waveform, find those round peak up top or down bottom, they will lose there round curve where they exceep 0dbFS and subsequently be flatted tops and flattened bottoms, instead of round. Imagine your thumb nail getting clipped off hard, it's going to look flat after.

                        If you put "hard digital clipping" into google, you will find pictures. (mind you, some of those picture lead to articles claiming "don't care about clipping", which is not a good thing to say to a broad public, it's misleading!)

                        real quick:
                        dbFS = decibels Full Scale, which are the units of a Full Scale meter, a peak meter. Personally I interprete that as an "absolute meter", meaning it ranges form a lowest point -∞ to the maximum allowed, which is 0. Granted, in DAW channels those meters often range even higher, don't get confused by that. They go higher to show you how much you are exceeding the 0. In DAWs they often look like -∞..............0...+10 but what you have to be concerned with is -∞..............0

                        Back to your question:
                        A mastering engineer, exporting a master for a client in a typical format like 16bit/44.1khz or even atypical like 24bit/96khz has to make sure, that its peak level won't exceed 0dbFS, else clipping!!! And as a consequence audible digital distortion. That's why I would assume that no mentally healthy mastering person will let their peaks exceed 0dbFS.
                        I believe the great and powerful Ian Shepherd, mastering engineer, has Video on his youtube channel, explaining this.

                        There could be different reasons for why you get showed clipping from playing back a mastered track in your DAW. I don't know what software you're using and frankly, I can only speculate, which doesn't make much sense. I don't know if and what potential processing those files go through to end up on your DAW track. I don't know what audio files you're using, MP3? I don't know if you accidentally upped the gain...I don't know if your meter is detecting Intersample Peaks...or what have you.
                        0 is 0! 0 is the limit, there is nothing over 0 in a typical file that's going out to the consumer, that's why you get clipping.
                        So one final visualization: Imagine a fish, swimming in water, making a jump out of the water and diving back into it. If other observe that, they're going to see a bit of a curve for sure. But the round part above the water is not going be seen by the other fish, because the water surface is the barrier, their curve ends where the water ends, gets flattened, and starts back going back down where the fish dives into the water again. For them there is nothing above that magic barrier and for audio files it's the same.

                        I have mentioned Intersample Peaks before but they are a can of worms to open! They are the reason why in the beginning I said mastering engineers wouldn't be clipping "intentionally". There might be Intersample Peaks. There was a time in which we didn't know they existed and we couldn't care because nobody complained. There is a chance that this could be an explanation for your meter readings, but you're saying "several db" of overs and I don't know what "several" means. 1db to maaayyybe even 2db? Well could(!) be a case of Intersample Peaks. If it's much higher, then probably not. But within the last few years more and more Limiter have added features to avoid Intersample Peaks.

                        The reason why you're not hearing it as digital distortion in your DAW is what makes me skeptical of the files actually being distorted before they come into your DAW. If distortion was baked in, through the practice of exporting a clipping master for the consumer, then you would hear it, unless your hearing is not up to par, which I don't assume. If the clipping is caused by any process happening inside your DAW, then the modern processing architecture of many DAWs can prevent that distorted sound from being played back.

                        Kain if you want, I can offer to check one or two of your masters, see if they're actually clipping or if the are normal. I could also tell you if they're simply mastered insanely loud. And if you're struggling to get to a similar loudness, I'm telling you, you don't have to get there unless you get hired to do it. I'll gladly help figure it what's up, no problem for me, no costs, of course 🙂

                        Let me know if you have questions

                        • This reply was modified 3 years ago by Robert Hundt.
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