How To Master Audio In Ableton Live

by Ryan

  • File Under: Tutorials
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Disclaimer: I am not a Mastering Engineer, nor do I pretend to be. This guide is meant to get your overall mix sounding competitive with other “pro” mixes. I cover adjusting Levels, Limiting and overall EQ. All of this is subjective, so please feel free to share your comments or tips.

This tutorial serves to show that Mastering your songs can be done in Ableton Live. I agree that put into the hands of a professional Mastering Engineer, your mixes will probably come out sounding better.

However, if you’re looking to “enhance” your overall mix on a basic level, you’ve come to the right place.

For simplicity, the example song is not a full arrangement. More like a one bar loop with only 4 tracks, but the theory and technique here can be applied to full arrangements with plenty of tracks.


1. Start With A Good Mix

Mixing is a very subjective topic, I will go over some basics here, but a more detailed article on the subject will come at a later time (how to EQ, add Compression, etc).

It is crucial your levels are set properly before the Mastering stage begins. To do so will require both your ears and eyes.

Setting Up For Precise Metering In Ableton Live

First, start off by expanding your tracks in Ableton. To do this, enter Session View and hold your mouse right above the meter of a channel. Your mouse will turn into an icon with a double sided arrow. Click and drag upwards about two “snaps” until you can see small lines and two new white meters.

Click and drag here to expand Ableton’s Leveling Meters.

Next, you’re going to expand your meters horizontally. This will show the dB of your levels. Expand horizontally by holding your mouse cursor to the top right of the channel (where the track title bar is).

Your cursor will change to a bracket. Click and drag one “snap” to the right (for Audio and MIDI tracks) or left (for Master and Send tracks).

Click and drag here to expand Ableton’s channels horizontally.

Make sure you expand your Master Channel as well.

Your instrument tracks and master track should now display like this:

The three most important areas when it comes to metering visually in Ableton Live.

Lets go over these three parts and why they are important.

  1. Peak Level – Use this as a visual indicator for the peak dB of a particular track in Ableton. If it reaches past 0, you will experience digital clipping.
  2. Numeric Track Volume – A numeric indicator for a particular track’s overall volume. Click once and type in a value (e.g. -4) and you can set levels with precision.
  3. Linear Track Volume – A great visual indicator for your levels. Use the green signal to get a quick look at the overall levels.

Expanding your tracks are important for two reasons:

They allow for setting your levels to precise values, and they let you to monitor your Master track. This is important for keeping your overall levels at the sweet spot (-6dB to -3dB).

Setting The Levels

From this point on, I will be speaking from the perspective of the one bar loop I am mixing. Feel free to apply any of these techniques to your own tracks.

I’ll start off by bringing all of my faders down to -inf (I do this by clicking the Numeric Track Volume and just typing -100).

Next, i’m going to bring the most important elements (Bass and Drums) up to zero by clicking on my Numeric Track Volume, pressing 0 on my keyboard and hitting enter.

Here is how it sounds so far:

 

My drum and bass tracks are set to 0dB. Both are peaking at about -10dB.

Most engineers say that a well recorded track should peak around -12dB to -6dB. This leaves me with enough overhead for multiple tracks, while still retaining the full sound.

My drum and bass tracks are both peaking around -10dB. As it stands, they don’t need much adjusting for the moment. I could turn up the output levels (or re record the tracks hotter for external audio) but I think this will work for now.

As you can see on the master channel, both levels together are peaking at about -7.5dB. Remember, my goal is to have the master channel peaking between -6db and -3dB.

Now i’m going to bring the Pad and Bells track to 0.

Having all tracks set to 0 teeters on the edge of clipping.

Here is what the track sounds like with everything at 0dB.

 

All right, so now I am are dangerously close to clipping on my master track (peaks at about -0.25dB). Time to start bringing some levels down.

First I will start with the Bells track. I want these to be in the background as texture. I’ll lower them to about -20dB. Once again, I do this by clicking in the Numeric Track Volume and entering -20 on my keyboard.

This sounds pretty good, but now the Pad is overpowering the track. I’ll bring it down to about -5dB and we’ll see how that sounds.

Much better. And now I have reached my way back to that sweet -7.5dB spot on my Master Fader.

Here is the “mixed” version far. The Bells and Pad are brought down:

 

Lowering the Bells and Pad Tracks helped balance the mix and buy me precious overhead in the Master Track.

I can finely adjust the levels even further if I wanted to, but for now, we’ll leave them as they are.

Mastering And Finalizing The Mix

The first tool I will use in the Mastering Stage will be Ableton’s EQ Eight. I am dropping this onto my Master Track.

I will tighten up the low end by setting a low cut filter on band 1. I’m setting the Frequency to 30hz.

Next, on band 2 I will bump a little in the 250hz range with a Q of 1.4 for some very subtle punch.

Finally, on band 4, I am using a high pass filter to eliminate some frequencies above 18kHz. Usually anything above 15kHz can’t be heard by the human ear, so to be safe I am killing a small amount at the very very top.

Here is the mix post EQ. Not a huge difference, but the slight bump at 250hz will give it some weight on smaller speakers:

 

A very subtle EQ curve is used when mastering the overall mix.

Now I am going to set the overall volume of the track with Live’s Limiter, this way I don’t have to turn my car stereo on max just to hear the song.

In order to compete with most Mastered songs, I want my levels to be peaking in the -0.5dB to -0.2dB area.

Next I am going to drag Live’s Limiter onto the Master track.

My first step is to set the Ceiling setting to -0.2. I’m doing this in the same way i’ve adjusted the faders on the instrument tracks. I will click the number once, and enter -0.2 on my keyboard.

This will make it so that my master track will not peak past -0.2dB.

Next, I am adding some gain through the Limiter (approx. 7.25dB in this case). The Master Levels are peaking at about -0.93dB.

And finally, the track with an acceptable volume and subtle EQ:

 

Using the Limiter as a safe way to raise the overall levels

Make sure you listen to your mix on as many sources as possible! (Car Stereo, Home Stereo, iPod headphones, etc!).

This takes a lot of practice (and patience). But with this guide as a starting point, hopefully you’re on your way to better overall mixes!


22 Responses to “How To Master Audio In Ableton Live”

  1. shaun Says:

    August 7th, 2010 at 3:20 am

    Thanks=this has taught me stuff about mastering in ableton that I had no idea about-just about to start mastering an album- so very helpful! thanks!
    shaun

  2. djhd Says:

    September 13th, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I’m just getting into production with Ableton, and your site and tutorials are explicitly clear and incredibly helpful. Please keep up the good work. I would suggest a tip cup on your front page!

  3. Darren Says:

    September 30th, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Thanks for all these tutorial, much appreciated. Just one question (it migh sound daft) but would you eq, compress etc individual sound, bass, drums, pads etc first before doing the final mix on the master channel?

    Thanks

  4. Blacky Says:

    January 30th, 2011 at 5:49 am

    Very usefull Thanx m8.

  5. Marc Bernard Says:

    February 9th, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Awesome tut man, has really helped alot!

  6. Andrei Says:

    March 10th, 2011 at 5:11 am

    @Darren: That’s usually how things go. You level the instruments, eq them indivitually, compress, etc. then you go to the master buss.

  7. Tom Says:

    April 2nd, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Excellent, first concise mastering tutorial ive come across,

    clear ans simple basics, exactly what i needed to see.

    Thanks

  8. DJ W!SS Says:

    May 7th, 2011 at 8:21 am

    that’s a good guide indeed
    I can add that if you are going to produce some electronic music like Trance, you need a mastering tool to add a pumping sound to the mix
    I use the Izotope Ozone for Mastering, you can even mimic any favorite track EQ with it, really helpful
    but the thing is that it’s not cheap :P

  9. POPBIJOUX Says:

    June 11th, 2011 at 10:39 am

    THANK YOU SO MUCH. This is sooo helpful. The clearest help I have had, ever, in the mastering topic. I’ll let you know what happens and will donate once I make some $ back:)

  10. ep Says:

    July 10th, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Dude easy and efficient tutorial,thanks for the tutoral

  11. groovenuts Says:

    August 7th, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Alright this is all fine and hunky bloody dorey …but…

    What if I’m working with midi. Say I have sliced up some WAV files and placed them into a sampler, or impulse or in my case a drum rack. What should my levels be. I am using a loopmasters sample pack where I have “sliced to new midi track” now once those samples are in the drum rack they are really hot. I need to pull them all back to -12db within the drum rack and -18db on the session fader to get them even remotley near your ‘workable area’

    Please help me as my leveling within ableton is destroying me!!

    Should I be setting the drum racks internal volume even lower so I can raise the tracks actual fader higher or the opposite, also there is the actual midi notes individual volumes to contend with aswell? headfuck haha!

    I was told midi notes little red volume lines should as a rule always be kept at 100% obviously unless your creating a groove etc.

    GN

  12. Moachin Says:

    August 19th, 2011 at 9:28 am

    just started with ableton after working with reason for 3.5 years. Love the mastering side of things, didnd’t know how to do it. This is an awesome beginners tutorial. Very helpful, thank you kindly! Moachin

  13. JR Says:

    August 29th, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Thank you! My mix sounds a lot better after implementing your advice.

  14. Alastair Says:

    September 16th, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I am currently copying over some old casette tapes (circa 80s) of live performances from a band I used to be involved with. The tapes were taken off the PA sound desk so they are what they are.

    So far I have copied the tapes into Ableton via a good quality tape desk, decent audio interface.

    I was contemplating using Ableton to “master” some of the better tracks. I am at the early trial stage and my strategy so far is to use some EQ (like) you suggest, and to automate the settings to get the best sound from any track at any point in time followed by a limiter to tame some of the offensive transients. I am now researching to see if there are other approaches that could be adopted and came across your excellent article. An obvious challenge is that you can’t go crazy with the adjusting EQ settings from second to second,though at least you can give the vocalist a bit more presence when his turn comes up, and then when the drum solo (Prog rock I am afraid) comes along the EQ can lift this.

    So far I have been reasonably encouraged in that I have definitely been able to improve things – though I suspect the singer will always haveto remain out of tune. Interested to hear of any thoughts you or anyone else may have.

  15. Tom Says:

    September 27th, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Thank you! I have used all of these to master tracks before in FL studio but I am new to ableton, so this really helped.

  16. Christopher Says:

    October 19th, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    This is great.

  17. NEWERROR Says:

    May 11th, 2012 at 11:35 am

    WORD!

  18. Future Den Says:

    May 17th, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Damn good

  19. Ward S Says:

    May 28th, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    I export the finished track (trance), load it in an empty set, add the ‘Analog Warmth” effect rack an put some automation to the track fader and the effect rack. Then i’ll export that to and listen it on multiple speakers. I’m also playing it with other (professional) track, to see if the track is loud enough.

    I’m not using limiters because i have Ableton live lite, and i think compressors sound better!

  20. peter Says:

    June 18th, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks

  21. MetaPhysics Says:

    June 20th, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    hey, im a little confused. at one point you say mastered tracks should peak between -6 to -12 dB, but then you say -6 to -3, and then -5 to -2.5 is there some subtle nuance im missing?

  22. MeatRobot Says:

    September 22nd, 2012 at 12:21 am

    This is exactly what I needed! I am still VERY new to Ableton (and DAWs in general) I had no idea what I was doing wrong and why my tracks were so damn quiet, and this guide has helped me iron that out. Thank you so much!

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