You’ve probably been in the company of someone who sees a red light flash or glow permanently and then tells you “Oh, dude! You’re clipping!” Do they know what audio clipping means?
What causes clipping? What can we do to stop clipping? It is the same thing as peaking (yes). It’s the same as peaking (yes). I’ll explain it all and tell you what it sounds, and how to fix it.
If you want to have the best possible experience with any music, TV or movie, it is essential. Audio peaking can cause damage to your expensive entertainment system, headphones and studio monitor speakers. Let’s fix this problem ASAP.
What is Audio Clipping?
Clipping audio refers to when audio signals are amplified beyond the limit in an analog or digital system. Overdrive is a term that can cause distortion and lower audio quality. Notice in this clipping waveform how the loudest peaks and troughs are literally clipped off and made flat.
Clipping is the name given to this waveform. The flat plateau of a square-wave is a smooth, round sine wave with its peaks and valleys “clipped off”. This plateau can be heard in your loudspeaker and can cause a horrible sound and even damaged speakers.
What does Audio Clipping sound like?
Clipping is the cause of distortion. It’s common to hear distortion on heavy metal and rock guitars, but it’s done carefully and with taste. In the music industry, there are terms for each level of distortion.
While all three levels are visible, they are most noticeable in the 2nd or 3rd level. Overdrive, which is the smallest amount of distortion, can be almost invisible. When audio quality is being lost or distorted, it is called distortion.
Fuzz sounds like a group of bees trying desperately to escape from a bag. It is possible to have a guitar distortion intentionally or accidental clipping. This causes the entire track to sound horrible and can cause it to be distorted.
The image above shows the visual and graphical effects of distortion. Things lose their clarity and resolution. You also hear unwanted noises like hiss, clicks and pops.
Why is Audio Clipping Important?
There are many types of audio clipping. But there is also a range of severity. Clipping audio is a feature of almost every audio piece that has been professionally recorded, mixed and mastered.
This is because minor amounts of peaking can be subtle but still make it noticeable. However, they give you more ‘headroom” to allow you to have a louder source. You will hear the peaking audio if you have a lot of it. It can also cause damage to your hearing aids in some cases.
It’s easy to tell when there is severe clipping by the sound you hear. This is called light distortion. It can sound like your audio is ‘breaking up’. It becomes more difficult to recognize the music in an ocean of noise and loudness, so the distortion gets more severe.
We care because our speakers have physical components which react to the audio signal. Volume is directly related to the voltage being sent through electronics. Higher voltages mean higher temperatures.
Your speakers can become overheated if they are allowed to clip for too long. This could cause damage to the coils and lead to them becoming unusable. The woofers vibrate in order to reproduce sound. A clipped portion can cause a jarring motion that can eventually rip or tear the fabric.
Why does audio clipping occur?
Clipping can happen at any point in your audio signal pathway. Analog clipping allows you to see the microphone, preamplifier, analog-to-digital conversions, digitally in the computer, the amplifier and the speakers. Digital clipping allows you to look at any plugins, the master output, and the converters. Each piece of equipment can be driven to the limit.
This is because every piece of equipment is designed to work within a specific volume range. Peaking can be caused by loudness at any stage. When working with audio, you will find many volume and gain knobs. The purpose of volume knobs and gain knobs is to adjust the volume at each stage. Sound On Sound created this image to illustrate the general equivalencies
It can be confusing because of the three scales, but it is important to explain them. Decibels can be abbreviated to dB. These are the following scales:
- dBFS is digital decibels full scale
- dBu is an analog decibel unloaded in decibels
- VU (voltage units, electrical)
Analog equipment, for instance, has a maximum voltage that it can handle. This is +24 dBu/20 VU and you move towards zero, then to the negative, as you become quieter. Any excess voltage is cut off. This maximum number in digital systems is 0 dBFS, until all bits of each sample have been filled with information (called “saturation”). When recording and mixing digitally, clipping can occur at any input, track or plugin. Each stage must be balanced correctly.
Each piece of equipment should be capable of handling levels between +4 dBu and 0 VU. Audio clipping is caused by audio amplitude (volume) exceeding the allowed limits.
How can we prevent sound clipping?
It is important to remember that audio clipped at any stage in your playback chain will cause distortions in all subsequent parts, regardless of whether you adjust the levels.
VLC is a popular software that allows you to play music and movies on your computer. You can increase the volume by up to 200%. It allows you to set your speakers to very quiet, then increase the volume in VLC very high. This will result in clipping audio from your speakers at very low volumes.
This is gain stage. It is how you stop clipping, and ensure it doesn’t happen again. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, I recommend both the gain and volume articles. Below are the basic explanations.
How to Stop Audio Peaking When It’s Too Late
The first question we need to ask is: What can we do when it’s too late? For those not in the music business or setting up church sound systems, this is irrelevant. However, you will be pleased to know that loudspeakers come with protective circuits that change the signal to a’soft clip’ rather than a ‘hard limit’.
Soft clipping removes the sharp plateau from clipping and smoothens it so it has a more even shape. While this protects the speakers from unnatural movements that can cause the tearing, it can also lead to heat damage if the distortion continues for a prolonged period.
A limiter is a device that prevents peaking by dynamic range compression on your mixing console, digital sound workstation software or amplifier. Clipping audio will still be present, but the voltage will not exceed the acceptable limits. This will result in horrible-sounding audio.
A compressor can be used to reduce volume without limiting. This will give you a more pleasing sound and protects against clipping. A compressor and limiter are two of the most common tools used by professional studio engineers. You might be wondering What is a compressor? What is a limiter? In which case these links will answer your questions.
HOW TO STOP CLIPPING DISTORTION AT YOUR SOURCE
The source audio levels for television, movies, and video games will be very high, but not so high that they cause sound clipping. Normalization will be applied to them, increasing their volume as much as possible while avoiding peaking.
Software levels should be set to 100% or less, but not higher. You can increase the volume on your headphones or speakers if you require more volume.
This is true whether you are playing guitar, keyboards, or recording with a mic. You should reduce the gain of the instrument or preamplifier to the microphone if you are dealing with clipping. This will ensure that you are not sending too much signal to your amplifier, analog-to-digital convertor, or preamplifier for the microphone.
It is important to ensure that your source audio is not peaking. Next, you should check the volume knob on the next piece. Continue this process all the way to your amplifier or receiver and your speakers. This is useful for studio recording, music clipping in venues, home entertainment system receivers and car amplifiers.
You can also under- or over-power speakers when using amplifiers, which are usually found in automotive audio. Make sure your speakers are properly matched to the amp’s power rating. It is possible to cause distortion by making your speakers louder than they can handle.
This is Audio Clipping: Defined. Explained. & Prevented
Peaking occurs when the audio signal is too hot. It means that the signal is either too hot (amplitude/volume) or too high in voltage.
To understand how to fix it or the technical details, you don’t have to be an electrician. However, we do provide this information. Everything you need to know regarding audio clipping is available whenever you need it