Clipping is, in my opinion, the most overlooked and undervalued processing technique for both Electronic and Hip Hop production and engineering. Although many educational resources geared at beginning producers warn against clipping and overs in the digital realm at all costs, such warnings cast far too wide of a net - put simply, there are some good kinds of clipping, and some bad.
While it is true that clipping the master buss outputs of your DAW is a very bad idea, other types of clipping are widely employed by top-level mixing and mastering engineers to control dynamics, maintain transients while reducing peaks, and prevent pumping often encountered with compressors and limiters. In the mastering realm, clipping high end AD/DA converters is a tried and true technique for enhancing apparent loudness and RMS levels, particularly on electronic music.
So where do producers and engineers who don’t have access to high end analog gear turn for clipping? Over the past few years we’ve seen an increasing number of plugins aiming to deliver what we’ll call ‘good clipping’ - the type of pleasing analog saturation and distortion you’ll get by hitting high end circuits hard - in software form, often with varying levels of success.
In this review, we’ll put boutique developer SIR Audio’s StandardCLIP to the test to see if it delivers on it’s promises of realistic ITB clipping and saturation, along with a few tips on how to best employ clipping and soft clipping in your productions and mixes.
Setup & First Impressions
Installation and authorization of StandardCLIP is straightforward; download your installers from the SIR Audio website, install the VST/AU/AAX plugins, and authorize them using a provided keyfile. No hardware dongle or iLok is required.
StandardCLIP’s interface is simple, straightforward, and informative without being overly complex. I always appreciate plugins that do one thing and do it really well, and StandardCLIP definitely falls into this category; as you’d expect from a clipper (in contrast to a limiter or compressor), there are no settings for attack, release, or ratio. Simply dial in your input gain, set your clipping threshold (the dB +- level at which the waveform will be clipped), choose your desired mode (Soft Clip, Soft Clip Pro, Hard Clip, and Ratio 2:1), dial in your output gain, and you’re good to go. StandardCLIP’s simple interface means you can get results quickly, so long as you know what you’re after.
Before we dive into the sonics and specifics of StandardCLIP, it’s important to understand both what exactly is happening when we employ a clipper in a DAW, as well as why this process differs from compression and limiting - and what this means sonically.
The simplest way to envision these three processes - compression, limiting, and clipping - is on a continuum from least aggressive (with regard to how the waveform/audio is processed) to most aggressive. A compressor compresses audio above it’s set threshold, with increasingly strong compression of the input signal as the ratio of the compressor is dialed up. While many producers think of limiters as a separate type of proccessor from compressors, they’re in fact the same; a limiter is just a compressor with an infinite ratio, meaning infinite (absolute) gain reduction occurs to any audio which passes over the limiter’s threshold.
While this seems straightforward enough, you’ll notice something interesting - and in many cases, undesirable - happening as you use compressors and limiters more aggressively: they tend to exhibit a pumping behavior during the release of the gain reduction circuit. This pumping occurs because compressors and limiters are essentially trying to contain the dynamic range of the audio signal by pushing any audio above the threshold back down below the threshold, which becomes harder to do smoothly as gain reduction increases.
Hard clippers, on the other hand, are an entirely different beast. There is no attack, and there is no release - because any signal that exceeds the clipping threshold is quite literally chopped right off the waveform. Whereas compressors and limiters push peaks back down into the signal, clippers slice it right off the top - making them more suitable in many cases for drums, instruments with sharp and aggressive transients, and full mixes. Limiters will, in many cases, reduce the punch and apparent impact of drums and percussive material; clippers, by contrast, will often enhance the transients and punch of drums and other sharp sounds, saving you valuable headroom in your mix without sacrificing impact.
I’ve tried a number of clippers which are available on the market today, and StandardCLIP has become my go to clipper since we began testing it - in fact, I haven’t used another clipping plugin once since I began using StandardCLIP.
StandardCLIP’s Hard Clip mode is the best we’ve heard from any plugin - it lets you shave an utterly ridiculous amount of signal off of transient-heavy material before you begin hearing any unpleasing distortion. In my experience, snap and clap sounds - the type you hear all over the verses of pop and EDM tracks at the moment - often benefit tremendously from some tasteful clipping, and with StandardCLIP I found I was often able to shave 8dB’s of signal off of snaps and claps without any audible distortion or artifacts.
Because controlling the dynamics and transients of your sounds is critical for a loud, polished, and in-your-face mix, clippers can play an essential role in making sure your track can compete with the pros. 8dB’s of saved headroom on one sound in your mix is significant; that type of saved headroom across many tracks of your mix can be the difference between a mix that simply can’t be pushed loud in mastering and one that can be pushed to aggressive RMS levels while still sounding clean and well-balanced.
StandardCLIP also offers two Soft Clipping modes which offer a more gentle form of clipping where the waveform is rounded off or bent above the threshold rather than being chopped right off - its the type of clipping typical with driven tape, tubes, and other forms of analog gear. We found StandardCLIP’s Soft Clip Pro mode to be particularly interesting, as it offers control over the amount of soft clipping saturation, which is essentially a one-knob control which determines how hard you’re driving the clipping circuit (and how aggressive the processing will be), To our ears, the Soft Clip Pro mode does an excellent job recreating the sonics of pushing analog tape well into saturation and soft clipping; percussive and transient heavy sounds take on added character and weight, and peaky transients are smoothly controlled in a natural-sounding way.
While Clippers can be of great benefit in drum processing and mixing, they play an equally important role in mastering. With some rare exceptions - Daft Punk’s creative use and abuse of the obvious pumping behavior exhibited by the Alesis 3630 compressor being one - pumping is to be avoided at all costs in the mastering phase of most mixes, making clippers a tool of choice for maximizing loudness, maintaining punch, and avoiding pumping artifacts. StandardCLIP’s Hard Clip mode excels here as well as anything we’ve heard in the box; several dB’s of gain can often be squeezed out of a well-produced mix with no audible artifacts or unwanted distortion.
We struggled to find any major downsides or issues to StandardCLIP - it’s an affordable, well designed, efficient, and superb sounding processor that does one thing and does it extremely well.
Conclusion / Recommended For
We’d recommend StandardCLIP without hesitation to any producer or engineer looking for an affordable tool that will help you squeeze extra loudness and punch out of your drums, plucks, and full mixes. StandardCLIP’s Hard Clip mode does a phenomenal job of increasing apparent loudness and controlling peaks without the artifacts often found with compressors and limiters - and it should be high on your gear purchase list if you’re looking to sculpt loud, in-your-face mixes that still knock.
- Straightforward tool; does one thing extremely well.
- Simple, well designed GUI and layout.
- Sounds fantastic.