How to Relax Concerning Levels & Clipping

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Propellerhead posted a video today encouraging people to stop freaking out when the channel meters of their Reason software ascend into the red. Wait, isn’t hardcore stressing over clipping, even when we don’t hear it, what we’re supposed to do? The answer may help you relax better when making music with a lot of software programs, not only Reason.

“That red LED phobia that so many of us have from years of conditioning? Yeah, for the most part, don’t sweat it,” says Ryan Harlin in the video “Finally Understanding Levels and Clipping,” which he produced for his Ryan’s Picks for Quick Mix Fix Tricks series.

He begins by explaining the difference between listening to music as a finished product — which in most cases is 16-bit fixed point audio — compared to producing it in modern software like Propellerhead Reason 8, which uses 32-bit floating point digital audio for its internal connections.

When a signal’s dynamic value goes over the16-bit audio dynamic range — which has 65,534 possible values in that range — the only way to represent it is with the highest number possible.

“The end result is a waveform that looks like it’s gotten a haircut. It’s been… clipped, and that’s why we call it clipping distortion,” Harlin says. “It looks wrong, and it sounds wrong.”

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Higher bit depth audio means a wider dynamic range of sound. 24-bit audio handles more values before clipping than 16-bit, and 64 bits is close to representing all possible values.

Dynamic Range: the distance between the quietest possible signal and the loudest possible signal.

Reason’s 32-bit floating point digital audio for its internal connections provides a 1,540 dB dynamic range, compared to a 96 dB dynamic range for 16-bit fixed point audio. When the Reason mixer sums group outputs and the master output, it jumps up to 64-bit floating point audio.

All that basically means that “there is no ‘too loud’ inside of Reason’s mixer or rack,” Harlin says. The mixer’s VU offset meters weren’t meant to make decisions on clipping.

Reason’s audio only heads back to the limitations of fixed-point audio when it’s converted to analog for your speakers or exported as audio files. To make sure you don’t exceed 0dB in those cases, you can turn down the mixer’s master fader and check the master meter of the rack’s Big Meter device.

Use maximizers (also called mastering limiters) to drive your music louder while not going over 0dB. However, don’t have them on while you’re creating the music. While you’re making the music, keep the master fader low enough to avoid clipping. When you’re finished with the music, put the master fader back to unity position, and add a maximizer to it.

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The maximizer will allow you to increase the perceived volume of the music without any peak going over 0dB. However, the master meter will still be going into the red when a peak hits 0dB without going over. When you understand that, you can be comfortable with seeing that red flash in the meter.

The Propellerhead YouTube channel has hundreds of more videos, including well over 100 Reason tutorials. Some recent videos in this series include mixing tips like mixing with filters and vocal mixing that can help people whether they’re using Reason or another software.