We are all seekers of beautiful sound, but things come at a cost. Even when it comes to the sound alone, at times compromise is necessary. Add a limited budget to the equation and things get even more challenging.
Mastering the craft and art of music production is not about tech alone. It's about what you're able to achieve with what you already have at hand.
The vintage sound you might be after, the balance of the stereo signal, the desired level of transparent limiting, the detail in gain reduction metering - and many more - depend mostly on you!
Free Limiter Plugins - Let's Not Forget That...
This article isn't about the absolute best limiter out there. We'll have a look at what there is to consider when it comes to the best free limiters.
To begin with, take the word free into consideration. Free limiter plugins don't feature constant upgrades. There's no support personnel to whom you can reach out for assistance.
Thus, for example " best free limiter VST plugin" does not necessarily mean " the best limiter VST plugin.
VST vs Other Formats
When talking about the best free limiters, most people think of free limiter VST plugins. This doesn't mean said plugins need to only have VST versions exclusively. In fact, most are available in multiple formats.
However, VST is not platform dependent, and is also the most widely used one. A limiter VST plugin will work on any DAW, without exceptions. And so, it does make sense to think of a limiter VST plugin when speaking of a limiter plugin .
Therefore, when speaking of the best limiters here, we'll also think of the best limiter VST plugins.
5) Kilohearts Limiter
One word: simplicity! You won't find anyone who'd claim that Kilohearts limiter is "the best free limiter VST plugin" out there. But it seems obvious that it does deserve a place on the top list of best limiter plugins.
The really simple interface might be a curse for some, but is a blessing for any beginner. And let us not forget that beginners constitute the core user base of free plugins!
With several quite well set up presets, it can serve as a mastering limiter plugin pretty much without any additional touches. Let's remind ourselves again that more often than not - less is more!
The Final Mix
One of the key considerations here is to ensure that the mix has enough headroom for the mastering stage.
A limiter plugin can be used in the final mix to provide a preview of the loudness potential. Its settings however, should be approached with caution! The mastering phase will have the final say in making the music louder.
The Input Signal
Due to the noted above, at times Kilohearts will seem even more limited even though the fault is elsewhere...
The overall performance of any plugin will depend heavily on the quality of the input signal. Always consider the performance based on an optimal incoming signal and a corresponding output!
4) W1 Limiter
Simplicity once again. But this time with a little more "charm" added to it.
The W1 Limiter is, as many producers would claim, a free "version" of Waves' L1 Ultramaximizer.
W1 Limiter does draw heavily from the Waves' commercial line, along with some other limiter plugins. However, simply stating "W1 Limiter is a free version of..." is simply incorrect.
It's interesting that it's simple UI does not make it's options as limited as those of Kilohearts. This is likely due to it being inspired by a commercial limiter.
Comparisons exist online of the behaviour of certain setups found on W1 Limiter, as compared to corresponding ones of the Waves L1. While showing close similarities, it's worth admitting that W1 simply lacks many of the options of the Waves L1 limiter.
Input and Output Gain & Monitoring
By driving the input gain, you can achieve the kind of saturation and coloration that a vintage limiter is known for. If seeking such and effect, note that W1's options are quite limited.
Monitoring a gain reduction meter provides valuable insight into how the limiter is affecting the audio. W1 is stripped of that, in fact it's completely stripped of monitoring graphics.
No Fancy Attack Or Gain Reduction Here
Through the manipulation of the attack attenuation envelope, you can precisely control how quickly a limiter responds to peaks. Always care to fine-tune the dynamic range of all the audio signals as much as possible. Much of this needs to be done through the compressor; W1 Limiter alone will not do.
The release attenuation envelope determines how quickly the gain reduction recovers after the audio drops below the threshold. In W1's UI the release is controlled by a single slide or a knob. For any fancy stuff, consider using additional plugins.
Noted the few cons above to sort of illustrate where W1 lags behind Waves L1. This was done in order to make the expectations more reasonable.
Among the plethora of audio plugins developed by LVC Audio, ClipShifter holds a very special place due to its versatility.
Similar to the more simple limiters already mentioned, not many would deem Clipshipter "the best free limiter vst plugin". But all will agree that it has quite a few special tricks up its sleeve.
It works and can be used as your standard "flat" limiter of course, but it can be used for a number of different effects also. Works beautifully as a sound shaper or a clipping style limiter and is thus able to more heavily affect the final mixing stage.
Not Just a Limiter
In fact, many would argue that its primary function is its use as a sound shaper. This of course depends on the genre and the audio material itself.
Anywhere from soft saturation, through being used as a clipping style limiter to a rigid brickwall limiter! This LVC Audio monster is a true all-round player.
The options it offers aren't strictly related to those of a limiter, resulting in it being stripped of some fine-end limiter tools. However, LVC Audio offers a paid version of ClipShifter, which is of course more versatile.
Some processing specifics are only demonstrable "on paper". Transparent sound for example isn't one that has no distortion whatsoever. A static clipping effect on the other hand, can be completely inaudible.
A limiter's unique limiting algorithms are aimed at an optimal performance. However, at times things unrelated to the audio signal (such as memory storing) also have an impact.
Many producers argue that some of ClipShifter's features are there only for display. They don't seem to be affecting the sound as much as they are advertised. Not sure if that's true, but those which were noted here do work like a charm!
Compared to other free limiters, most of which serve for simply controlling loud peaks, LoudMax is a master in disguise!
The special thing here is that most of the nuancing is done in the background. LoudMax has some thoroughly refined algorithms, thus enabling a very simple interface. This of course isn't at the cost of having fewer options.
On the surface it looks like its sole use is to act as a loudness maximizer. As though it's solely a mastering limiter (i.e. only a mastering limiter plugin). However, the sound processing flow in fact doesn't differ much from this list's number one.
For those who don't insist on playing around excessively with virtual sliders and knobs, LoudMax is definitely the best limiter plugin! That includes all the limiter vst plugins (yes, even the commercial ones).
Release Time and Desired Loudness
The release time parameter within a limiter plugin plays a pivotal role. This is true for a peak limiter, a clipper and every limiter type or category under the sun!
Especially when seeking a loudness maximizer - definitely search no further! By carefully adjusting the release time within any limiter plugin, you've already done a ton! The balance between maintaining the loudness level and preserving the natural dynamics is very straightforward and simple here.
A limiter might perform vastly different when faced with a challenging dynamic range. Your average pop song's dynamics will differ vastly from those of the First Movement of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony...
Needless to say: the best of all worlds with as little compromise is what is sought after. And here it's easily obtained.
Perceived Loudness vs Overall Loudness
A vintage limiter can enhance perceived loudness by adding harmonics and warmth. This is done even without pushing the loudest amplitude peaks to their extremes.
Overall loudness on the other hand, is about the sheer intensity of sound. While vintage limiters can impart character, precise control often requires true peak limiters.
LoudMax seems to be able to bring the best of both worlds. Certainly not vintage by any stretch of the imagination. A loudness maximizer, yet exceptionally warm when that's sought after!
1) Limiter №6
In everyone's eyes I think, Vlad's Limiter №6 is either the absolute best or on the podium anyway. Not only is it among the very best free limiter plugins, but among the best in general! Bearing in mind it's UI and overall performance, it's almost unbelievable that it's a free limiter VST plugin...
It's core property is the multi-stage approach, where in the beginning its peak limiter follows after the RMS compressor.
Peak limiting is at times overlooked as a mastering phase in free plugins. Audio peaks are taken for granted and the peak limiter options are oversimplified in your typical free limiter plugin... Not here!
The masterfully processed peak limiting is followed by a high frequency limiter plugin. Limiter №6 is focusing the threshold slider solely to the level of high-frequency content during this phase. This in turn is followed by a clipper.
Anywhere from soft clipping to hard clipping distortion can be applied, as Limiter №6 is extremely versatile here too.
It's soft clippings can add warmth and character to audio signals without pushing them to their maximum loudness. Hard ones serve more for adding to an already energetic ambience.
Balancing between these is crucial for achieving a dynamic and impactful sonic experience. All this while maintaining a professional and competitive sound quality.
The True Peak Limiter
By taming the loudest amplitude peaks (assuming the extreme settings aren't intentional), undesirable distortion is avoided. This emphasizes the importance of careful gain control, preserving the high quality sound.
Limiter №6's true peak limiter is designed to prevent digital clipping by all means necessary! Coming at the end of the line after the clipper phase of course, it spectacularly rounds up the masterful flow.
Jack of All Trades
Limiter №6 can serve pretty much in anything which is considered relevant within the limiter realm.
In scenarios involving a brickwall limiter, carefully adjusting the input gain can help avoid unwanted clipping. This can be achieved here with literally just a couple of clicks!
It ranks well among brick wall limiters, it's an exceptional high frequency limiter... it can even mimic the effects of a vintage limiter convincingly! it offers everything an advanced limiter is expected to offer.
Perhaps Vlad could develop it even further, especially when it comes to extensive loudness metering. But rest assured that many state-of-the-art audio recordings sound that way precisely because of their use of Limiter №6! That alone should reserve its place at the very top of the best limiter plugins list!
A Word in Closing
Free limiter VST plugins come in many designs, shapes and forms. You might beg to differ when rating or choosing the best limiter plugin.
What matters is that the availability of free limiter VST plugins has sort of democratized access to professional sound refinement. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to argue over their performances. :)