Ah, limiters. Much like compressors, these dynamic range processing tools can make or break your final mix. If you manage to push the loudness high enough without damaging the dynamics, your track will stand proudly in a playlist next to any modern hit song.
However, apply too much limiting or use a lower quality limiter plugin and your carefully mixed track will lose its spark, to say the least. To prevent this dark scenario from ever coming true, here is a list of the best freeware limiter effects in VST and AU plugin formats that will help you push your mix to its, erm, limits. Click here to return to our directory of free VST plugins in which you’ll find more freeware effects and instruments.
#1 Limiter №6 by Vladislav Goncharov (VST/AU)
The undisputed champion of freeware limiters, Limiter №6 features a 5-stage signal path optimized for getting as much loudness out of a mix as possible without affecting the sound quality in a negative way. Starting with a transparent RMS compressor which gently glues up the mix, Limiter №6 forwards the processed audio signal to a peak limiter, a high-frequency limiter, a clipper, and finally a true peak limiter for setting the final loudness of the track and preventing inter-sample peak clipping.
Each of the five stages is meant to add a touch of loudness to the processed audio signal, resulting in a highly transparent and clean sounding result. The peak limiter stage is particularly powerful, featuring four different processing modes (brickwall, soft, mid-side, and multi-band) and five limiting knee adjustments to perfectly fit any type of mix. Reading the manual is highly recommended if you plan on adding Limiter №6 to your plugin arsenal, as it explains all of the plugin’s nuances that you’ll need to understand in order to unleash its full potential. The manual is also quite educational and helpful for understanding the different techniques of dynamic range processing.
Limiter №6 might look a bit overwhelming at first with all the knobs and switches, I know it looked like a crazy science lab tool to me at first, but it’s actually quite logical and easy to use. Spend a bit of time with the manual, learn how to use the plugin, and you’ll have an amazing limiting tool in your hands, completely free of charge. The only mistake Vladislav Goncharov, the developer, with this plugin is that he didn’t name it Limiter №1.
Download: Limiter №6 (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
+ Multiple limiting stages
+ Built-in compression and soft clipping
+ Digital clipping and inter-sample peak protection
– User interface is a bit too advanced for beginners
#2 Unlimited by Sonic Anomaly (VST)
The most recent addition to this list is Unlimited, a freeware mastering limiter released in 2017 by Sonic Anomaly. It is a high-quality maximizer/limiter effect capable of processing up to 5.1 surround audio material (stereo is also supported). Unlimited comes with RMS meters and an ITU-R BS.1770 compliant loudness meter for monitoring the signal loudness on the output. It automatically adjusts to the type of audio signal on the input, reducing the overall CPU hit if a stereo signal is detected.
In practice, Unlimited blows away most of the competition with its highly transparent sound and intuitive controls. If you don’t like the complex user interface and advanced features of Limiter №6, then Unlimited is the way to go. The processing quality is second to none, with a much faster workflow and a convenient control scheme. The advanced monitoring features ensure that Unlimited can also be used in professional studios.
The single negative thing about Unlimited is that it is only compatible with Windows-based digital audio workstations. It is a 32-bit and 64-bit VST plugin and you’ll need to run Windows 7 or later in order to use Unlimited in your DAW. Other than that, Unlimited is one of the best mastering tools around and an absolute must-have for Windows users.
Download: Unlimited (32-bit & 64-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
+ Transparent sound and intuitive controls
+ Advanced metering tools
– Windows-only VST plugin
#3 LoudMax by Thomas Mundt (VST/AU)
If reading user manuals isn’t your thing, or if you simply prefer using a streamlined limiter that will instantly add loudness to your mix without damaging it, look no further than LoudMax by Thomas Mundt. This excellent freeware limiter for PC and Mac features only two control parameters (threshold and output volume), yet it manages to deliver fantastic sounding results on a wide variety of mixes. The plugin is optimized for highly transparent limiting and preserving the original character of the source signal even at extremely high compression settings.
The limiting workflow could hardly get any simpler than what you get with LoudMax. Simply push the threshold slider to the left until you’re happy with the loudness. The vertical gain reduction meter on the right will help you visualize the amount of limiting that is being applied to the signal, but the key is to use your ears and try to detect any audible signs of pushing the limiter too high. Once you’re happy with the sound and loudness of your mix, give your ears a bit of rest and take another listen a couple of hours later to make sure that the output isn’t over-compressed. One useful technique for double-checking your limiter settings is to use the output volume slider to match the loudness of the unprocessed mix and then use the plugin’s bypass switch to A/B test the dynamics of the clean and processed signal.
LoudMax is easily one of the most frequently used VST plugins in my arsenal. I use it to prevent clipping in my DAW, during live performances, even in my video editor (Magix Vegas). It is very transparent, very easy to use, and comes very close to the results you may get out of an advanced limiter like Limiter №6. Another great thing about LoudMax is that it still receives updates on a fairly regular basis. The updates often include performance optimizations and improvements to the limiting algorithm. It will work in any digital audio workstation that hosts VST or AU plugins and you can even use it as a real-time effect in WinAmp.
Download: LoudMax (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
+ Extremely easy to use
+ Transparent sound as long as not pused too hard
– Some users might prefer a more detailed control scheme
#4 Limited-Z by LVC Audio (VST/VST3/AU/RTAS/AAX)
In terms of workflow and simplicity, Limited-Z sits somewhere in the middle between Limiter №6 and LoudMax. The plugin is based on LVC Audio’s premium Limited-MAX ($64.95) mastering limiter, although most of the advanced parameters are hidden under the hood in the free version. With its simplified control scheme, Limited-Z delivers the high-quality results you’d expect to get from a mastering-grade limiter plugin while making it easier to operate for novice users.
That’s not to say that Limited-Z is fully automatic like LoudMax, though. The plugin offers a choice between multiple limiting modes, auto-gain, input gain adjustment, A/B testing functionality, and multiple gain reduction meters. The real-time waveform display with gain reduction metering is particularly useful for fine-tuning the threshold value. An optional $34.95 purchase unlocks up to 4X linear-phase oversampling, K-Metering, and X/Y controls for the Dynamic Algorithm settings, among several other added features.
Download: Limited-Z (32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/RTAS/AAX plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
+ High-quality limiter
+ Real-time waveform display and gain reduction metering
– Advanced controls unavailable in the free version
– Somewhat busy-looking UI
#5 W1 Limiter by George Yohng (VST/AU/RTAS)
Last but not least, W1 Limiter by George Yohng is a freeware emulation of the L1 Ultramaximizer ($49) by Waves. Even though it is one of the oldest plugins on the list (it’s been around since 2010), W1 Limiter is still under development and is expected to include additional metering features in the final version. Most importantly, the developer claims that W1 Limiter’s output is identical to the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer and there are several online comparisons (such as this one) that prove this.
In terms of CPU consumption and ease of use, W1 Limiter is virtually identical to LoudMax. Both plugins consume barely any CPU resources and are highly recommended for tracking and less demanding limiting tasks. Unlike LoudMax, W1 Limiter offers direct control over the release time parameter, which might be beneficial in some situations. An adaptive release switch is also included for setting the plugin to fully automatic mode.
Download: W1 Limiter (32-bit & 64-bit VST/AU/RTAS plugin format for Windows & Mac OS)
+ Perfect emulation of the Waves L1 Ultralimiter
+ CPU efficient
– Might be too simple for some users
#6 Maxwell Smart by Lively Audio (VST)
Lively Audio’s free Maxwell Smart limiter is an excellent mastering tool, but it only works on 32-bit Windows systems. Support for Mac-based digital audio workstations was announced as a forthcoming feature back in 2014, although we still haven’t seen any improvements on that front. Windows users with 64-bit DAWs are also out of luck for now.
Compatibility drawbacks aside, Lively Audio’s freeware limiter is a superb mastering tool due to its ability to increase the overall loudness rather drastically while preserving the transients. The interface features threshold and ceiling controls, along with a 3-way switch for choosing the appropriate limiting mode (loud, normal, smooth) depending on the audio source. The plugin uses ISP (inter-sample peak) detection instead of oversampling to help improve the performance and reduce the CPU hit. Maxwell Smart is equally easy to use as LoudMax and W1 Limiter, although it’s capable of achieving slightly better sounding results when all three plugins are pushed into extreme gain reduction territory.
Download: Maxwell Smart (32-bit VST plugin format for Windows)
+ Preserves the transient even at extreme settings
+ CPU effictient
– Only works on Windows
The limiter plugins listed above are the ones we believe are the best that you can get for free. However, there are many other freeware limiters out there and chances are that you might prefer something else. The bonus section below features an additional set of freeware limiters that you can try for yourself and see if they fit your workflow better. Still, keep in mind that it’s better to have a single plugin that you know how to use than a dozen plugins that you’ve never used.
- AradazMaximizer5 by Aradaz (Mac, Windows)
- Classic Master Limiter by Kjaerhus Audio (Windows)
- FR-LIMIT 87 by eaReckon (Mac, Windows)
- Limiter No6 by vladg/sound (Mac, Windows)
- LoudMax by Thomas Mundt (Mac, Windows)
- Maxwell Smart by Lively Audio (Windows)
- W1 Limiter by 4Front Technologies (Mac, Windows)
- You Wa Shock! by Red Shine Sound (Windows)
For more freeware plugins and instruments, return to our Free VST Plugins page.