What is a limiter in music, and what are the best cheap limiter plugins? This collection features six limiter effects and four free bonus limiter plugins.
What Is Limiter In Music?
A limiter is a tool used in music production to prevent loud peaks from crossing a threshold. It manages the quiet and loud sounds of an audio signal to even out the dynamic range. Limiters have been used for audio processing since the 1930s and have evolved into versatile tools.
Nowadays, there are several plugin emulations of hardware limiters. Similarly, new limiter plugins come up now, and then that deserve attention. This article will focus on ten of the most affordable limiter plugins, providing an in-depth review for each.
When should I use a Limiter?
Limiting should be used at the mastering stage of production to ensure the final track has the desired dynamics. These should be very transparent limiters that don’t add unwanted coloration to the mix. Additionally, engineers choose to use limiters during mixing to control peaks a compressor can’t.
What is the difference between Limiter and Compressor?
The main difference is you choose compressors for the character they add to the signal, while limiters favor transparency. Compressors tend to be more nuanced in the dynamics they can produce, while a limiter is more aggressive. One can say a limiter is just a compressor with a very high ratio.
Engineers tend to use limiters to increase quiet signals and compressors to tame down loud peaks. Therefore, some compressors work as both a compressor and a limiter, although you can’t use a limiter as a compressor.
Top 6 Limiter Plugins 2021 (And 4 Best Free Limiters)
1. Newfangled Audio Elevate By Eventide
Newfangled Audio’s Elevate is a user-friendly one-stop powerhouse for mastering.
At the heart of the plugin’s signal processing is a 26-band adaptative limiter. You can craft a fully-fledged master from there or open the other pages to fine-tune your results. The plugin lets you control each band’s transients and overall gain, as well as the filter curves for each band. But the plugin’s brains are its Adaptive algorithms, which use machine learning to fit the processing around the input signal automatically.
- Main Parameters Page: This section holds the primary elements that let you make the input signal louder. You get five parameters to fine-tune your limiting and avoid artifacts.
- Filter Bank Sub-Module Page: Here, you get to pick the number of bands the plugin will use for mastering and their filter shapes. The more bands you choose, the more effective the Adaptive algorithm will be.
- Limiter/EQ Sub-Module Page: You can adjust the gain levels and see the gain reduction being applied to each frequency band from this menu. You can either adapt each band slider individually or draw a curve to shape the EQ.
- Transient Sub-Module Page: This multi-band transient designer lets you tweak each band separately or also draw a single gain curve across the spectrum. This feature is excellent when you need to add life to a snare or kick drum that’s buried in the mix.
- Clipper Sub-Module Page: If you’ve allowed any fast transients through, here’s where they’ll stop. You can design the clipper shape from soft to hard and add up to 12dB of harmonic distortion to your master.
- Presets: The plugin comes with several presets by well-known mastering engineers, including Matt Lange, Eric Beam, and APS Mastering.
Character & Sound:
Like most one-stop solutions, Elevate was designed to be as transparent as possible. The fact it adapts to the input signal helps with its clarity. Of course, the more you tweak, the higher the probability of artifacts happening, especially if you’re new to the plugin. The key to avoiding this is as incremental as possible with the parameters. Set the Adaptive Speed to slower values while keeping the multi-band transients consistent. While raising a slider from the Transient Sub-Module Page, one good tip increases gently around the focal band. That will generate a more transparent result than just pumping a single band a few dBs.
Newfangled Audio’s Elevate is available for Windows 8 and higher and macOS 10.9 and newer as an AAX, AU, and VST plugin.
Eventide’s Elevate mastering suite allows you to craft quick masters with minimum effort. The slider controls are super intuitive and straightforward, and all the modules ensure you can give as much attention to detail as needed. Even so, it takes some time to learn all the plugin can do to craft professional-sounding masters.
2. Signum Audio BUTE Limiter 2 Stereo
Signum Audio’s BUTE Limiter is a versatile plugin with an adaptable, user-friendly UI.
At the core of the BUTE lies Signum Audio’s brick-wall limiting algorithm, ensuring no peaks will go past it. The auto-release function is highly reliable, and its Pre/Post Gain structure provides you can also use it as a maximizer. The five different release curves and the adjustable Release Factor in auto mode make this an exact tool.
- Auto and Manual Release – This plugin offers the ability to choose your release time or let the algorithm decide.
- Release Curves – The five release curves offer different ways to limit the signal, from more transparent to more compressed. They are linear, natural, transparent, smooth, and pumping.
- Max Target Function – Set a Max Target level, and the limiter will automatically calculate the post gain needed to reach it. It can be helpful to create the Maximizer effect. To do so, set a target and lower the threshold to create the dynamic range. The peaks will never get past the mark you set.
- Different Color Graphics – The different colors in the graphics display represent input and output signals. You can choose to see either one or both to visualize the differences.
- Presets: The BUTE’s factory presets are organized by category, gating type, filter, and unit set. They can also be True Peak or short-term limit.
- Surround Version Available.
Character & Sound:
Signum Audio has truly nailed True Peak transparency with this plugin. Whether at mixing or mastering situations, there is no coloration added. You hear the source material’s character being masterfully limited at all frequencies with no distortion whatsoever. Depending on how you use the Post Gain function, there might be some overshoots. But that happens after limiting, and the plugin instantly alerts the user with a red flag.
It was developed for Windows 8.1 or higher and macOS 10.9 or higher and compatible with 64-bit VST, AU, and AAX.
The BUTE Limiter offers very transparent sound, and the algorithms are designed to be extra transparent in the lower frequencies. The lack of an attack knob ensures there will be no transient-related issues, which is a bonus. Besides, the ability to thoroughly analyze the limiting history is excellent for understanding your track’s dynamics.
3. FabFilter Pro-L2
FabFilter’s Pro-L 2 is a versatile tool suited for all music genres for either mixing or mastering.
Each of the plugin’s styles offers different transparency and punch levels. You can go from clear-sounding to extreme pump just by changing the algorithm. Additionally, the advanced controls allow the necessary fine-tuning to avoid any artifacts.
- Real-Time Level Display: Here, you can visualize how your audio’s being processed. It’s great to help you decide which attack and release values to use.
- Limiting Styles: The eight algorithms available make limiting highly straightforward. They are program-dependent, which means they’ll adapt to the input signal while still preserving their character.
- Lookahead: This knob will help shape the limiter’s attack. Lower values can cause a clipping effect, while higher values will generate superb gain reduction.
- Channel Linking: If you want to process each track independently in a stereo file, you can do so by unlinking the channels. This will make the limiter work as two separate units instead of being a single limiter for both channels.
- Unity Gain Output: By clicking the “1:1” button at the output menu in the lower bar, you’ll activate the Unity Gain function. This will lower the output volume by the same amount that you raise the input gain, keeping the resulting sound always at the same level. It’s great to help you hear and fine-tune the limiting without the extra volume.
- Surround Mode: You can go up to 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos, and the interface will automatically adapt to the extra channels.
- Presets: The Pro-L2’s selection of built-in presets offers limiting options for most musical genres in comprehensible categories.
Character & Sound:
FabFilter’s Pro-L2 can add some character to your sound, especially in the Punchy and Aggressive algorithms. Otherwise, the plugin sounds clear and artifact-free. Moreover, the up to 32x oversampling eliminates distortion and aliasing, while the True Peak technology avoids digital clipping. When it comes to professional transparency, this is one of the more advanced plugins in the market.
This plugin is available for Windows XP and higher and macOS 10.8 or newer in VST, AU, and AAX formats.
The Pro-L2 is a professional-grade limiting solution for every mixing and mastering engineer. The extensive metering section lets you hear and tailor your sound to your needs. The different display modes are a bit distracting, but nothing that you can’t turn off. Overall this is a go-to limiter for every occasion.
4. Softube Weiss Compressor/Limiter
Softube’s Weiss Compressor/Limiter is based on the Weiss DS1-MK3 and is a versatile mixing and mastering tool.
This miniaturized version of the original makes for a speedier workflow. The simplified interface tackles the most important parameters of a compressor/limiter in a multi-band approach. The plugin offers Mid-Side and independent channel processing, as well as auto-release and three filter options.
- Three Displays: You can use each mode to control different parameters. The Waveform display shows the gain reduction. Frequency lets you act in band selection mode. Finally, Knee shows the shape of the compressor’s knee.
- Hidden Side-Menu: Here, you can adjust advanced and general parameters, such as knee range, release delay, and sidechaining. You can also enable the dither and select the safety limiter’s mode.
- Auto Release Offset: You can control all three release types from a single knob on the front of the interface. You can also turn off Auto Release and set them all manually on the side menu. The three release types are Average, Fast, and Slow, and when in Auto mode, the proportion between them is controlled by the Fast value.
- Release Delay: This hidden feature works just like the Hold in a gate would. It’s meant to push the beginning of the release further from the transient.
- Filters: You can use a Low Pass at 3520 Hz or compress just one band with Band Pass mode. For example, in a bass guitar, this would help focus the compression on the instrument’s body while also tackling the lower frequencies.
Character & Sound:
The Weiss Compressor/Limiter is an industry standard in transparency with utmost transient precision. The filter options will give focus to the compression, while the M/S mode ensures its mastering capabilities. Overall the plugin adds no coloration to your tracks, which lets you add several units while mixing without having to worry about added character.
This plugin is available for macOS 10.12 and newer and Windows 7 and up in VST, AU, and AAX formats.
The Weiss Compressor Limiter, by Softube, is a go-to plugin for its clean sound and simple approach to compression. Using the Auto Release is like driving an automatic car, and the different displays ensure you’re aware of what’s happening to the audio. Meanwhile, the plugin is as invisible as it gets, not getting in the way of your mixing—definitely a worthy addition to your collection.
5. Brainworx bx_limiter True Peak
The bx_limiter TP, by Brainworx, was designed from the ground up with True Peak technology in mind.
The plugin offers straightforward parameters in a comprehensible UI, but it sounds way better than it looks. You can meter both in the input and output signals and solo individual parts of the audio. The balance and correlation meters are beneficial to ensure mono compatibility and the metering section is really precise.
- Mode: Modern will suit any kind of modern music, while Classic will be great for old-school genres.
- Foundation: Higher values give you a more bass-heavy foundation, creating a huge-sounding foundation, which will benefit most genres.
- Dynamic Range Meter: This helps you determine the density of the track. Numbers below 6dB mean you’re applying too much compression in your mix, making your track sound lifeless.
- Solo Buttons: Here, you can choose which part of the output signal is being monitored. If you choose either the L or R channels, they’ll play in the center unless you click the S.I.P. button, which will make the audio play in its respective position.
- XL: This saturation unit adds smooth harmonic distortion to the output signal.
Character & Sound:
Brainworx markets this plugin as “the ultimate mastering limiter,” claiming you can also use it for mixing on individual tracks. Its most impressive feature is the perfect transient clarity and punch, due mostly to the lack of an Attack control. The limiter adapts to the source material in a very musical way, delivering a lot of precision with a pleasing stereo field.
This plugin is available for Windows 7 and up and macOS 10.9 and newer in AAX, AU, and VST formats.
The bx_limiter True Peak is an outstanding plugin that gives the user straightforward controls, while most of the action happens behind the scenes. If it can be considered the best limiter on the market, I’m not sure. But it delivers on its True Peak promise, and that alone makes it a worthy addition to your collection.
6. TDR Limiter 6 GE
The Limiter 6 GE, by TokyoDawnRecords, is a shockingly precise, versatile tool with multiple workflow options.
The plugin offers five processing steps and the output limiter that works as a safety net. Apart from the output, all other processors can be moved to create a signal flow that best suits the music. It is an all-in-one mastering suite designed to serve multiple workflows and musical genres.
- Six Modules:
- Dynamic compressor
- High-Frequency Limiter
- Peak Limiter
- Output Limiter
- True Peak EBU Loudness Meter
- Multiple algorithms: Each module has its own set of algorithms that provide precise control and more processing options.
- Appealing UI: The User Interface is inviting and intuitive. Anyone familiar with a compressor can find their way through the plugin.
Character & Sound:
The Limiter 6 GE is a versatile-sounding plugin. It is naturally transparent but offers a wide possibility of harmonic coloration. The built-in compressor and clipper can add a warm character when pushed but will be very natural when not. All this so you can choose what kind of coloration to add, depending on the source material.
The plugin runs on macOS 10.9 or above and Win XP SP2 or above, as VST, AAX, or AU, with the Mac versions being 64-bit only.
This is a great plugin for on-a-budget mastering engineers since it contains most steps of dynamic processing used in mastering. The ability to go from macro to microprocessing makes this a detail-oriented plugin.
The 4 Best FREE Limiter Plugins 2021
1. Barricade Pro By Jeroen Breebaart
Barricade Pro by Jeroen Breebaart operates simultaneously at four different factors, Waveform, Envelope, Loudness, and Correlation.
That means you get more than one knob for the release, for example, because you’re setting different releases simultaneously. You get more freedom to achieve the sounds you’re after with this extensive set of controls. Also, you have the basic two-fader formula present in most limiters for input and output control.
- Envelope: This factor has three controls – Release, Hyst, and Link. You use them to shape the general release of the input material. Hyst uses the previous milliseconds of audio to learn what it has to do with the upcoming transients. The Link knob works across the stereo image to apply the same processing to both channels.
- XCorr: Process the information at both sides of your audio, applying gain and shaping the sides’ information threshold.
- SoftClip: Here, you can add some clipping to benefit from the inherent distortion you get by lowering the threshold.
- RMS: This section controls the final loudness of your track, with the standard attack, threshold, and release controls.
Character & Sound:
Overall, this is a very transparent plugin, with greater tonal possibilities added by the built-in soft clipper.
Barricade Pro is available for 32-bit Windows only as a VST.
This is a very complex plugin with strong possibilities, which is great for a free plugin. Nevertheless, it can scare producers who are new to limiting because the plugin makes it challenging to balance all parameters. A nice all-in-one plugin that does its job quite well.
2. Vladg Sound Limiter №6
VladG Sound’s Limiter №6 is a free option to another plugin on this list: TDR’s Limiter 6 GE.
VladG’s Limiter Nº6 is a transparent plugin with a great application for mastering. It eliminates the need for more plugins in the signal chain, although it doesn’t offer as many possibilities as TDR’s. You get several parameters, as well as modes, that bring up different flavors to this plugin.
- Five Modules:
- Compressor: A complete compressor with Gain, Ratio, Attack, Release, Dry Mix, and Stereo/Mid-Side options.
- Peak Limiter: A capable peak limiter with five types and four modes, versatile and suitable for most musical genres.
- High-Frequency Limiter: a strong de-esser with a simple threshold knob.
- Clipper: a great addition to the signal chain, this clipper offers three modes and an upsampling option for better clarity. You can bring soft or hard distortion to your mix and still sound harmonic.
- Protection: this is no more than an output limiter in which you can set the ceiling for the whole chain. Also, you can compensate for the increased gain added by the previous steps. You control the output in ISPs (inter-sample peaks) with a soft-clipping option.
- Classic VUs: Limiter Nº6 provides the user with classic VUs with multiple needles for Mid-Side Gain reduction metering. It lacks a metering section, though. Whether in LUFs, RMS, or True Peak EBU, you need another plugin to measure your output information.
- Ordering: you can change the order between the compressor and the limiter at the compressor’s upper right corner. This changes the signal flow to limit first and increases the overall volume with the compressor afterward.
Character & Sound:
Overall, this is a very clean-sounding plugin, with little to no added distortion. If all parameters are at zero, it will add no coloration whatsoever. That’s great for mastering since it lets you focus on the limiting and compression you’re adding to the track.
VladG’s Limiter Nº6 is available for 32 and 64-bit Mac and Windows computers, as VST2 and AU formats.
An impressive plugin like this for free is almost too good to be true. This is an essential tool for serious mastering, especially for producers and engineers working exclusively in the box. The Limiter 6 is versatile and eliminates the need for more plugins in the chain, helping you focus your attention on a single interface.
3. kiloHearts Limiter Snapin
Limiter Snapin by kiloHearts is a transparent limiter with straightforward knobs that offers the basics in a modern interface.
This limiter does a great job of maintaining sound clarity while pushing the volume. You can also control the output gain after the limiting process if you need more volume. It is a part of the kiloHearts set of snapin plugins. This means it can be added and other plugins by the same developer into their snapin host.
- Easy-to-use controls: the plugin offers four knobs and a single peak meter, where you can see if peaks are crossing the threshold.
- Presets: when you cross the mouse over the plugin, a white down-arrow appears at the top right corner. There, you’ll find presets to improve your time management significantly.
Character & Sound:
This plugin thrives on being extraordinarily transparent and adding absolutely no character to the sound. Great if a clean sound is what you’re looking for.
kiloHearts Limiter is available as 64-bit VST, AU, and AAX plugins for Windows and Mac.
In conclusion, this is a nice plugin to have in your mastering chain for a transparent result. You can also add it to single instruments for controlling wild peaks without adding character. A simple plugin that gets better outcomes when added to the other plugins from kiloHearts in their snapin module.
4. LVC-Audio ClipShifter
The free version of LVC-Audio’s ClipShifter offers a wide range of saturation, from soft and harmonic to heavy distortion.
With lots of parameters to be tweaked, the ClipShifter proves it can be a versatile tool. Set how much headroom you need with the threshold knob and drive the In Gain to start getting some compression. After that, try the Clip Shape knob to cut off the harshest peaks and add some character to the sound.
- Harmonics: control how you want your limiter to sound. If you push the input too hard, this will automatically start adding nice overtones and making the output louder.
- Metering: The plugin offers VU-style, PPM-style, and loudness meters so you can thoroughly monitor the output. There are also an input meter and a clip meter, so you can see what’s happening to the audio.
- Scale: get full control on how you want the waveform graph to show inside the plugin, with adjustable zoom and scale.
Character & Sound:
The ClipShifter is a versatile tool that ranges from transparent compression to hard-clipping distortion, with lots of possible nuances. The threshold menu offers a knee slider for further hardness shaping. The lack of oversampling on the free version keeps the plugin from getting ultra transparency.
This plugin is available in VST, AAX, and AU, for Mac and Windows on 32 and 64-bit computers.
This is an excellent limiter to add to single-instrument channels for the clipping and harmonics added. The character can benefit drums, 808 machines, or even guitars. The ClipShifter by LVC-Audio has been discontinued, but this free version is still supported.
Korneff Audio Talkback Limiter
Korneff Audio’s Talkback Limiter is an impressive-sounding SSL 4000 bus compressor emulation that is amazing on drums.
With a single limiter knob, the plugin makes it extremely easy to apply limiting to your tracks, whether they’re single instruments, busses, or even the master track. With a 100:1 compression ratio, this is genuinely a brick-wall limiter that can go as loud as it gets.
- Listen 1: this knob lowers the limiter’s threshold, applying a FET style compression at a 100:1 ratio.
- Blend: use this to get the benefits of a parallel limiting situation instantly, bring back some dynamic to the sound
- Input: Add 30db of gain and lots of harmonic saturation by switching the input from Line to Mic.
- Other side: you can tweak its compression character, add a low pass filter and adjust oversampling by entering the plugin’s “Other Side” mode.
Character & Sound:
This plugin has a fixed, fast attack designed to add punch to anything. It sounds great on any instrument by bringing up their hidden tones. The sound is very characteristic of SSL-like compressors but with greater punch and character. Also, try clicking any of the yellow LEDs at the top to simulate a power failure that generates massive distortion.
The Talkback Limiter is available in AU, VST3, and AAX formats for 64-bit Mac and Windows computers.
Korneff Audio’s Talkback Limiter is a beast in disguise. Its tiny size and minimalistic design say nothing about its massive, overloaded sound. A must-have for any producer who struggles with achieving loud, punchy drums, in-your-face guitars, or loud-and-clear vocals.
There have been several gold standards throughout the years when it comes to limiters in mixing or mastering. Nowadays, we can consider plugins like the FabFilter Pro-L2 and Softube’s Weiss industry standards, but newcomers such as the bx_limiter TP and Signum Audio’s BUTE Limiter 2 have come to challenge that position. Others, like Newfangled Audio’s Elevate and TDR Limite 6 GE, give you all-in-one solutions for mastering that should not be overlooked.
Pedro Nascente is an artist, record producer, and mix engineer, currently operating his own studio and working with his band, Yellow Boulevard. Believing that music should convey experiences and feelings, Pedro is known for applying design thinking to his workflow to achieve different sounds and deliver the right messages.