What is Audio Clipping Distortion?

Hard Clipping on digital audio workstation recording

Distortion has the potential to completely ruin your music and is important to be aware of when producing and listening to audio. This article explains exactly what audio clipping distortion is, what soft and hard clipping is and will help you stop/prevent audio clipping distortion. Distortion can occur in home music studios, home theatres, car speakers or any other audio environment, therefore it is vital to remove if you want great sounding audio.

What is Audio Clipping Distortion? Audio clipping is a form of distortion that happens when the input gain on your electronic device has been set too high and the output voltage or current is pushed beyond its capability. When this occurs the audio will sound distorted and less audible. On a chart, the sine wave will look clipped. 

Audio clipping is a common term used in music production. This article will dive deeper into different types of clipping and what limitations occur when producing music.

Audio Clipping Distortion

Audio clipping occurs when the input gain on your electronic device has been set too high and the electronics involved are pushed past their capability. You will find that audio clipped sine waves will represent a normal wave that looks like it has been cut off (squared off) at the top.

This gives the clipping distortion and it happens because the amplifier can’t process that amount of gain and is pushed beyond its capacity. A healthy sine wave (audio wave) should be a smooth curved with a slightly rounded top.

Below is an image of a sine wave (audio wave) that has been clipped:

Audio clipping

Below is a photo of a healthy sine wave:


Audio clipping is one of the most common reasons why speakers break, this is called a blown speaker. So next time you turn your amplifiers gain up, make sure your speaker can handle it!

What is Soft Clipping?

Soft clipping is a form of audio clipping that is less severe than a hard clipping distortion and can be used as a creative effect and to add warmth and weight to your audio.

You can notice soft clipping by how the sine waves square off. Unlike hard clipping, soft clipping’s sine waves will round off at the edges of the clipped wave. Soft clipping can actually make the sound easier to listen to and is less likely to damage speakers. It uses less high-pitched harmonics compared to hard clipping and the audio sounds much smoother and warmer due to the gradual transition to the clipped parts.

Although there is still distortion the audio’s timbre is less intense and harsh compared to hard clipping. Unless your an audiophile or musician, soft clipping it will likely go unnoticed by a regular listener, whereas a regular listener would be able to notice hard clipping as it is likely to ruin the song due to the distortion.

Using Soft Clipping

Soft clipping can be used to add weight and warmth to the sounds. Sounds such as drums and bass synthesizer sound very nice when you use them through a soft clipper.

When mastering a track you can add some soft clipping to the buss, this will add the extra crunchiness and increase the loudness of the mix.

A little soft clipping goes a long way. There’s plenty of soft clipping plugins for different digital audio workstations, it is best to search google for a plugin for the particular audio software that you are using.

What is Hard Clipping?

Hard clipping is when you increase the gain on an audio source above its capacity, in a digital audio workstation this would be above the 0DB point.

Digital audio workstations use decibels to measure the level of the volume and 0DB is the loudest a sound can go without it sounding distorted if it goes above that the sine wave will square off and the playback will be extremely distorted and make it sound harsh and fuzzy.

Hard clipping needs to be prevented at all costs due to how inaudible it can make your track sound.

What is Limiting?

Limiting is when a loud signal is reduced to avoid clipping distortion.

Although by limiting the signal the dynamic change does introduce a slight form of audio distortion. It is rarely recognized as distortion by a regular listener and doesn’t impair the audibility of the audio by much.

How To Prevent Audio Clipping Distortion?

There are a few ways to prevent audio clipping.

1. Audio clipping occurs when the gain on an amplifier is set too high. To simply fix this issue, try turning down your gain and learn how to set it properly. The gain input is not a volume control. It is simply an option that controls the input of power or amplitude. To properly set your gain you need to keep adjusting it until you have found a level that doesn’t cause distortion and sounds good.

2. Buy a better amplifier. If you’re finding that your amplifier is clipping a lot, you may have an amplifier that is not powerful enough for your needs. Try fixing this by replacing your current amplifier with a slightly larger one.

3. Avoid using bass boosts. Bass boosts can be a huge reason to why your amplifier is causing clipping. You should avoid using bass boosts. If you’re going to use bass boosts you should be very careful when setting the required amount.

4. Use an audio limiter. An audio limiter is a very useful tool. It is used to prevent an audio signal from going over a certain limit. By using an audio limiter you can easily stop the audio clipping distortion from happening.

Audio Limiters

Audio limiters or limiter is a type of compressor that has been designed for a specific purpose. Its purpose is to limit the signal and to stop it from going over a certain threshold. These can be very useful to prevent and stop an audio signal from clipping. Limits will have safeguards that prevent the signal when it is too loud or distorted.

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