Here’s a common mistake I see over and over, producing and mixing a track with a gain maximizer on your mixer’s main output. Examples of gain maximizers are the Waves L2 Ultramaximizer, Avid Maxim, or if you’re working in Reason or Record, the MClass Maximizer. These devices are designed to limit a signal’s peaks and then automatically optimize the output (called automatic gain makeup), in relation to a given threshold, to a specific level you’ve set (such as 0 dB, or –0. 2 dB). Or, to put it in simpler terms, to make your audio sound as loud as possible.

If you don’t realize that you’re working through a gain maximizer, you’re probably thinking that your production sounds wonderfully loud and full. Indeed, some software programs actually feature default templates with a maximizer on the mixer’s main output (such as Reason). This is a great sales pitch, since it makes your track sound totally bombastic, but it’s not reality. The reality is that if you bypass the maximizer you’ll most likely discover that you’re clipping (exceeding 0 dB) your main output, badly. It’s only because of the maximizer that you can’t see or hear your woefully out of balance gain structure. Instead, the clipping is being rounded out by the maximizer’s brick-wall limiter algorithm in order to sound more palatable to your ear. But, the clipping is still there, your overdriven mixer channels are still there, your poor gain structure is still there.

As a dramatic example, I often demonstrate this mistake in Reason. With the default Mastering Combinator inserted on the mixer’s main output I create a Dr. Octo REX, press Play, and then turn up all the levels to the max: Dr. Octo’s Master Level, the mixer channel’s level, and the mixer’s Master Fader. It sounds great and there’s no clipping indicated on the Audio Output Clipping Indicator on the Transport Bar. But, then, I Bypass the Mastering Combinator and the Clip Indicator immediately illuminates, and stays on nonstop. In fact, in this extreme example you can actually hear the clipping, and this is difficult to do in Reason because its main outputs seem to be pretty forgiving even when you’re seeing the Clip indicator.

So, now, the obvious question is, if everything sounds fine with a maximizer on my main output why should I care? There are a few reason’s why it’s not a good idea to produce and mix with a sonic maximizer on your main output:

Just because you can’t see or hear the clipping doesn’t mean it’s not there. And, if it’s there, then when you master your mix all you’re doing is trying to smooth out the clips. You’re gain maximizing your entire mix, clips included, and this can only lead to an inferior sounding master.

If the maximizer is trying to turn up, or turn down, your signals for optimum loudness, then whenever you adjust a level or EQ a signal in your mix the maximizer is automatically countering your move. Consequently, you won’t have the full dynamic range to work in, you’ll be limited to the dynamic range that the maximizer is setting for you. With the maximizer countering every move you make in the mix you aren’t really hearing your work. Talk about counter productive.

As a rule, maximizers are serious processor hogs. Think about it, they have to look ahead at the digital signal and adjust every upcoming peak according to their Threshold and Gain Output settings. So, with a maximizer inserted on your main output, can you imagine how much latency you’re introducing? The answer is, a lot, in the thousands of samples. Just try monitoring a live signal (such as a vocal or guitar) through a maximizer inserted on your main output and you’ll immediately hear what I’m talking about. It’s a disturbing amount of latency and there’s no reason to be fighting for processor resources when all you have to do is delete the maximizer from your signal path. (When you’re mastering, this sort of latency on your main output isn’t an issue.)

If you’re already slamming your mix through a maximizer, you’ve pegged 0 dB, and everything is as loud as it can possibly be with hardly any dynamics left in your mix, what’s left for a mastering engineer to do? The answer is, not much. If you’re serious about releasing your music, leave some dynamics in your mix for a mastering engineer to work with.

Having said all this, I think it’s a great idea to fine tune your mix through a maximizer when you’re mastering directly in your multitrack mix session. I do this all the time, after my mix is complete, especially for reference mixes (tracks that need to impress clients), and background music for film and TV. However, if it’s for an album cut that I plan to send out for mastering, the maximizer effect (some maximizers, such as the L2 and Maxim, have dithering and bit reduction that can be used independently of their gain maximizer functions) is out of the signal path altogether.

    I always had problems with using the maximizer the right way. The Mix always seemed to be very nervewrecking after applying the effect. Ich recorded some guitars out of my looper
    and after the Maximizer was applied the guitars sounded unnatural and overcompressed.

    I used to do that. Now I know why it sounded like crap! Thanks! AwesOme tip

    i have an idea about reason’s the MClass Maximizer to have a unclipping wave , before reach the M class maximizer i use compressor with Hi threshold (-5), medium attack , first release and much ratio to reduce a peak frequency and for a second time i use a compressor again to limit the sound and then i use maximizer .So, The output sound has no clipping problem.

    This is interesting as i have found myself that creating with the lowest volume and gain to bring best results once a mix is completed.
    I then crank up each channel with overdrive, compressors and limiters, ect. I then use soft clipper to control thresholds and then go to master output channel and use expanders, EQ’s and others before rendering to Mp3. I do not master.

    Results are far better by keeping gains down during composition and pre mixdown.

    Thank you for the information.

    [...] Production Why Mixing Through a Gain Maximizer is a Bad Idea: (Berkleemusic) [...]

    Thanks for sharing I enjoyed it. Nice and concise tutorial with some nice sound results.

    Going through your blog publication is a real fantastic experience. Many thanks for thinking about readers at all like me.

    An interesting insight I’m about to start looking – will start searching for a replacement for my Avid Maxim!

    I’ve been looking for this for a long time Erik. Very useful, thanks!

    This is an excellent post, lots of information, practical examples; however, very frustrating. You tell us why it’s a bad idea to use maximizers, but give us no solution! The reason people use maximizers is because they have hugely dynamic sound in their input, and want to maximize the low levels and reduce the high peaks. How do you do this? Please create a post where you give excellent examples on how to get the loudest and fattest sound without clipping. From the start.

    Mike,
    The key is learning how to use insert compression in your mix. Compression is the processor that can control a performance’s dynamics in your mix, on a track by track basis. With proper use of insert compression you can produce an incredibly loud mix, even before mastering, because you have fine dynamics control over all the individual tracks. This allows you to produce a mix that’s loud, but not clipping. Also, more and more these days, especially in electronic music, producers are inserting gain maximizers directly on individual mix channels. I tend to think that this is a response to not understanding how to set a compressor to act as a limiter, but the fact is this technique is becoming more and more widespread, and I do think it has its place in some styles of mixing. .

    I just like the helpful info you provide on your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I’m
    somewhat sure I’ll be told many new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!

    I agree with ehawkins, the vast majority of the DJ’s on tour make music using software only. They already have little time to do this because they fly across the globe all week long and have to make their music on laptops, using VSTs and samples.

    Too meet the deadlines, (either personal or obligated) they use studio headphones and software to make the music they know people are gonna like and listen too anyway..

    So the use of mastering tools like Waves Limiters and Ozone and Maximus (yes it’s up here because I noticed how transparent it stays when maximizing/limiting my house music.)is actually a more common than rare.

    Besides at least 60% of the DJ’s/Producers wouldn’t have been able to produce music the same way they do now. Not only because it’s too expensive for a starting 16 year old with talent, but also because the need for portability is higher than ever to be able to collab with others or like I said make music while traveling.

    Well said Alex!

Leave a Comment