Most people who downloaded my mastering guide asked me to show them how they can master their own songs using ableton live. I’m not an ableton user so I downloaded a demo version and will do my best to make a good master.
With this tutorial I’ll be using stock plugins and no external VST. From what I know, the stock plugins in ableton are neutral. Meaning, they don’t add any character or color to a sound. And before doing any mastering or even mixing in Live make sure audio warping is turned off, or else you’ll be listening to artifacts introduced by warping.
But I might be wrong because the last time I used ableton was in 2010 so a lot of things have changed.
What I see is that a lot of people want to be able to master their own song just to send out a demo to a label, for a remix competition, free download or just to test the song in a club.
For all those who want to do their own mastering for a mass media release then I would advise you to pay a professional engineer to master your track(s). Unless if you’re really on a tight budget or believe you can do it yourself then the tips I’m about to share will help you get your music sounding as professional as possible.
Even if you don’t use Live, like me, you’ll still get something from this post. The knowledge as well as skill is much more important than the tools so it doesn’t matter what you use. Before we get started let’s look at some popular misconceptions about audio mastering.
Misconceptions About Mastering
- Something that we all know but you still see people doing it – you’ll never fix a bad mix in the mastering stage. Don’t waste your time mastering a bad mix, instead spend your time learning about mixing.
- Mastering is not about how loud the song is. It’s all about making the song sound good and translate well whether it’s played indoors or outdoors. It’s not about volume or whose track is louder.
- The tools don’t matter, as much as driving a sports car doesn’t make you a racer.
- This process is not only done by professional mastering engineers. I know a lot of people who produce dope masters in their bedroom studios and they don’t even consider themselves as engineers; their just music producers.
- Don’t master MP3s, use 24-bit wav or aif files.
But the aim of this post is not to tell you what mastering is, right? So let’s get down to it.
Ableton Live Mastering Tutorial
The song I’ll be working on is a soulful house music track. It’s a wav file, peaking at -2dB and it’s really mixed well. The first thing I did was to add a compressor just to tame out the loud peaks before I equalize.
I’m still going to add a multi-band compressor later just to have the ability to compress different bands to get a good frequency balance.
The loudest peaks of the song were mainly caused by the clap on every 2nd beat. I used a fast attack of 0.8 milliseconds which didn’t mess up the transients. I chose to use a medium release time as it was working well with the bass as compared to a shorter release time.
The track I’m working on has a small dynamic range so a ratio of 2:1 and above was squashing the signal and sounding obvious but I found a sweet spot with a ratio of 1:8. I also added a look-ahead of 1ms and a knee curve of 2dB was working well.
I also tried the auto-gain feature but it was adding too much gain so I decided not to add any make-up gain as the compressor was not taking out too much and the track was sent to me peaking at -2dB so I’m trying to compensate.
As I was sweeping the frequency spectrum I realized that the people who sent me the mix already removed the most problem frequencies. But I found a problem at the low-end, there was a bass note that was causing some rumble.
I plugged my keyboard and found that it was a D-Sharp note and I know a D-Sharp note on the low frequencies is at 78Hz and after cutting that it was sounding a lot smoother. I did a minor cut though as I didn’t want to change the tone of the song or make the low-end thin.
The frequency response of the track is fairly flat so all I had to do was remove a loud peak at 1.2kHz and some muddiness at 311Hz. That’s all I did on this mix as it was already sounding good.
I use the multi-band on ableton differently, I don’t only use it to compress but also to fix any stereo image problems. By default it comes as a 3 band and I changed it to a 4 band by adding an audio effects rack.
So why would I add an effects rack in a multiband dynamic processor? Because I want to multi-band the rest of the plugins I’m going to add such as stereo image, limiter etc.
I want to be able to treat each frequency band differently. First thing I did to my low frequencies is to add a stereo utility to make everything below 300Hz play in mono. Then after I added the stereo utility in all bands for stereo width settings.
The low-mid range was a bit wider for my liking so I brought down the width a bit low to make it tighter. I also added some more width in the high frequencies which helped the vocals sit well and become present.
The next thing I did was to add a compressor on each and every band. For the settings – a medium attack and long release for the low frequencies because it was distorting with a fast attack time.
The high mids were working well with a fast attack and long release time and it was heavily compressed as compared to the other frequency bands with a ratio of 2:25. Similar settings were used for the high frequency as well.
Then the last thing I did was to add a limiter of about 2dB to 3dB gain reduction (without bringing up any gain but by using the ceiling) in all the bands and what this type of multiband processing does, is to glue everything together and make the mix a lot tighter.
Pushing It To The Limit
I couldn’t find any metering plugin in live so I decided to use my ears for metering. Just like I said, I’m not an ableton user so I don’t know what metering you guys use.
Then to maximize the volume I used a limiter. Using the limiter is really easy, simply put the ceiling at -0.1 then push the gain but don’t push till it squashes the signal.
Then I went back to the eq to add a low cut at 31Hz to get more gain for the track and added a boost at 10kHz to add some brightness. Then the last thing I added was dithering.
That’s basically how you master a song in ableton live, which was really tricky for me because I’m not a fan of live. Hope you found this ableton live mastering tutorial useful. You can listen to the before and after below and feel free to leave your comments.
Mastering in ableton live with stock plugins is really harder than I thought, maybe I should have used a reference track. This needs more time and practice so it’s better to use 3rd party plugins. Maybe it’s because I’m not a full time Live user.