How to be Honest with Yourself

Bob Katz Leave a Comment

From: “john conner”

Subject: Re: The real advantages of limiting and compression?

Hey, Bob. John Conner here from Capstone Studios (also Nashville). Enjoyed the wise words. Hope all is well.

Thanks. John is referring to my mini-post “How To Be Honest With Yourself”, I posted on

Here’s what I wrote…

From: Bob Katz

Subject: The real advantages of limiting and compression?

On the Sonic Solutions maillist, a participant asked a question and I answered it in the most cogent, succint manner I possibly could. I think my answer is about the shortest, complete answer on this topic that I’ve been able to do, and so I thought I’d share it with Here’s the conversation.

I’m sorry to be the lowbrow of the group, but when it comes to pop, rock, country, rap etc., I like the sound of proper compression and limiting. When done right it can add to the power and depth of a big electric sound.

I’m not ranting here… just subtly asking you to think and check some things which I’ve done a hell of a lot of working on…and a hell of a lot of listening….

Here goes…

Ahhhh, compression versus limiting.


Yes, Compression can certainly affect the apparent “power” of music, and I have no objections to the use of compression to affect material’s “sound”—that’s all to taste. Just (in my not so humble opinion), please do yourself and your clients and the future of the audio world a favor by carefully comparing the compressed versus the bypassed version at equal apparent loudness.

Adjust the makeup gain of the compressor so that in bypass, the apparent loudness is the same. Now listen again… is there really a subjective improvement? At least 5 times out of 10 you will be very sobered to realize that what you had thought was an improvement in “power” or “punch” was really just a loudness difference, and at least 2-3 times out of 10 you will also be sobered to realize that what you thought was an improvement was actually a degradation, at least to some aspects of a sound. I don’t often find even the best multiband compression to be totally a win-win situation, and yes, I use it, but I’m much too honest with myself to think it’s always a win-win situation.


2 to 3 dB of digital limiting (carefully designed as a sample-accurate, razor-sharp limiter, not a “fast compressor”) does nothing but raise the apparent loudness while also subtlely or seriously screwing up the transient response, depth, imaging, or tonal characteristics of the music.

Please, do the world a favor. Next time you want to limit to impress yourself, try this test:

Try 1 dB of limiting, thus raising the gain by 1 dB.

Now, A/B compare the limited versus the unlimited version. First impression: Oh boy! The limited version sounds more impressive, more powerful, doesn’t it? Second impression: Well, here’s a very sobering thought. While comparing the limited versus the unlimited version, move your volume control up when you bypass the limiter and back down when limiting is in, by that same exact 1 dB. Hmmmm…. what did the limiter do, exactly? Did it really make your material sound more powerful, or did it just make it sound hotter (louder)? And in the process of making it louder, what did it do to the sound? Better, or is it really worse?

When that fact sinks in, then it might be possible to extrapolate to: if the client is there, and you want to impress him with what you’ve done, instead of patching in a limiter, why not just turn the volume up and say, “OK, here’s the mastered version. Gee, doesn’t that sound better?” It certainly would be no more dishonest than just patching in the limiter without giving him the attendant lecture about the possible negatives of what it may do to the sound. When was the last time you did mention to your client what limiting actually does? And whether it accomplishes anything, even in a 6 CD carousel player. For every 6 CDs you pick to go with your new CD, I can pick 6 others that are either louder or softer.

What the hell’s the point? It’s lose-lose, big time. And carousel players are a big PITA…. sell them a compressor to use at the bar…

Of course, more than 2 or 3 dB of limiting, and it starts to sound a bit like very severe compression, not just a “loudness increaser”, but that’s not my point here…

I am extremely careful when I master my records. I often use a *lot* of processing. But before I declare the record finished, I do a very sobering thing: I listen once again to the raw, unprocessed, original material, at a matched apparent monitor level (sometimes they’re 4 to 6 dB apart!); I carefully evaluate what I’ve done, and if what I’ve done doesn’t sound *better* than the original material (not just *louder*), then I start once again from scratch, until the master is actually better…. or I just leave it alone! And you know what…last night it happened again. I was really impressed by what seemed to be coming out, but when I compared my “better” result at matched loudness, I found I really hadn’t made it better, just louder…. At least I hadn’t made it (much) worse, so I just called it a day. But don’t pat yourself on the back quite so hard until you’ve made that comparison. You may discover… the original “impressive” result turns out to be just a simple volume difference!

Many thanks for listening,


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