When we think clipping in terms of audio, we’re typically thinking of hard clipping. This is an oftentimes undesirable form of clipping, but there’s another form which is actually useful. Let’s talk about what is soft clipping, what it does, and how to use it in our mixes.
Soft Clipping vs Hard Clipping
Thinking back to our overview of what is clipping, hard clipping (typically just referred to as clipping) occurs when a clip of audio gets turned up beyond a device’s ability to accurately reproduce it.
In mixing terms, this occurs at 0dB in the digital realm, the literal the point of digital distortion.
An invisible ceiling exists here where an otherwise healthy sound wave’s amplitude (see parts of a sound wave) hits and get flattened:
The result is a sharp and undesirable spike in the high frequencies which is rough on the ears and can actually damage your speaker’s tweeter if it’s loud enough.
So hard clipping is generally bad and something we want to avoid at least in the mixing stage by way of employing gain staging while recording AND mixing.
But what about soft clipping? What is soft clipping?
What is Soft Clipping
Simply put, soft clipping is the act of rounding off those square corners to soften the harshness of the audible byproduct of clipping.
This makes the audio less damaging to the hardware its playing on and more palatable for the listener.
How to Use Soft Clipping
While soft clipping can be used as a form of saturation to warm up audio (see what does saturation do for more information), perhaps the most common application for soft clipping is in the mastering stage.
Some limiters or maximizers make use of soft clipping to add more gain to a track or entire mix.
Whereas this gain would normally push the audio into the range of clipping, the negative effects are mitigated by rounding off the peaks.
The overall effect is that the clip sounds a bit more distorted or better said saturated, depending on how much soft clipping is employed, but in a manageable way.
You get to maintain the dynamics of your mix while still getting a couple/few more decibels out of the finished product, making soft clipping a relatively transparent and popular tool to use in that stage.
Izotope’s Ozone Maximizer uses soft clipping to apply saturation proactively below the threshold to begin rounding off those peaks ahead of time.
The three settings of L, M, and H begin adding saturation at 3dB, 9dB, and 30dB below the threshold, respectively. Coupled with the soft clip percentage, this gives you a small but subtle boost all the way to a large but obviously distorted boost in gain, respectively.
It’s not a magic bullet, but used conservatively this can give you a little extra volume out of your master without noticeably detracting from the fidelity of the audio itself.
Speaking of audio mastering, don’t forget to consider using true peak limiting to ensure your mix doesn’t (hard) clip once it leaves your speakers and hits the streaming services/speakers around the world.
And if your audio is already clipping, you might consider using a hard clipper to bring those peaks down and salvage the track.
But I digress!
Soft Clipping Reviewed
- Soft clipping is a form of intentional distorting of the waveform after a set threshold.
- The waveforms are smoothly rounded, mitigating the distortion commonly associated with hard clipping.
- As such, soft clipping can be used conservatively alongside limiters to get a couple/few decibels out of your peaks, albeit with some relatively light and transparent saturation effects.
- With audio with lower levels/peaks relative to the point of clipping, soft clipping can be used as a form of saturation to warm up a signal depending on how aggressively that threshold is set relative to the peak(s).