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.
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.
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.
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!